Story by Matt Prokopchuk
The board of the Finlandia Association has confirmed it will start the process to voluntarily dissolve the organization after a special meeting Wednesday evening, casting a lot of uncertainty over the future of the 110-year-old Finlandia Hall building on Bay Street and the iconic Hoito restaurant.
The private, members-only meeting lasted over four hours and was held by teleconference. The Finlandia Association owns and operates the hall–also called the Finnish Labour Temple–as well as the Hoito, which is housed within. The site has received national and international attention as the centre of Finnish culture in Thunder Bay.
The board says members present on the call voted to liquidate the corporation. The process effectively will mean the Finlandia Association will no longer exist and its assets used to pay off debts. The organization has no assets with which to repay those debts, other than the properties it owns, including the Finlandia Hall and the Tapiola Ski Trails site, Derek Parks, one of the board members told The Walleye.
“By going through liquidation, we may not have to sell everything, there’s a fine dance there we get to kind of at least participate in, versus if we were forced to into bankruptcy where we basically hand in the keys and walk away,” he says. “That’s why we were forced down this path instead of having the bank force us into bankruptcy–which they said they would do.”
A written release issued by the board late Wednesday evening after the meeting says the association is just over $1 million in debt–including nearly $480,000 owed to The Hoito itself, $290,000 owed to RBC, $160,000 owed to Thunder Bay Ventures and $33,000 owed to the city for back taxes, among other debts. The board says The Hoito is also carrying $300,000 in debt. Officials say the current situation was triggered when the association missed a payment of less than $2,000 to RBC in March due to the lack of revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic; the bank subsequently rejected requests to defer it and demanded a repayment plan in a short timeframe.
Some association members have questioned the move to wind up operations, as well as the transparency with which the board went about calling the special meeting.
The fact that the Finnish Labour Temple–a key part of the city’s history–faces such an uncertain future disappoints Kelly Saxberg, a historical filmmaker who has researched the history of Finnish immigration to the Lakehead, as well as the labour movement that’s intrinsically tied to the Bay Street building. Saxberg, who is also the chair of the Finnish Canadian Cultural Federation and president of the Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple, says the building is home to a lot of history.
“Just the stage alone,” she says. “The costume collection … it has costumes in there that are original costumes from when they had the very first plays [from] 1910-on.”
There’s also original theatrical sets, props, furniture and countless other artifacts and historic items there, Saxberg says, not to mention the building itself, which was constructed in 1910. Saxberg, a former treasurer of the Finlandia Association, who is no longer a member, says she also doesn’t agree with how the situation is being handled.
Other clubs and cultural organizations with histories at the hall have been removing their own property this week. Parks says that anything that’s left and found to be the property of the Finlandia will be part of the liquidation process.
Saxberg says that it would be a shame to lose the hall itself as a place to house all that history and that another site, like the Thunder Bay Museum, shouldn’t be tasked with it, as the items are intrinsically tied to the labour temple and Finnish immigrant history. The building has been designated a national historic site through Parks Canada, with its federal profile stating that the hall’s auditorium hosted theatrical productions, concerts, dances, sporting events and festivals that played a role in the “preservation of Finnish cultural traditions throughout Canada.”
“That place … is a museum itself,” Saxberg says. “I think what needs to be done is people in the community have to figure out a way of preserving that place as it was originally intended.”
“It just means that it’s hidden and forgotten by our community and the contributions of those people that volunteered and participated in the culture … the memory of that will disappear.”
HISTORICAL TIMELINE OF HOITO RESTAURANT
By Bonnie Schiedel
The Hoito is said to be the oldest cooperatively owned and operated restaurant in Canada and on May 1, 2018, it celebrated its 100th birthday. To mark that milestone, here’s a look back at the Hoito’s history (although we still have some unanswered questions, like when did the scale at the entrance show up?)