The remarkable story of a charismatic leader who founded the isolated community of Sointula in British Columbia more than a century ago returns to the stage after a 10-year absence, albeit 7,500 kilometers from the small town herself.
Sointula, a Finnish-language musical written by Tuomo Aitta, is scheduled to open Saturday in Lappeenranta, Finland, not far from where the main character, Matti Kurikka, was born.
Although the action takes place in the early 20th century, the play’s producer Mika Kaartinen says the theme of seeking a better life resonates just as strongly today.
“It’s a universal story,” he said from Helsinki.
“When we think about the… similarities of the current situation, people are looking for a better future and also for new leaders. The question is, what kind of leaders are we following, what kind of dreams are we trying to achieve? “
In 1901, Kurikka — an esteemed journalist, philosopher and lecturer — joined 200 of his countrymen and women to settle on Malcolm Island, northeast of Vancouver Island.
They named their new community Sointula, which means “place of harmony” in Finnish.
Followers were inspired by Kurikka’s vision of a socialist utopia based on the values of shared work, cooperation and gender equality.
But high ideals faded in the face of harsh realities.
A series of naive business decisions left the collective virtually bankrupt. Then, in 1903, a fire killed eight children and three adults, tearing away the already frayed heart of the community.
In 1904, Kurikka and his most devoted supporters left Sointula.
Those who remained found ways to survive as farmers, fishermen, and loggers, and the essence of the community survived. Western Canada’s first co-op store was founded in Sointula, alongside the construction of a public library and a large community hall hosting free theater, exercise classes and dancing.
Sointula, the musical was first performed in Masala, Finland by a youth theater troupe in 2012. At the time, the cast and crew didn’t know the town was still standing.
“At some point during rehearsals, we realized that yes, the place still exists. And we (made) connections there, and it was a pretty amazing moment to realize that, OK , we perform a play telling the story of their ancestors,” Kaartinen said.
The following year, after massive fundraising, Sointula the musical came to Sointula the city.
Watch | CBC’s Duncan McCue visited Finland and Sointula in 2013:
Sue Ness, a descendant of Sointula’s first settlers, still remembers the excitement of seeing a Finnish-flagged British Columbia ferry arrive with the cast.
“It was miraculous,” Ness said. “We had to accommodate everyone because we have very little accommodation here.”
The population of Sointula in 2013 was approximately 600.
“All the people who were billeting were at the ferry dock greeting them. It was just the most wonderful visit. And I think they felt the same way,” she said.
Even in Finnish, Sointula’s performance struck a chord, Ness said.
“We didn’t learn a lot about our history (growing up) and of course we went to an English-speaking school,” she said. “But I certainly felt it.”
Sointula back on stage at Lappeenranta created a major buzz, according to Kaartinen.
Special guests on opening night include Kurikka’s great-granddaughter and great-grandson, as well as Sointula Museum Director Kathy Gibler, who made the trip to Finland.
Kaartinen hopes that the revival of the play will encourage history to repeat itself. He would like nothing more than to bring an English version of Sointula in British Columbia, but this time to a wider audience in Vancouver.
“It’s one of those dreams. He came back to Finland, and now it’s Canada’s turn again,” he said. “It would be great to see a local theater group (in Vancouver) take this play and make it their own. We can help with translations, no problem.”
“It’s not just a Finnish story, it’s also a Canadian story… about people who immigrated to Canada 125 years ago. So it’s part of our shared history.”