British Columbia

Dreams of utopia: Musical about tiny B.C. town returns to the stage ... in Finland

Charismatic leader Matti Kurikka and 200 of his countrymen and women settled on Malcolm Island in 1901, naming the new community Sointula, the Finnish term for "place of harmony."

Sointula chronicles the charismatic leader who founded the town and dreamed of building a socialist utopia

A man dressed in period clothing hunches toward the camera with his mouth open and quizzical look on his face.
Johannes Korpijaakko plays Matti Kurikka in the remounting of Sointuala, a musical about the charismatic leader from Finland who settled a short-lived socialist utopian community on Malcolm Island, B.C. (Submitted by Sointula/Aki Loponen)

The remarkable story of a charismatic leader who founded the remote British Columbia community of Sointula more than a century ago is returning to the stage after a 10-year absence, albeit 7,500 kilometres away from the tiny town itself.   

Sointula, a Finnish-language musical written by Tuomo Aitta, is set to open Saturday in Lappeenranta, Finland, not far from where the main character, Matti Kurikka, was born. 

Although set at the start of the 20th century, play producer Mika Kaartinen says the theme of searching for a better life resonates just as strongly today.

"It's a universal story," he said, speaking from Helsinki.

"When we think of the ... similarities in the current situation, people are seeking a better future and also new leaders. It's a question of what kind of leaders are we following, what kind of dreams are we trying to reach?"

Matti Kurikka in a sepia-toned photo from the early 1900s.
Matti Kurikka was an esteemed Finnish journalist, philosopher and speaker who wanted to establish Sointula as a worker collective based on the values of shared labour, co-operation and equal rights. (Sointulamuseum.ca)

In 1901, Kurikka — an esteemed journalist, philosopher and speaker — joined 200 of his countrymen and women in settling on Malcolm Island, northeast of Vancouver Island.

They named their new community Sointula, which roughly translates to "place of harmony" in Finnish.

The followers were inspired by Kurikka's vision of a socialist utopia founded on values of shared labour, co-operation and equality of the sexes.

But high ideals faded in the face of harsh realities.

A series of naive business decisions left the collective essentially bankrupt. Then a fire in 1903 killed eight children and three adults, tearing out 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 community lived on. The first co-op store in Western Canada was founded in Sointula, along with the construction of a public library and large community hall that hosted free theatre, exercise classes and dances. 

a scene from the the play Sointula shows three women and a man sitting on a bench
Sointula travelled from Finland to Sointula, B.C., for a performance in 2013. (submitted by Sointula/Aki Loponen)

Sointula, the musical, was first performed in Masala, Finland, by a youth theatre troupe in 2012. At the time, cast and crew were unaware the town was still standing.

"At some time during the rehearsals, we realized, yes, the place still exists. And we [made] connections there, and it was a pretty amazing moment to realize that, OK, we are having a play telling the story of their ancestors," said Kaartinen.

The next year, after a massive fundraising drive, Sointula the musical came to Sointula the town.

Watch | CBC's Duncan McCue went to Finland and Sointula in 2013:

Dreams of Sointula

11 years ago
Duration 9:50
Duncan McCue examines the link between a Finnish cult leader with visions of Utopia and a tiny village on the tip of Vancouver Island.

Sue Ness, a descendant of original Sointula settlers, still remembers the excitement of seeing a B.C. ferry flying the flag of Finland arriving with the actors. 

"That was miraculous," said Ness. "We had to billet everyone because we have very little accommodation here."

Sointula's population in 2013 was about 600.

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Sointula was written by Tuomo Aitta. (Sointula)

"All of the people doing the billeting were down at the ferry dock to greet them. It was just the most wonderful visit. And I think they felt the same way," she said.

Even in Finnish, the Sointula performance struck a deep chord, said Ness. 

"We didn't learn that much about our history [growing up] and of course we went to an English-speaking school," she said. "But I certainly felt it."

Sointula's return to the stage in Lappeenranta has created a major buzz, according to Kaartinen.

Special guests on opening night include Kurikka's great granddaughter and great grandson, and Kathy Gibler, director of the Sointula Museum, who made the trip to Finland.

Kaartinen hopes the play's revival will spark history to repeat itself. He'd love nothing more than to bring an English-language version of Sointula to B.C., only this time to a bigger audience in Vancouver.

"It's one of those dreams. It's come back in Finland, and now it's Canada's turn again," he said. "It would be great to see a local theatre group [in Vancouver] take this and make it your play. We can help with the translations, no problem."

"This is not just a Finnish story, this is also a Canadian story ... about people who moved to Canada 125 years ago. So it's part of our common history."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karin Larsen

@CBCLarsen

Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster who covers news and sports for CBC Vancouver.

With files from Duncan McCue, Enza Uda

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