Malcolm Island has been utilized as a seasonal harvesting location by the Kwakwaka’wakw for thousands of years, but in more recent history it was settled by non-indigenous colonists in the late 1800s.
In 1895, the Christian Temperance Society, under the leadership of Joseph Spencer, made an attempt to settle at Rough Bay, however within a year they had given up and the Island reverted to a timber lease for forestry.
Around the same time a group of Finnish miners at Nanaimo were growing frustrated with their working conditions, and formed a temperance society which was a socio-political group that allowed them the freedom to discuss their frustrations and aspirations in Canada.
The miners decided that they aspired to a better life, with more freedom and equality, and toward that end they wrote to Matti Kurikka, a political philosopher, playwright, writer, and organizer, asking him to come to Vancouver Island. Kurikka had been in Australia trying to establish a utopian community, but agreed to come.
Kurikka arrived and the Finns established the Kalevan Kansan Colonization Company. Kaleva is a reference to the Finnish mythological hero which plays a significant role in the early Finnish literature epic the “Kalevala.”
The company started a newspaper highlighting their efforts to start a communal colony founded on the virtues of respect and equality. They sold shares, while recruiting other Finns from all over the world to join their movement, and negotiating with the government for a land grant.
On Nov. 1, 1901 the company signed an agreement. They would be granted the rights to Malcolm Island in seven years if they could settle 350 people, make improvements including developing farms, roads, and wharves, and educate their children in English.
The word was sent out to prospective colonists and the first advance group left to begin the task of constructing a settlement. From the beginning the effort seemed cursed. A gun accidentally discharged in the boat while the group was transiting Seymour Narrows, striking a man in the arm.
By December 1901 the group had arrived at Rough Bay, and by March 1902 there were 14 settlers.
In June the steamer Capilano brought in a load of settlers and materials.
The group voted to name their village Sointula, or “place of harmony.”
Although the colonists built a number of communal dwellings, they were not able to construct adequate housing for all of the new arrivals, and many had to stay in tents as the winter storms set in.
Some colonists arrived with farm implements and cattle, which they had to sell when they realized that there would be no pasture or crops for some time.
On Jan. 23, 1903 at 8 p.m., as many women and children were sleeping in one of the wooden buildings, and a meeting was taking place on the third floor, a fire broke out when one of the flues overheated. Eleven people perished in the fire, eight children and two adults. Some people, devastated and heartbroken, blamed the company and Kurikka.
By the spring of 1903 the population of the colony was 238.
The men of the colony tried their hand at logging and fishing, but they had a difficult time bringing in money sufficient to pay back their loans.
After a series of bad business decisions, including a low bid by the colony to build a bridge over the Capilano River in Vancouver, the banks seized some of the colony’s assets.
The company, now bankrupt, was dissolved. In May 1905 the colony was forced to give up their land grant to pay their debts.
Many of the original settlers decided to stay and retained their values of communal work.
Sointula fishermen were instrumental in forming many of the powerful fishing unions on the coast, and many business initiatives on the island have been operated as cooperatives.
(Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.)