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Martti Lahtinen’s Bucket List 3 - 100 Days in Finland


Emigrating to a foreign country is a momentous life upheaval, even more so in the past when international communication and travel were more difficult. Many refugees who flee to a new country never see their homeland again and a few emigrants voluntarily sever all ties with their country of origin, even to the point of forgetting their native language. But most people do keep in touch with friends and family back home. This used to take a lot of effort, requiring regular letter- writing and the very rare visit as travel was expensive and time-consuming. But these days, travel is cheaper and it is much easier for most immigrants to maintain close contact with loved ones by phone or internet.

For Martti, emigration was not a choice. He had no desire to emigrate, no say in the matter, and as a child, no way of maintaining his connection to his homeland. In Part 3 of his series about returning to Finland, he remembers the day he and his family landed in Canada and his first impressions of his new home. Hilde Huus


You can go home again

by Martti Lahtinen


Thomas Wolfe took the title of his novel, “You Can't Go Home Again,” from a conversation with a fellow writer, Ella Winter, who said to him: “Don't you know you can't go home again?” Wolfe then asked Winter for permission to use the phrase as the title for his novel. It has become more than a cliché. The name is reinforced in the dénouement of the novel in which Wolfe's central character, George Webber, realizes: “You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood . . . back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame . . . back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

The latter observation barely applies to someone whose childhood development in his origins was abruptly truncated – detaching his homing instincts – by his family's emigration from post-war Finland to Canada in 1950. I turned seven years of age only days after the Swedish-America liner, S.S. Gripsholm, dumped the fresh load of Europeans to run the Pier 21 immigration processing gauntlet dockside at Halifax.


The S.S. Gripsholm, a Swedish-American Line Steamship, was scrapped in 1966


Memories of the multilingual cacophony within the chicken wire-clad pens often wash back. The site is now a museum, and I find it horrifying to think of it. People treated like cattle quashes any sense of dignity. I think it's the chicken wire. And maybe a dose of Holocaust parallels. I would be remiss if I failed to colour my revulsion with an excerpt from a revealing book, Pier 21, co-written by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. Leblanc, published in 1988:

“The procedure for processing the immigrants remained largely as it had been prior to the war. Passengers were disembarked from the liners in groups of a few hundred, and escorted into the reception hall. “At the back of the hall stood a series of large wire cages, remnants of an earlier era perhaps, when not much thought was given to the negative impression that might have been left with the new arrivals. The cages were intended not for forcible confinement, but rather to speed up processing. “Yet, there were those among the Pier 21 staff who had reservations about the appropriateness of cages at an immigration facility. Bill Marks, now Director of Immigration for Nova Scotia, remembers his first day of work at Pier 21. The year was 1954. “'Frankly I was troubled by all the wire cages and the way these docile immigrants were being tagged with different coloured tags and moved from one location to the next,' Mr Marks reflected. “I must also admit the bars on all the window made me a little uneasy.’


“Mr. Marks was not the only employee who was disconcerted by the wire enclosures. H.P. Wade, then the Officer-In-Charge of Immigration Officials, also had strong views about their propriety at Pier 21. “In February of 1956 and with the support of immigration officials in Ottawa, Mr. Wade registered a request with the Port Manager to replace the cages with a counter that would serve as a partition to keep hand baggage organized. When the request was granted a short time later, the cages were removed and Pier 21 lost much of the unpropitious appearance.”


Pier 21 in Halifax served for years as the front door to Canada, the entryway through which more than a million immigrants passed.


Six decades later, I still question – I wrestle with it – the family decision to leave Finland; I have never forgiven my late parents for the move, nor my late grandmother's sponsorship involvement, after I began returning as an adult. I would have opted not to leave, but a seven-year-old wasn't eligible to vote on the matter.

It's difficult to rein in nostalgia that borders on the maudlin; I recognize it but refuse to apologize for it. Family members cannot understand a sentimentality for all things Finnish that prevails. One might deem nostalgia to be a fond memory. Think of the familiar saw: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It arises out of a non-extant body's inability to perceive changes that take place over time on things one remembers as static and permanent. Attempting to relive youthful memories is doomed to failure.


I have few – virtually no – youthful memories, so attempts to relive them cannot be doomed to failure. Most of what I remember of pre-emigration days is systemic nomadic displacement, the family migrating to a new city or town each time my father's alcoholism cost him his job.


I refute Wolfe's stance because of circumstance. The nostalgia and memory tracks are blank. I cannot relate to yesteryear, so at age 74 I say: You can go home again. I hear the call: One hundred days in Suomi Finland 100. I need time to repatriate my soul.

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