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Practical Dreamers: Communitarianism and Co-operatives on Malcolm Island

By Kevin Wilson

Review By David Breen

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 154 Summer 2007  | p. 144-5

The Finnish socialist utopian community on Malcolm Island has fared better than most smaller BC com munities in the number of books, articles, theses, and films devoted to the telling of its history. Still, the new book by Kevin Wilson is a wel come and important addition to this literature. Practical Dreamers is primarily an examination of Malcolm Island’s cooperative and communitarian heritage, which began with the arrival in 1901 of the small band of Finnish settlers determined to create the socialist utopia envisioned by their charismatic leader Matti Kurikka.

A joint project of the British Columbia Institute of Cooperative Studies and Sointula Museum, this nicely illustrated book boasts a strong foundation of archival sources supported by an impressive number of oral interviews that give prominence to the islanders’ own voice, especially in the more recent decades covered in the concluding chapters. Progressing chronologically and organized by subject and theme, the book begins with an examination of the economic and intellectual environment in Finland that inspired Matti Kurikka’s vision and the Kalevan Kansa joint stock company organized by Finnish immigrants in the Nanaimo area to translate the vision into reality. An account of the efforts of the two hundredodd Finnish settler-shareholders on Malcolm Island to build a viable community, consistent with their socialist and cooperative ideals, follows. In assessing the community’s evolution, Wilson pays particular attention to the founding and management of the Island’s Co-op Store. Remembered by one resident as the “heart of the community,” its well-being is a matter to which the author consistently returns. Other topics addressed include the role played by Malcolm Island Finns in the transformation of the BC fishing industry, how socialist ideology guided their participation in local political and labour movements, and the community’s conflicted loyalties during the Second World War. The book also considers how the community grappled with the enormous changes that came in the wake of the war, including the arrival of new Finnish immigrants (who strengthened Finnish language and culture but challenged some of the existing socialist values) and the later arrival of American draft dodgers (who contributed a new version of left-wing communal ideology that eventually blended with that of the earlier settlers).

A topic touched upon but then regrettably set aside for “further study” (101) is the relationship with the large First Nations community at Alert Bay, their near neighbours on Cormorant Island. Given the author’s principal interest in the communitar ian– cooperative ethos and its influence on shaping how the Finnish settlers responded and adapted over time to the challenges imposed by the physical, social, and economic environment, it is curious that the opportunity for a close and instructive look at the settlers’ ongoing relationship with the longestablished communitarian–cooperative society next door has been largely passed over. While Matti Kurikka seems to have been dismissive of his Aboriginal neighbours, his colleague Austin Makela, who assumed leadership after Kurikka’s departure in 1904, recognized Native people as natural socialists. As an informed, outward-looking community of committed socialists, its relationship with its Aboriginal neighbours can be seen as a measure of islander adherence to certain socialist core values, and it would, therefore, be instructive to learn where Aboriginals fitted into the community’s utopian vision and socialist embrace. Perhaps the most revealing part of Practical Dreamers is contained in the chapters dealing with the period since 1980. In the discussion concerning the deterioration of Malcolm Island’s logging industry in the early 1980s and the even more devastating impact of the federal government’s reorganization of the Pacific coast fishery (Mifflin Plan) in the 1990s, the book breaks new ground. Exploring islanders’ attempts to cope with economic devastation, Wilson observes that the search for creative solutions drew heavily upon traditional cooperative and communitarian values. Their search for cooperative solutions, even if faltering or unsuccessful, is the common thread connecting the first settlers with contemporary residents, and Wilson believe that it is this that marks the community’s defining characteristic and, perhaps, its hope for the future.

While the focus here is upon a particular communit y’s struggle towards a better future, Practical Dreamers speaks also to a much larger audience than that simply interested in the visionary socialist experiment on Malcolm Island. It sheds revealing light upon an important larger story concerning the decline of fishing- and forestry-based communities across the province. The well-recorded debate among Malcolm Islanders concerning their search for a future offering more than service jobs for tourists and wealthy part-time residents reflects a deep anxiety that will resonate with all who live in, or care about, small communities.