Filming the Finns

From this month’s Finnish American Reporter: writer Mark Munger interviews Finnish-Canadian filmmaker Kelly Saxberg.

MM: I’m assuming, given all the work you’ve done to preserve Finnish Canadian history in your documentaries, that you’re of Finnish descent.

KS: My Finnish heritage is on my father’s side. My great-grandfather, Kustaa Saxberg, immigrated at the end of the 19th century to Fort William. He first started working at Silver Mountain as a miner. Then he met his wife Ida, who was from Himanka and they lived out at the mine site and she was a midwife. When they moved into Fort William (now Thunder Bay) my great-grandmother would host Finnish women from rural communities and helped birth hundreds of children. She was the main midwife for the east end of Fort William, which was home to many immigrants in those days. My great-grandfather, because of his mining experience, helped build the water tunnels from Mount Mackay to Fort William. My grandfather was the youngest child of eight. I made a film about his oldest brother, Alfred Saxberg, who was a veteran of the first World War.

MM: Can you fill the readers about you, about Thunder Bay, and what it means to be a person of Finnish heritage in Thunder Bay in the 21st century?

KS: I was born in Cornwall, Ontario, but my parents moved back to Thunder Bay when I was just a baby so my mother could finish her nursing degree. Then we moved to Brandon and later to Winnipeg, but my family never missed a summer out at Lake Shebandowan, where my grandfather Jack Allen built a log cabin in 1928. When I started in the film industry, my first company was Shebandowan Films now shortened to Shebafilms. Somehow fate brought us back to Thunder Bay in 1996 when my husband Ron Harpelle got a job at Lakehead University teaching history. I had been working in the film industry but since there were no jobs for me in Thunder Bay, I decided to try making my own films. Not long after our success with a few, Ron joined the filmmaking and later, when our children grew up, they too joined the family business. One of the first films I made was “Letters from Karelia” about Finns from North America who were recruited to build a socialist utopia in Stalin’s Karelia. I then made the film “Under The Red Star,” which tells kind of a prequel and is the story of the Finnish Labour Temple.

MM: As a non-Finn, I loved the neighborhood surrounding Hoito and the old Finnish Labour Temple. Tell a bit about the building’s history and the effect of its loss.

KS: My husband and I started Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple as a charity when we were both on the board of the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay. As the treasurer, I knew how fragile the state of finances were; however, by careful sales of some parking lots, the Kivela Bakery, fundraising, and, new management of the Hoito and its renovation we were able to get everything back in the black. Sadly, a group of people with other agendas were voted in and they had other plans. Within a few years, almost every organization that had helped raise funds for the hall were no longer welcome. Bad management finally led to bankruptcy and the building sold to an outsider who gutted the hall to build condos. A fire started accidentally that winter and it destroyed 110 years of Finnish and labor history in a few hours. Miraculously, the owner was able to demolish the entire building two months later and get every permission to build condos in a building five times the size of the original historic landmark. They claim that they will rebuild the façade, but it just won’t be the same. The owner was the same person who gutted the inside and sent hundreds of historic artifacts to the landfill. 

On a positive note Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple is more active than ever. We continue to collaborate with the Finnish community. We have organized two Finn Festivals Canada events and three virtual Juhannus festivals.

MM: One thing I loved about sitting in Hoito was listening to the Finnish voices around me. Do you speak and/or write Finnish?

KS: the first thing I did when I moved to Thunder Bay was to sign up for Finnish language course at the University of Lakehead. I did really well, and now that I have been back-and-forth to Finland and working on several films in Finnish, I have a pretty good ear for the language, but I will never be fluent. I do feel however, a strong connection to my roots and I’m very proud of the countless hours of footage captured of events that I documented over more than a dozen years at the Finnish Labour Temple. My hope is that I will create a virtual website that will rebuild a virtual Finnish Labour Temple.

MM: I recently watched your short film, The Hoito Project. Give the readers some insight into the film.

KS: It was the composer for my film Letters From Karelia, Ari Lahdekorpi, who got me involved in the Finnish Labour Temple. He is an amazing jazz musician, and he was very active in the Finnish community, and had just been elected to the Finlandia Association, when we proposed our very first film festival to be held in 2005 in Finnish Labour Temple. … I have been involved in literally hundreds of fundraising efforts for the Finnish Labour Temple. I don’t regret any of it and we were able to bring Finnish musicians, filmmakers, artists to Thunder Bay to experience the Hoito and the magic of the Big Finn hall and all its legacy.

MM: Describe your background, training, and desire to make films. Where did that passion originate?

KS: I became a filmmaker because of my dad who was a local DJ here in Thunder Bay in the 1950s and early ‘60s. He was the on-air sports Director at CKX in Brandon then got his teaching degree and got a job teaching broadcasting at Tech Voc high school in Winnipeg. As a 12-year-old I was able to go and play with all of the equipment and make videos. I had a babysitting job when I was 14 which allowed me to buy a film camera and projector. When I was 18, I got a job at the local television station doing studio camera for the nightly news and TV show. Later I did sound for the newsroom and learned how to edit. My boss there, then connected me with Lara Mazur at the National Film Board who hired me as an editor trainee. Eventually I started editing NFB films and when I moved to Thunder Bay I decided I wanted to be a director and cinematographer as well. Because we live in a small, isolated community far from Toronto, I also had to become a producer, grant writer and promoter. We helped build a filmmaking community here with our not-for-profit organization, Flash Frame Film and Video Network.

MM: Talk a bit about Under the Red Star and your work with Ron as a collaborator on your films.

KS: “Under The Red Star” was really Ron’s idea and Michel Beaulieu’s research. We wrote up a proposal quickly to the Ontario Arts Council and a new organization that funded films to build an industry in Northern Ontario gave us a grant that enabled us to shoot on 16 mm film and create an amazing historical docudrama that was supported by almost the entire community. The film is also about politics so the people who are on the right-wing spectrum obviously never supported the film, or went to set foot in the “The Big Finn Hall,” which was built by socialists.

The same divisions between red and white are still alive and well in Thunder Bay. Part of the reason for this is because, the most recent Finnish immigrants were obliged by the Canadian government during the Cold War to pledge that they never had been nor ever would become communist. The halls during the war were closed down, because in fact, Canada was at war with Finland, which was a co-belligerent with Germany, and had invaded our ally, the Soviet union. Amazingly all these politics still tend to play out.

Ron was the producer, production manager, actor and helped write the narration for the film. It was a huge project and meant that we had to gain the trust from the local Finnish community. The working title for the film was “Big Finn Hall.” When we showed the film in Finland people were absolutely amazed by the number of Finnish speaking local actors we were able to feature and hire.

MM: Another of your Finnish-themed documentaries is Letters from Karelia. What prompted your interest in the reverse migration of Finns from Canada back to Karelia?

KS: When I first moved to Thunder Bay, I started researching my Finnish heritage and found the story of Rosvall and Voutilainen, and found a book by Varpu Lindstrom called “Defiant Sisters.” I phoned her up and told her I was interested in telling that story and I would like to meet Taimi Davis, who she had been interviewing and documenting for years. I went to Toronto and Varpu gave me all of her research and was keen to help me make films about Finnish immigrants in Canada. It became a labor of love because we didn’t get any positive response for any of our project ideas so we decided we would just make a film about Taimi. Then the letters arrived from her brother, who had gone to Karelia in the 1930s. We learned his fate and in investigating it, we found out the fate of so many others. The project was not really about making a film. It was about telling the stories of people who had been disappeared and murdered.MM: Most readers will likely be familiar with the somewhat pejorative terms, “church Finns” and “hall Finns.” In Under the Red Star, you explore the more radical elements of Finnish political thought.

KS: Varpu Lindstrom‘s work in Defiant Sisters told the story of radical women, Finnish immigrants like Taimi, her mother and Sanna Kannasto. Their stories and struggles were so incredible to me. I felt I needed to shed light on them, and the contribution they made to our country.

My Finnish family were in fact, quite conservative and leaders in the church; however, my great-grandfather and my grandfather were union men and they knew how to fight for workers’ rights. You don’t inherit your politics, and I would say I was drawn to these stories as a historian, and also as a feminist. Looking over my entire career as a filmmaker, I have to say that the majority of my work focuses on strong women and stories that are seldom heard and rarely celebrated.

MM: How do you select a topic for a film? What goes into writing, filming, editing, and distributing documentary films in Canada?

KS: I have a master’s degree in history and my thesis was “Women in Power Structures in Cuba and Nicaragua.” My husband is a Latin Americanist and we have spent a lot of time travelling and living in Latin America. We are both historians and we are both fascinated with labor history and social history. Most of the films we have made stem from the kind of research that we are doing. We are getting old now, and someday might even retire however, we have trained up a dozen or so young filmmakers and artists in Thunder Bay, who will be able to carry on the tradition that we have started.

MM: I recently interviewed your friend Ava Karvonen. She’s working on a feature film and then, likely, looking towards retirement. What are your future plans in terms of projects and life after filmmaking?

KS: I would love to show any of my films at Finn Fest 2023. I am the current chair for the Finnish Canadian Cultural Federation which organizes Canadian Grand Finn festivals. We have had to go virtual for the past three years, so we are really looking forward to participating in a live Finn Festival once again! Right now, Ron and I are on sabbatical in France where we are trying to complete three films which were delayed due to the pandemic, but are nearly complete. We have funding for three more films which are now starting in production. Another huge project connected with Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple has been the digitization of our local 16mm nightly news footage from 1956 to 1979. We created Reel Memories of the Lakehead on Facebook and streaming on and are now working on another series called the View From Up Here.

MM: Kiitos!

About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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