Historian did groundbreaking research on Finnish pioneers

Shortly before she died on Thursday, Finnish historian and Professor Emerita Varpu Lindström was presented with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal as a tribute for her lifetime of scholarship and her pioneering work documenting the history of Finnish Canadians.

She was nominated by York linguistics Professor Sheila Embleton and given the award by Halifax MP Megan Leslie, both with Finnish roots. In 2010 Leslie gave the first Varpu Lindström lecture, an annual event created in Lindström’s honour.

Professor Lindström died in Halifax of brain cancer. She was 63.

Varpu Lindström

Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1948, Lindström immigrated to Canada in 1963. Her mission to document began one summer while she worked as a Finnair public relations officer and heard old immigrants talk about how hard it was to carve out a new life in Ontario’s backwoods in the 1920s. Lindström, whose father had dragged her “kicking and screaming” at 14 from Helsinki to Oshawa, could relate. “I thought, my goodness, somebody should record this,” she told YorkU magazine in a 2006 interview. So she did. The tapes inspired her BA, MA and PhD theses and launched her academic career at York in an emerging new field – Canadian immigration history.

During her distinguished career as a professor and scholar at York, she specialized in North American social history, immigration and women’s studies, focusing primarily on the experience of Finnish immigrants to Canada. Her first book was based on her thesis: Defiant Sisters: A Social History of Finnish Immigrant Women in Canada, 1890-1930. She also published From Heroes to Enemies: Finns in Canada, 1937-1947.

Lindström also spent five years as researcher and historical consultant for the National Film Board’s critically acclaimed 2004 documentary, Letters from Karelia. Until the 75-minute film by filmmaker Kelly Saxberg was released, few knew about the 2,800 young Finnish-Canadians returned to Russia in the 1930s with dreams of a starting a new society and ended up victims of Stalinist purges. “It was not even a footnote in Canadian history books,” Lindström told YorkU magazine. From there, Lindström’s went on a quest to discover what happened to the families caught in the Karelia “fever”. The documentary was shown on national TV in Finland and at film festivals around the world, and won awards at Manitoba’s 2006 Blizzards Awards.

Lindström became known as a “memory keeper” in Finnish-Canadian communities. Over several decades, she amassed diaries, family correspondences, financial ledgers, war-relief funding and other organizational records about Finns who immigrated to Canada in the 1880s to early 1900s as a result of economic depression and war in Finland. She also collected sound recordings of oral histories, folk music, documentary films, and more than 1,000 books, almanacs and plays published by Finnish authors in North America. Her research into Karelia “fever” took her to Russia where she photocopied rare documents, such as two volumes of a Soviet register of Finnish war crimes, a list of persons found in the mass grave at Karhumaki, and Soviet lists of North American Finns who journeyed to Karelia to help build a socialist utopia. In May, she donated all this to York’s Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.

Lindström started teaching history at Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies in 1984. In addition to teaching and research, she played a vital role in York’s administration. She was founding chair of York’s groundbreaking School of Women’s Studies, was chair of Atkinson’s History Department and coordinator of its Canadian Studies Program. While master of Atkinson, she helped the Atkinson Students’ Association through a fractious period and they, in gratitude, established the Varpu Lindström Scholarship. She served as an elected Senate representative on York’s Board of Governors and on many University committees, and was acting director of the School of Social Work.

In 2006, she was named a University Professor. Lindström’s personal qualities of quiet determination and selflessness made her a mentor and inspiration to so many, said her nominator, Rhonda Lenton, then Atkinson dean. At the core of all her activities was “her profound respect for human dignity, equity and learning.”

Lindström leaves her son Allan Best (BA 97).

York will lower the flag to half mast from Friday, July 6 at 9am until Saturday, July 7 at 1pm in memory of Professor Lindström.

A private funeral has been held. A memorial service will be held on Friday, July 6 at 2 pm at R.S. Kane Funeral Home, 6150 Yonge Street. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the charity of Varpu’s choice, the Canadian Friends of Finland Education Foundation, P.O. Box 278, 27 St. Clair Ave. E., Toronto, ON M4T 1L0.