Finland’s long time Honorary Consul Mr. Raimo Viitala retired from his post at Sault Ste. Marie last year. During his term he met many wonderful and interesting people, helped with visits and took part in cultural activities. Finland is currently in the process of appointing a new honorary consul in the area, a position that Viitala recommends wholeheartedly.
Raimo Viitala was born in Finland but his family moved to Canada when Viitala was only seven. The family settled in the Wanup area near Sudbury, an area that had been settled by Finnish immigrants. He talks about the early days: ‘Actually when I started school in the one-room school house, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the students were Finn and spoke Finn, the teacher did not.’
In 1989 Viitala was appointed as Finland’s Honorary Consul in Sault Ste. Marie during Ambassador Erkki Mäentakanen’s term in Canada. Finland is the only country to have an honorary consul in the ‘Soo’. Finnish immigrants first settled in the area in the 1890’s during the time when the Sault locks were being built. Many Finns found work in the forest industry around Sault Ste. Marie and the District of Algoma, as well as in mining, and later in the steel industry. Over the years, many Finnish organizations, clubs and congregations were established and flourished. ‘Today, the Ontario Finnish Rest Home is a prominent and highly respected part of the Sault Ste. Marie community. There are still some 2000 residents in the area and district that identify Finnish as their mother tongue.’ Viitala points out.
During his almost 30 years as Honorary Consul, Viitala had the chance to meet many ambassadors and take part in various activities. His duties as honorary consul have also changed during those years. ‘In the early years of my duties, notarial functions were very prominent but that has lessened noticeably since passport and visa functions were mainly taken on by the Embassy and the Toronto Honorary Consulate. Notarial functions are still requested mainly involving estate matters. With increased interest in genealogy, requests are received in finding long lost relatives.’ Viitala explains.
Other duties have included business interests from Finland, helping with Finnish visitors’ visits to the Soo as well as information and assistance for people planning to visit Finland. Viitala has also had a very active role in preserving the Finnish culture in Sault Ste. Marie. He was involved in Finnish Canadian festival and other various cultural activities in the community. The Soo also has a sister city in Finland, Forssa. ‘Our sister city involvements with the city of Forssa in Finland were very active for some time with visits and exchanges going both ways. Hopefully these activities can be revived, as there are many real positives in maintaining these relations.’ says Viitala.
Viitala’s work in the Soo Finnish Canadian community has been recognized several times over the years. In 2000, he was decorated with Knight, First Class of the Order of the Lion of Finland awarded by the President of the Republic of Finland. In 2010, Viitala won Sault Ste. Marie’s Tourism Ambassador Award for his work as Chairman of the 2010 Finn Grand Fest. Later in 2012 he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Governor General and the Government of Canada on behalf of the Queen.
Finland has yet to appoint a successor to Viitala. ‘The position of Honorary Consul has allowed me to meet so many wonderful and interesting people, locally and internationally. It has been a great learning experience and I feel very fortunate that I was afforded this challenging position.‘ he says.
Now that Viitala has retired he plans to spend more time at his ‘camp’ on St. Joseph’s Island. Travelling more in Canada as well as visiting Finland are also on the agenda.