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nation builder Martha Johanna Keski Antila

by Lila Laakso | August 13, 1998

Martha Johanna Keski Antila lived through most of the 20th century which she called the most terrible in western history. She said of herself that she did not suffer personal hardship. Think about her story and judge for yourself.

In 1927, at the age of 21, Martha Michelson left her home in Helsinki, Finland. She travelled to Cobalt, Ontario, to join her older sister, Lytti, and her husband. Cobalt was the scene of the most intensive prospecting ever known in Ontario after the discovery of silver there early in the 20th century.

Martha was born in Virkkala, a small industrial town. Her father worked for the owner of a sawmill, caring for his horses and driving his carriages. Her mother cooked and served meals daily in her one-room home for men who worked in the factories. By the time Martha was 15, she had seen the Russian Revolution and civil war in Finland, and the death of her mother and father. After moving to Helsinki, she toiled long hours as a maid, sometimes as a caregiver or cook.

Although Martha found Cobalt wild and primitive, she did not keep her vow to return to Helsinki when she had earned the money to do so. Instead, she married Matti Keski-Antila, a popular, gentle, handsome man from a family with large land holdings in Finland. Martha cared for Matti and his brother in a small, abandoned, two-room bush shack located several miles from Cobalt. When the lumbering business started by the brothers failed, the family moved to Windsor, a car-manufacturing centre, where Martha and Matti’s first daughter, Lila, was born.

In a search for steady work (safe work always seemed out of reach), the family moved to Rouyn, Quebec where Matti worked in copper and gold mines. Another daughter, Eila, was born. By 1935, the family was back in Windsor after Matti was blacklisted for striking at the mine. For the second time, only temporary work was available. The family went north again for regular work, this time to the gold mines in Porcupine Camp. They stayed for 15 years.

Daughter Lila (who became a librarian and researcher at the E.J. Pratt Library at Victoria University, Toronto) says of those years:

What a rich, full life we had participating in music, dance, school plays and also in similar activities within the Finnish community. Although we lived in a small mining town, we did not know what boredom meant. We both studied music privately. Eila, making a profession of music, received her ARCT Diploma in piano from the Royal Conservatory. Our home was a welcoming place for our friends as Mother loved to bake and cook – there were always treats. Although we needed to be frugal, our home was comfortable. Our parents cherished us; they were always loving and supportive of us no matter what hardships existed for them.

Matti’s mining career ended with a leg injury in 1951. The family moved, once more, to Toronto, where Matti found work building the subway. Martha worked when necessary, although she always did the banking and controlled the family money. Martha was a member of the Toronto Finnish Choir and the Toronto Chapter of the Women’s League for Health and Beauty. They renewed friendships with those who had relocated earlier and made new friends within the Finnish community. Matti died in 1976. Martha lived until April, 1998, lonely but sustained by friends, neighbours and family.

Lila says of her parents:

They co-operated on all aspects of their life. They decided all important issues together. They had strong personal principles; honesty, belief in the work ethic, belief in social justice, solidarity with working people. They had learned about the barbarism of war and social strife first-hand; they believed in peace, in a better world.

Martha’s thoughts were often about her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, and what they would become. Dari Laine, one of her grandsons, said at the celebration of her life:

In fact, the achievements of her descendants must be considered in part her achievements. It is doubtful that they would have been possible without her courage to come to Canada. With her immigration to Canada, she was sure to face uncertainty and challenges with only a possibility, and no guarantee, of a better life. Although she received limited formal education, she should be considered a co-recipient of the graduate and postgraduate degrees that have been earned by her descendants.

more to consider

There have been times in Canada's history when we have been dependent on immigrants to undertake major national projects, like the railways and food production and mining and lumbering.

Martha’s story, like so many other personal stories, can lead us to question how we treat and regard immigrants. What stands in the way of ensuring that they have decent lives and are a valued part of our society? Why do we not treat them – those who work outside the home and those who work in the home – as a visible, essential and recognized part of our country?

What could each of us do to make this happen?

You may be intrigued to know that Mother’s Day in North America has its roots in social action. Mrs. Anna Reeves Jarvis lived in Appalachia. A minister’s daughter, she taught Sunday School for 20 years in the Andrews Methodist church of Grafton, West Virginia. Throughout the American Civil War, she organized women’s brigades, providing help to service men from both sides. In 1858, Mrs. Jarvis organized a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her community. She wanted to improve sanitation and reduce deaths from polluted water and disease-bearing insects. She called the day “Mothers’ Work Day.” She was known to teach Sunday School classes on women in the Bible. She observed, “There are many days for men, but none for mothers.”

After Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis (a teacher who lived from 1864-1948) and friends started a letter-writing campaign calling for a national Mother’s Day holiday. On May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional resolution designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Martha’s story illustrates that each of us has a story that is interesting and worth telling. We usually think that our story only counts if we have done something “important.” In the larger sense, Martha’s story teaches us about how some people lived, what they faced, what choices they made and what resulted.

In a more personal sense, Martha’s story also reminds us that we can change the world by making things possible for family and friends. I am not suggesting that it is a woman's "natural" role. If a woman chooses it and is personally fulfilled, she can be a nation-builder in that role too.

resource for this story
  • Under the Northern Lights: My Memories of Life in the Finnish Community of Northern Ontario, by NELMA SILLANPAA, Canadian Museum of Civilization, ISBN 0660140209 | 1994

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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