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Then & Now: That time a Sudbury newspaper editor was convicted of fomenting rebellion

Arvo (or Aaro) Vaara, editor of the Sudbury-based Finnish-language newspaper Vapaus, was arrested and deported for, it seems, not being sufficiently sympathetic to the failing health of King George V

In December 1928, Canadian newspapers carried front-page stories about King George V's failing health. Then as now, many Canadians followed the Royals as closely as if they were members of their own families.

The king was seriously ill with a lung condition that would cause his death eight years later. 

But the Sudbury Finnish-language newspaper, Vapaus, showed no sympathy.

An article in the Dec. 4, 1928 edition, translated from Finnish, read in part, “Will the King die is all the same to us. The social order will be equally oppressive to the poor, whoever is king. Capital really rules in modern society.

"Kingship being only a lawful piece of decoration while gluttonous financiers riot with the wealth secured through workers’ blood and sweat.

"So, will the King die? If he does, we hope royalty will die with him and a workers’ republic take its place. A change of kings will not better our conditions, no matter who holds the sceptre. Only the rise to power of the workers themselves will save us from the curse of capitalism."

The same edition of Vapaus carried a snide remark about the Prince of Wales having to cut his hunting trip short in Africa – where he "gained experience ruling his future subjects" – to return to his father's bedside.

Less than two weeks later, Vapaus editor Arvo Vaara (sometimes written as ‘Aaro’) was arrested by Sudbury police and charged with seditious libel under Section 133 of the Criminal Code.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sedition, "as conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch."

Vaara was born in 1891 in a part of western Finland that was then controlled by Russia. He came to Canada in 1908 with the intention of making enough money to buy a farm in his homeland. Instead, he became a naturalized British citizen and an influential member of the Communist Party of Canada, which was founded in 1921. He began working at Vapaus around 1924.

Vapaus (Freedom), first published in 1917, was a communist newspaper. In 1928, it published six times a week with a circulation of about 4,000 across Canada. Its offices were located in a building on Elm Street occupied today by Bay Used Books.

The "Red Finn" newspaper was sympathetic to the causes of the working class. Perhaps even more concerning to its critics, it supported the right of workers to unionize, was written in a foreign language and considered to be un-Christian and anti-British.

(Sudbury's "White Finns" were conservative, staunchly anti-communist, often church-going, and focused on social and cultural activities. Finns represented about seven per cent of the city's population in 1931.)

How did police know about the Vapaus articles? Rev. T.D. Jones, a United Church minister, was suspicious of the newspaper and asked a Finnish minister to translate for him.

Jones provided a copy to The Sudbury Star. The translated article ran under the headline, “Vapaus launches tirade against Royalty. Obviously treasonable article translated.”

Crown attorney R.R. McKessock, a First World War hero, told the Star, “Any remarks seeking to belittle disparage, or ridicule royalty may be interpreted as treason.”

The Finnish Organization of Canada hired Toronto labour lawyer Arthur Roebuck to defend Vaara. Roebuck would become attorney general of Ontario in 1934 and later a Liberal senator.

The Crown subpoenaed the newspaper's business manager to produce the subscription list. He refused in an effort to protect readers from visits by RCMP or immigration officers. After being threatened with contempt, he erased 500 of the names and complied.

At the preliminary trial, Roebuck asked the court to dismiss the charges. There was no evidence Vaara wrote the unsigned articles, and while the remarks may have been impolite, they were not seditious, he said.

McKessock argued that even if the editor did not write the articles, he was responsible for publishing them.

As for sedition, McKessock made his case to the judge — who was his brother, incidentally — that Vapaus had "disturbed the tranquility of the state or brought into hatred or contempt the person of the King."

On Feb. 19, 1929, Vaara was tried at the Sudbury Court House before an Ontario Supreme Court judge and jury. His lawyer entered a plea of not guilty.

The Crown called the reverend Jones and two Finnish workers to testify. The defence did not call any witnesses. 

Instead, Roebuck made a passionate appeal to the jury. He said there was no attack on the King; the offending article was simply a declaration of the truth that society was ruled by capitalists.

The all-male jury of native-born citizens took three hours to find Vaara guilty as charged. 

Judge William Henry Wright sentenced Vaara to six months in prison. He was ordered to pay a fine of $1,000 or spend an additional two years behind bars.

"There is a line to be drawn between honest criticism and a stirring up of strife against His Majesty the King," the judge told Vaara.

"Your crime is of an unusual character. You came to this country to become a citizen and not to criticize its customs. Your act was a peculiarly heartless thing … and you do not deserve the slightest consideration.”

Roebuck launched an appeal which was heard in Osgoode Hall in Toronto. 

In dismissing the appeal, Chief Justice Francis Robert Latchford suggested Vaaro might get consideration from the government if he showed contrition and the desire to be a good Canadian citizen. (Globe and Mail, March 7, 1929)

The Communist Party of Canada (CPC) was classified as an unlawful organization and was outlawed from 1931 to 1936, and again during the Second World War.

In April 20, 1931, Sudbury council passed a resolution asking the federal government to deport anyone with communist sympathies.

An estimated 30,000 immigrants were deported during The Depression because of illness, vagrancy or criminal activity as well as for their political views and labour activism. (Canadian Council for Refugees)

After serving his sentence, Vaara returned to his job at Vapaus. But he was considered a dangerous political agitator and the authorities watched him.

Vaara and Martin Pohjansalo, a translator who worked for the newspaper, were arrested by Ontario Provincial Police after a raid on the newspaper office following a May Day riot in 1932.

The riot occurred when "the alleged communists numbering about 500 were attacked by citizens after they refused to carry the Union Jack alongside the Red flag at the head of a parade as ordered by police."**

Vaara and Pohjansalo were "hurried out of Sudbury" by RCMP, perhaps to avoid another riot, transported to Halifax, then deported to Finland. There was a deportation hearing but no trial.

It is believed Vaara was living in the Soviet Union by March 1933.

Vapaus, which continued to publish in Sudbury until the mid-1970s, would later report Vaara died an old man from natural causes.

But historian Dennis Molinaro suggests, "it is more likely Vaara was executed along with thousands of others, presumably because their socialism and nationalism were not acceptable" to USSR dictator Joseph Stalin.***

Vapaus merged with a literary magazine and moved its offices to Toronto in 1974. It was renamed “Viikosanomat,” but later continued as Vapaus until 1990. Digitalized copies of Vapaus are available at the Simon Fraser University Library site.

Having survived periods of being banned, the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) became an official federal party in the 1990s. It does not have any representations in Parliament, but ran candidates in almost 30 ridings in the 2021 federal election.

The party's current leader is Elizabeth Rowley. Rowley ran for CPC in Sudbury riding in 2015. She received 102 votes.

Vicki Gilhula is a Sudbury freelance writer. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

Sources
* In some historical accounts Arvo Vaara's first name is spelled Aaro.
**Police hurry two out of Sudbury after arrest, The Globe and Mail, May 5, 1932
*** Citizens of the world law, deportation and the Homo Sacer, 1932-1934 by Dennis Molinaro, Canadian Ethnic Studies Association, September 2015
The Trial of Aaro Vaara by Lita-Rose Betcherman, CanadasHistory.ca, Sept. 5, 2016
The Little Band: The clashes between the Communists and the political and legal establishment in Canada, 1928-1932, by Lita-Rose Betcherman, Deneau Collection, Ottawa, 1982
Whence They Came, Deportations from Canada 1900 -1935 by Barbara Roberts, University of Ottawa Press, 1988