Located between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, Malcolm Island is a relatively small island, at just 14 miles long and less than 2 miles wide at its narrowest.
Fewer than 700 people call the island home year-round, though it hosts several times that many visitors each year. Besides the incredible natural scenery, the island is popular for its access to outdoor activities and experiences, as well as the wildlife that calls the island and its surrounding waters home.
Another thing that draws visitors and inspires curiosity about the island is its unique history. Keep reading to learn more about the original inhabitants, early settlers, and the island today.
Malcolm Island’s First Residents
Malcolm Island and the community of Sointula have a unique and rich history stretching back well over a hundred years. Today, it boasts a thriving tourist industry, while still maintaining hold of its Finnish influence.
But long before the island gained that influence, another group called the area home. Malcolm Island is part of traditional lands that were once used by the Kwakwaka’wakw people.
The Kwakwaka’wakw people are a group of tribes who inhabited a territory that included the northern portion of Vancouver Island, as well as many smaller islands and inlets and parts of mainland British Columbia. At its height, the group consisted of around 28 communities, though over time some groups died out or chose to join with others.
European settlers gave the tribe group its name, which continues to be used today. It refers to any tribes that speak the Kwak’wala language, even though the language consists of five unique dialects.
Four tribes, in particular, were known to utilize Malcolm Island. It was especially popular for berry-picking.
“A Place of Chord”
As Europeans settled Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and the surrounding smaller islands, First Nation tribes were eventually forced out of the area. It was uninhabited at the start of the 20th century when it caught the eye of another group.
The name “Sointula” is Finnish for “the place of chord.” As you might have guessed, the first village on Malcolm Island was settled by a group of Finnish immigrants. These immigrants had been working in terrible conditions in mines located on Vancouver Island and were inspired to start a new life that relied on a communal way of living.
The group dreamed of creating a self-sustaining village and even contacted a political philosopher by the name of Matti Kurikka to lead them. They named themselves the Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company. They were recognized by the government of British Columbia and granted 28,000 acres of land—the entirety of Malcolm Island.
In 1901, they rowed north from their home in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to set up the utopian society they were dreaming of. In 1902, their group grew as many families and individuals began to join them. At its height, the community was home to around 2,000 people.
The Downfall of the Kalevan Kansa Colonization Group
Unfortunately, the tranquility they were looking for was tough to come by in the wilderness, and financial hardships were a constant struggle. In 1903, a fire destroyed their community hall and claimed the lives of 11 of their villagers. It also burned many of their supplies, which only served to worsen their financial situation.
After the fire, the community continued to face financial trouble, and the Company declared bankruptcy in 1905, less than 5 years after its establishment. Many of the members moved away at this time. However, a few stayed, and their descendants continue to call Sointula home to this day.
Much of the land was given back to the government, though any families that stayed were permitted to keep their homes and the individual plots of land that they had settled. In the end, the original community would last less than a decade, though its legacy lives on in the island’s laid-back feel and Finnish influence more than 100 years later.
While these settlers may have left in the early 1900s, others came to settle in Sointula throughout the century, and by the 1970s, it was thriving. Residents largely made a living in fishing or logging and established many businesses that continue to operate to this day, like the Cooperative Store, the oldest co-op store in the province today.
As logging and smaller commercial fishing operations have declined, Sointula’s population began to shift. Today, many new property owners are attracted to the island as an ideal getaway and have begun purchasing vacation homes to use as summer retreats. Tourism flourishes, drawing visitors from around the world looking to experience the unique landscapes and biodiversity present here.
Sointula Lodge welcomes several hundred of these visitors each year. It offers unique fishing or wilderness adventures that give guests a chance to fish the teeming waters of British Columbia for salmon or halibut, or to explore the many inlets in search of orcas, bears, and other wildlife.
Whether you’re drawn by the history or the incredible views, Sointula is a bucket-list-worthy destination for travelers of all ages and backgrounds! Whether you’re looking to cast a line or learn more about the earliest people to live in the area, you’ll find what you’re looking for here.