Sara Maria Haukioja survived grim conditions in Finland and northern Ontario before creating a beautiful life for her family

Sara Maria Haukioja may have been a quiet person, but her warmth and strength spoke volumes.

The mother of three immigrated from Finland to northern Ontario in 1951 to reunite with her husband, who had secured a job and housing. What started off as a tough time in Canada’s harsh lumber camps eventually turned into a beautiful, fulfilling life.

“She wanted a better future for her children because she came from quite a poor background. She went through war,” says her daughter Olivia Lee, who recalls their first home resembling a trapper’s camp with no finished floors. “She couldn’t put us down because we’d get splinters.”

Despite the difficult early years, Haukioja went on to be a dedicated homemaker, often baking delicacies from Finland. Her son, Ari Haukioja, says her food was an integral part of his life, woven into his childhood memories, and later, into his own family’s. “She would always make these things called Karelian piirakoita (rice porridge pastries),” he says. “It’s a special treat.”

Sara’s eldest daughter, Tuula Haukioja, recalls her mother reminiscing about her childhood, a mixture of happy and challenging times. “She was a storyteller,” says Tuula. “She loved the place where she grew up” — on the shores of Lake Ladoga, now part of Russia.

When Sara was nine, tragedy struck. She had gone outside to take a break from baking, and when she turned around, she saw her house in flames. “She ran in and grabbed her baby brother and got out of there,” says Tuula. “Her brand new shoes were left behind. Her mother was going to run in and get them, but fortunately decided not to.”

Then in 1940, the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed and a ceasefire took place between what is now Russia and Finland. The Soviets took over the territory where Haukioja had grown up, displacing around 400,000 Finns. “They had to be evacuated into the western part of Finland,” Tuula says. “Her father, at that time, was off with the war. He wasn’t there to help. It was her mother and the neighbours.”

Sara went back to her home country to visit with Tuula around five years ago. As a young woman, Sara told her daughter, she had a lot of fun dancing, which is what she mainly did during her courtship with her future husband.

“They had friends who were coming to what the Finlanders always said was ‘America.’ It didn’t necessarily mean the U.S.A.,” says Lee, explaining how they ended up in Canada. “They said to my dad, ‘Why don’t you come?’ He said to my mother — he didn’t ask — ‘We’re going to America.’ ”

When Sara arrived in 1951, she was pregnant and had two young children in tow. It was already getting cold in northern Ontario. Inside her new home — a shack, as Tuula describes it — an oil barrel had been fashioned into a stove. “That was her introduction to Canada,” says Tuula. “My father had written to say he’d built a home for her, so I guess her expectations were of something else. She apparently cried for two days straight. The other women came and said, ‘O.K., Sara, that’s enough. You have to just get on with it.’ And she did.”

Over time, their circumstances improved, and they eventually moved to Timmins, Ontario. Sara was quiet and shy, but always had practical advice. She was committed to her family and was interested in politics, history, and health. In her later years, she played golf. She went on long walks and enjoyed taking a sauna. She had a strong command of English and was completely self-taught, learning from television, reading and her children.

Sara made her children’s education a priority, but growing up, Tuula saw herself and her mother as opposites. Sara was a homemaker, while Tuula was an academic. It was only in later years, that Tuula came to appreciate the value of what her mother did. “She was my greatest teacher,” she says, “but not in a conventional sense, because she didn’t teach me how to do all those homemaker things that she did. She just taught me to get into my books and study.”

What still resonates with Sara’s family was her quiet strength. “She was not a fighter. She was not fiery. She wouldn’t argue with you,” says Tuula. “Almost in retrospect, you’d realize, ‘She gets us to do what we need to do.’ ”

Sara Haukioja is survived by her children Tuula, Ari and Olivia Lee; grandchildren Sara Stewart, Jessica McCarthy, Keri Howard, Erin Lee, Matthew Haukioja, Olivia Jones and Luke Haukioja; great-grandchildren Logan McCarthy, Meekah Howard, Aanna Stewart, Kaisa Howard, and Harper Jones.

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