Finnish North American Literature Association
A long-time activist in the Finnish community of Northern Ontario, Nelma Sillanpää was
a coach and gymnastic instructor for the Northern Lights (Revontulet) Athletic Club.
Born Nelma Wellamo Johnson in Warren, Ohio in 1917 of Finnish immigrant parents,
she migrated to Canada at the age of four with her parents. She attended Timmins High
and Vocational School (TH&VS) in the 1930's before beginning work with the
Consumers’ Co-operative store in Timmins and serving as a gymnastic coach with the
sports clubs of Harmony Hall, one of which was Northern Lights. She would teach
phys-ed as a supply teacher from time to time at TH&VS during the 1950's.
She married Paul Sillanpää in 1945 upon his return from service overseas with the
Canadian armed forces. They have two sons, Lennard, who lives in Ottawa, and Daryl,
who resides in Thunder Bay. Paul and Nelma were active in various activities in the
Timmins area during the 1940's and 1950's before the family moved to Elliot Lake in
1960 when Paul had received a promotion in the post office. Paul passed away in
1975. Nelma continues to live in Elliot Lake where she has long been active in raising
funds for the Kidney Foundation of Canada. Her voluntary work has been recognized
by awards from the Northeastern Ontario region of the Kidney Foundation as well as
by the Ontario branch.
Nelma Sillanpää is the author of Under the Northern Lights. My Memories of Life in
the Finnish Community of Northern Ontario which was published by the Canadian
Museum of Civilization in its Mercury Series. Her book contains chapters on the
Northern Lights athletic club, early Finnish festivals held in the Northern Ontario, life in
the lumber camps of Northern Ontario, and of her wartime experience working for a
parachute factory in Hamilton. The production of her manuscript was brought about by
Dr. Edward W. Laine, an ethnocultural historian at the Canadian Museum of
Civilization and one of Canada’s leading scholars on the history of the Finnish
community in Canada. Dr. Laine passed away in 2003.
In 1996, Nelma Sillanpää was a recipient of the Civic Award from the City of Elliot
Nelma Sillanpää (1994). Under the Northern Lights. My Memories of Life in the
Finnish Community of Northern Ontario. Edited by Edward W. Laine. Hull, Quebec:
Canadian Museum of Civilization, History Division Mercury Series Paper No. 45.