Miia Suokonautio didn’t grow up with the familiar pressures of immigrant parents wanting their children to succeed because of their sacrifices. “They didn’t come here to make a better life; they came on an adventure, thinking we’ll see what next year brings,” says Miia, whose parents moved from Finland to Ontario in 1970, in their early twenties.
The Executive Director of the YWCA in Halifax since 2014, appreciates the stoic, no-nonsense Finnish attitude. She and her two brothers were expected to speak Finnish at home and act respectfully. “I’d get into so much trouble if an older person greeted me before I greeted them. And the first thing you did in someone’s house is ask the mother ‘what can I do to help?’ And you didn’t leave until the work was done.” Her parents came from farming families who’d lost their land and were internally displaced; her mother speaks of having no electricity when she was young.
They didn’t come here to make a better life; they came on an adventure, thinking we’ll see what next year brings.
Miia’s father became a Finnish Lutheran Pastor and studied in Waterloo. He worked in the mines awaiting a church opening. The family settled in Timmins where he was the pastor of two congregations and her mother served the congregation as the pastor’s wife. “There was lots of church stuff and Bible camps,” says Miia, adding that, on occasion, the family would attend Finnish ceremonies, folk dancing, and theatre. They returned often to Finland; Miia lived there for a year when she was six. “I am the fun-loving Canadian cousin who plays jokes and laughs loud. There’s a formality in Finland, expectations that children behave. We are the wild west comparatively.”
In 2004 her father returned there and remarried. He continued to work as a pastor, raising eyebrows with ideas of pluralism and gender-neutral language learned in Canada. Her mother lives in Toronto. Miia studied engineering, environmental studies, and social and urban policy, followed by a few adventures: working on a farm with Frontier College, a youth project in Paris, in prisons in El Salvador, and with street kids in Nicaragua. Miia completed a Master’s degree in social work in social policy, organizations and advocacy in Toronto, where she met her east-coast husband. Their overseas travel included three months in Finland and a United Nations contract in Ghana. While still on the road — in a café in Edinburgh — she applied to be program director at Phoenix Youth Programs. She left there in 2013, and was an IWK emergency crisis team social worker before moving to the YWCA, where she is a strong advocate for women helping to provide housing, employment and other services.
She has taken her children, now 10 and 6, to Finland. “They have an appreciation that they’re Finnish. I think they’ll grow into it, or they won’t and that’s fine too.” Miia appreciates the concept of Third Culture Kids — those who navigate their own homeland and that of their parents. “When I’m in a Finnish space with a whole bunch of grandmothers, I get that. When I’m in a Canadian space, I get that. That’s just how it is.”