The Estonian Presence in Toronto

By: Endel Aruia

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 110-112
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Estonians did not appear on the list of the thirty-four largest ethnic groups in the Canadian Yearbook 1976-1977. In the 1971 Census, however, they were twenty-seventh in the table listing mother tongues and twenty-second for "language most often spoken in the home.'' In round figures, there are about 20,000 Estonians in Canada, 12,000 of whom reside in Toronto and environs. Another sizeable concentration-about 2,000-can be found in the Vancouver-Victoria area.

Toronto has the largest group of Estonians outside Estonia. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, about 80,000 arrived in Canada, mainly by special transport from Germany's Displaced Persons' camps, or from Sweden and England.

Initially, after World War Two, as a condition of entry, most Estonians were tied to work contracts and dispersed as manual labourers throughout Canada. Gradually emigration to Toronto, Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, Montreal took place. As their knowledge of the language and of local conditions improved, Estonians took on more skilled work or started their own businesses. Younger immigrants entered schools where they tended to study science subjects rather than the humanities. Because most of the Estonian immigrants were adults displaced by the war, there is now a sizeable older population. In fact the largest organisation by far is the Pensioners' Club. There is, however, a vigorous younger generation as well.

Some measure of community activity can be had looking at the various societies, clubs and institutions Estonians have established in Toronto. An Estonian Canadian calendar lists 131 non-business societies in Ontario. Of these Estonian organisations, 109 are in Toronto, ranging from hobby and social clubs to professional, political and academic ones. There are nine church congregations, nineteen fraternities/sororities continuing prewar traditions, as well as a kindergarten and supplemental language schools. Community activity is centred around Estonian House, Tartu College, Eesti Kodu and the churches. The Estonians have built two churches in Toronto-one Lutheran, another Baptist-and they own, jointly with the Latvians, a beautiful old church at Carlton and Jarvis Streets. All the churches have community hall facilities.

On April 1, 1960 the derelict old Chester School building on Broadview Avenue was bought. Four days later the first choir rehearsal took place there. Three years later, a hall seating 600 people, a basement with classrooms and a cafeteria were added. Renovations and additions were largely done by volunteer labour. In 1976 a new section was added to the front.

Estonian House, Eesti Maja, accommodates at present, from the basement up, a cafeteria, the ESTO'84 office, five classrooms, a lending library, archives, doctor's office, souvenir shop, three banquet and meeting halls, the Estonian Consulate, the offices of Estonian House Ltd., Estonian Arts Centre, the Pensioners' Club, the Estonian Credit Union (with a $25 million balance sheet), a weekly newspaper and bookshop, the Estonian Central Council, a large youth room for the girl guides and boy scouts and a rifle range.

Along with Estonian House, Tartu College is a focus of Estonian Canadian life:
Tartu College is a non-profit corporation created for the purposes of studying the role and rights of minorities in Canada, their cultures and their social and economic problems, and promoting the study of Estonian culture in all its aspects and to promote the understanding and knowledge thereof and to provide student housing.

Initial capital for the college was put up by members of the Estonian fraternities and sororities, many of them graduates of the ancient and venerable university at Tartu in Estonia. The eighteen-storey building was completed in 1970, houses 474 beds in six-bed units arranged in an apartment configuration. On the lower level, there is a 300-seat hall and several smaller rooms, mainly for the use of the Estonian academic community. There is also the library and archives of Tartu Institute.

Tartu Institute is the educational arm of the college with its own board of twenty-one directors. Specifically, its objectives are: (a) to study the role and rights of minorities in Canada; (b) to study minorities, their cultures, social and economic problems; (c) to provide instruction at the post-secondary level in Estonian language, literature, history, religion and other cultural fields; (d) to promote the study of and research in the Estonian language, literature, history, religion, arts, music and other cultural fields; (e) to promote the preservation, dissemination and understanding of Estonian culture; (f) to promote the study of Estonian and related languages and literature; (g) to promote and support the study of political, economic, social and cultural conditions in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The institute's main activities have been: to establish the archives and library; to arrange lectures, seminars, etc.; to support Estonian language courses; to give bursaries and prizes; to encourage research by publicizing available material and advisory resources; to help scholars in relevant areas of study with an information exchange, including bibliographic services; and cooperation with like-minded organisations

All along the aim of the college has been to promote a chair of Estonian Studies established at a Canadian university. To this end, Tartu College has recently underwritten the funds necessary for such a chair, and a proposal is now before the University of Toronto. Once this succeeds, Tartu Institute's resources will be available to supplement the university's own facilities.

The institute gives bursaries to students, prizes for seminar papers or theses on Estonian subjects and has supported students taking the non-credit Estonian courses at the University of Toronto. The institute arranges ten to twelve lectures a year, ranging from literature and history to slide presentations and travelogues. Some 800 people attended the lectures last year.

The archives and library collect all books, pamphlets and periodicals in Estonian and in other languages, if they pertain to Estonia and Estonians. Personal papers and societies' records are also collected. Most of the lectures are taped and offered to out of-town people on a loan basis. There are also tapes of a few hundred hours of interviews. The library occupies four rooms and 350 linear metres of shelf space. The library holds approximately 4,000 books. It also has a card index of some 30,000 entries for publications on Estonian topics and is engaged in making cumulative indices of periodicals and collective works, as well as subject indices of more important books that have none. Since it is practically impossible to get access to books from present-day Estonia, any information as to the whereabouts of reference books is of importance to scholars. The institute tries to help locate such material and advise scholars.

An Estonian centre of another kind is found in Scarborough in the east end of Toronto. On a 4.5 acre lot, stands Eesti Kodu (Estonian Home),a project of the Estonian Relief Committee. The three-building condominium comprising 134 apartments was completed in 1977. In 1982 an old people's home for 100 residents-Eihatare-was added. Considerable social and cultural activity has taken place there. The complex includes a library and rooms for handicrafts (textiles, woodworking). It's success so far has encouraged planning for a home for seniors who require constant nursing care.

Some distance from Toronto are three beautiful monuments to the Estonian volunteer effort-three camps for children and young people-Joekääru, Seedrioru and Kotkajärve. Joekääru is a children s camp near the village of Udora, north of Uxbridge, about 100 kilometres north of Toronto. Thirty years ago, three men bought an abandoned 160-hectare farm for the Estonian Women's Society. One-third of the acreage was divided into 200 half-acre summer cottage lots to raise money for building materials and other requisites. Volunteer labour cleared the fields, erected three dormitories and dammed the Black River to create a 100-metre-wide lake for swimming.

The land was broadly divided into three areas: the children's camp, the cottages and the common land. Over the years, much work was put into additional buildings, a twenty-five-metre six-lane swimming pool, asphalt tennis-courts and a 400-metre stadium, said to be the first metric stadium in Canada. Trees were planted and an open-air church clearing made in the forest with rows of short logs standing on end for seating.

Since 1953 the summer camp has run for six to eight weeks each year, accommodating over 150 children at a time, from five to sixteen years of age, each staying a week or two or more. Regular classes in the Estonian language, singing and swimming instruction are given besides sports, folk-dancing and other activities. The cottage area has been upgraded to a proper subdivision, and many houses are winterized. About a dozen retired couples are permanently settled there.

A much smaller but similarly run children's camp, Seedrioru, was started two years later in 1955. Seedrioru is northwest of Toronto, near Elora. One of the attractions there is an open-air theatre with seating on the hillside steps and a field commemorating those who died for freedom in Estonia. Annual summer festivals are held, attracting anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 participants.

The third place mentioned, Kotkajarve, is in the Muskoka wilderness-about 200 kilometres north of Toronto where about 180 hectares belong to the Estonian boy scouts and girl guides. This, too, has been provided with necessary supplies, service buildings and cleared campsites and includes twenty-five cottages on land leased by scout leaders. There is year-round activity of some kind. Several weddings have taken place at the open-air altar, and a "University in the Forest" meets there for eight days in August for advanced courses. In the past thirty years, 13,000 scouts and guides have camped at Kotkajärve (Eagle's Lake), and in July 1984 a jamboree of 700 youths will take place there.

An active, close-knit group like the Estonians may have positive influences on its members, making them better citizens and better Canadians. Almost all young Estonians who have done well at public schools also attended the supplementary Estonian school, where they learned about Estonian language, history and culture.

In an effort to find out how Toronto Estonians spend their time, we analysed the Estonian newspapers (two of which publish in Toronto) for a twelve-month period. Of 153 front-page advertisements, 60 were for dinner-dances or similar entertainment, 21 for concerts, 13 for theatre shows and 16 for art exhibits. More intellectual fare was offered with 19 lectures (13 given by Tartu Institute), 12 days of courses or syposia, 9 church-related sessions and 7 film or slide shows, which were also announced in the papers. Such advertisements are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of ethnocommunity activity. Not counted were weekly and special church services, coffee parties, mini-concerts, anniversaries, etc., sponsored by a variety of congregations, handicraft circles, scout and guide troops, supplemental schools and pensioner societies.

From time to time, Estonians have gatherings which transcend state boundaries. There are about l00,000 Estonians outside Estonia. The first Estonian World Festival was held in Toronto in 1972. The next two were in Baltimore in 1976 and in Stockholm in 1980. The fourth Estonian World Festival-ESTO'84-is being held this year, again in Toronto, from July 8-15. Planners expect at least 20,000 people to participate. The community is happy to cooperate within the framework of the larger sesquicentennial celebrations in the city and the province's bicentennial. ESTO'84 will be formally opened by Premier William Davis at Ontario Place's Forum on July 8. The University of Toronto's Robarts Library, the City Hall and the Royal Ontario Museum will host general interest exhibitions, and there will be many events that can be enjoyed by non-Estonians.

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