Compatriots from Estonia Take a Fresh Interest in Canadian Estonians’ Heritage

December 5, 2008

A group of workers from Estonian memory institutions, members of Baltic Heritage Network (BaltHerNet), visited Toronto at the end of October.

BaltHerNet’s aim is to promote cooperation between the national and private archives, museums, libraries, research institutions, public associations and organizations collecting and studying the cultural heritage of the Baltic diaspora in order to guarantee the preservation and research of as well as an access to this historically valuable cultural property. The organization develops international and national cooperation networks, administers and develops an information portal on the Baltic heritage, Baltic Heritage Network (, organizes conferences, seminars, and workshops.

During the week in Toronto the BaltHerNet group visited Estonian and Lithuanian archives as well as the City of Toronto Archives. They also met with the Estonian Heritage Club and Tiina Kirss’s group of life story writers. The aim of these visits was to learn about the current situation of Estonian cultural collections and to meet their Canadian colleagues. The members of the group had also other tasks to fulfil during their stay in Canada. Karin Kiisk (Tartu University) interviewed the so-called ‘new expatriates’ living in Toronto for the Estonian National Museum. Merike Kiipus (Archival Library of the Estonian Literary Museum) and Anne Valmas (Tallinn University Academic Library) collected printed materials in order to fill the gaps in the collections of exile publications in Estonia. Tiiu Kravtsev (State Archives) and Piret Noorhani (Estonian National Museum) shared their archival expertise with the workers of the Estonian archives of Toronto. Before arriving in Toronto Noorhani had visited Vancouver, where she held a workshop for the workers of the Estonian Archives in Vancouver and interviewed ‘new expatriates’. She had also visited Library Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa, where she prepared the digitisation of the Orto archives. Triinu Ojamaa (Estonian Literary Museum), although not a member of BaltHerNet, had co-ordinated her own travel plans with the group in order to participate in the BaltHerNet seminar. Ojamaa’s main aim was to interview Toronto Estonians about their music interests and identity.

Everything they had seen during their visits to the archives helped the BaltHerNet people to prepare a round table discussion on cultural heritage that was held at Tartu College on Oct. 25, 2008. The institutions and cultural associations of Toronto Estonians were represented by Jüri Kivimäe (Chair of Estonian Studies, University of Toronto), Elmar Tampõld (Tartu College), Olev Träss (Tartu Institute), Avo Kittask and Laas Leivat (Estonian Central Council in Canada), Roland Weiler and Epp Aruja (Tartu Institute`s Dr. E. Aruja Archives and Library), Paavo Loosberg (Estonian Central Archives in Canada), Johannes Pahapill (Estonian Arts Centre), Mai Vomm Järve (Society of Estonian Artists in Toronto), Eda Sepp (Art Committee of the Estonian House), Enn Kajari (Club of Estonian Cultural Heritage), Hans Westerblom (Archives of St. Andrews Church), and Tiina Kirss (life story writers). The chargé d’affaires of the Estonian Embassy in Ottawa, Rasmus Lumi, and the film and TV personality, Edgar Väär, were also present, the latter modestly referring to himself as audience.

Piret Noorhani led in the discussion with an overview of BaltHerNet’s activities and of the aims of the round table conference. She also informed the participants about the possibility of getting financial support for archival projects from the Compatriot Program of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. Then the floor was given to the representatives of the archives, associations and clubs of Toronto Estonians who talked about their achievements and difficulties as well as future prospects. What they heard and had earlier seen during their visits convinced the Estonian guests that the collections of Toronto Estonians outnumber manifold those of other diaspora communities. The most acute problem, however, is lack of space. Most collections require better preservation conditions and need to be made better accessible to the public. The need to co-ordinate different initiatives and undertakings was also stressed.

It is to be hoped that the round table discussion provided not only the Estonian guests but also local heritage enthusiasts with necessary information. A bystander would certainly feel that the idea of the Estonian Museum Abroad (Väliseesti Muuseum, VEMU), which has been a subject of hopeful discussions for some time, has made Toronto Estonians to take a fresh glance at their collections and seriously think about their future. The round table conference hoped that the museum would become a reality soon, so that the cultural treasures of Toronto Estonians would be better preserved and accessed.

Finally the participants decided to set up a council of Canadian and Estonian experts in order to help and advise the local preservers of cultural heritage in specific archival, bibliographical and museological problems and assist the creators of VEMU in finding the best practical solutions. The members of the council are Jüri Kivimäe, Andris Ķesteris (Library Archives Canada), Anu Liivandi (Royal Ontario Museum), Hans Westerblom (Ryerson University), Merike Kiipus (Estonian Literary Museum), and Piret Noorhani (Estonian National Museum). On November 1, a week after its establishment, the council held its first working meeting. At the meeting Elmar Tampöld and Jaan Meri introduced the project of rebuilding the cellar floor of Tartu College. The council members advised on the location, equipment and preservation conditions of archival storage rooms.

On Sunday, October 26 the seminar “Preserving the Cultural Heritage of the Baltic Diaspora” was held at Tartu College, organized by BaltHerNet in partnership with the Tartu Institute and the Chair of Estonian Studies of Toronto University. Since 2007 BaltHerNet has held such seminars for the Estonian communities in Stockholm, St.Petersburg, and Hamburg. In Toronto also Latvian and Lithuanian communities participated for the first time. The aim of the seminar was to give an overview of the current situation of the Baltic cultural heritage both in Estonia and in diaspora communities as well as of collection, preservation, research, problems and future prospects.

The speakers included Jüri Kivimäe, Tiina Kirss, Andris Ķesteris (who represented the Latvian National Federation in Canada), Tiiu Kravtsev, Piret Noorhani, Merike Kiipus, Triinu Ojamaa, and Karin Kiisk. Unfortunately Arunas Pabedinskas from the Lithuanian Museum-Archives was unable to participate but he had sent his paper dealing with the collections and activities of the Museum-Archives to be read at the seminar. There were also two LAC representatives present: Normand Laplante who gave a short overview of LAC’s positions on the preservation of the heritage of ethno-cultural communities in Canada, and Leah Sander who had recently started work with multicultural collections. Both Laplante and Sander are BaltHerNet’s co-operation partners in the digitisation of the Orto archives.

The Estonian guests talked about BaltHerNet as an organization and its activities (P. Noorhani), about the information portal of the same name (Karin Kiisk), about exile archival collections in Estonia and in diaspora communitites (T. Kravtsev), and about the collections and databases of exile publications in Estonian libraries (A. Valmas and M. Kiipus). Triinu Ojamaa made an interim report on Estonian Science Foundation’s research project ”The Perspectives of Music in the Formation of Estonian Open Identity”. Tiina Kirss analysed the experience of the Toronto group of life story writers. Jüri Kivimäe dealt with expatriate and specifically with Toronto heritage in a wider context, which led him to problems related to the Estonian Museum Abroad. As there were a lot of questions and discussions, the seminar lasted late into Sunday afternoon. However, there were enthusiasts who stayed until the end, which proves that many Toronto Estonians understand the importance of the issue and would like to contribute in one way or another.

BaltHerNet’s travel and the Toronto activities were sponsored by the Compatriot Program (Estonian Ministry of Education and Research). In recent years the Program has considerably sponsored various projects related to the Estonian heritage abroad. In 2007-2008 more than 60 projects, including projects of diaspora communities, were financed. Open project competitions have given a good overview of the areas that function effectively, as well as which ones should be given more attention in the future. A new redaction of the Compatriot Program, which will be a basis for 2009-2013 activities, is currently being elaborated. Issues related to archives and cultural heritage continue to be represented in the Program. Therefore it is to be hoped that efficient Toronto Estonians are not lacking in good project ideas which to send in for the 2009 competition. The information on competition deadlines will appear in the newspapers and at the BaltHerNet information portal.

Piret Noorhani