Events in Toronto Commemorating the March Deportations

May 18, 2015

In Toronto the calendar for the end of March was filled with events that recalled and commemorated the victims of Soviet repressions. The core event was an international conference entitled “Repressions and Human Rights” on March 27th, where the two main guest speakers were Bill Browder and Sofi Oksanen.

The main invited speaker of the series was Sofi Oksanen, a writer with Estonian-Finnish origins. She arrived in Toronto on Wednesday evening, March 25th, and the following day gave interviews to Canadian media. Later that day, together with the conference moderator, Göran Lindblad, she was given a tour of Tartu College by chief archivist Piret Noorhani, who showed them VEMU`s collections and travelling exhibition.

On the evening of March 25th, a reception was held at Tartu College, jointly sponsored by VEMU/Estonian Studies Centre and the Estonian Foundation of Canada. Invited to the reception were supporters of both organizations, speakers at the conference, and other sponsors (The Estonian Central Council of Canada, the Estonian Credit Union, The Estonian Embassy in Ottawa, The Finnish Embassy, The Latvian National Federation of Canada, the House of Anansi Press, and UpNorth Magazine). The candles were lit to commemorate the victims of the deportations.

On Friday, March 27th , the conference “Repressions and Human Rights” was held in University of Toronto`s Isabel Bader Theatre. It was almost a capacity audience, with 300 people in attendance. Those who were not able to attend in person could watch the direct broadcast of the conference on-line. (

The opening remarks were given by one of the two main organizers of the conference, Marcus Kolga, who thanked the organizers and sponsors, and reminded the audience that Operation “Priboi”, referred to by Estonians as the March deportations took place 66 years ago. He shared his concern that Russia has seemingly learned no lessons from history, since its actions today were just like they were decades ago.

The Estonian ambassador to Canada, Gita Kalmet spoke of the candles lighted in memory of the victims of the deportations, and used a striking analogy: an extinguished candle can be relighted, but the same is not possible with an extinguished human life. We have a moral responsibility to speak out about what happened in the past: we must not forget our history. In this context, it was especially saddening to see the current debate about the memorial to victims of communism in Ottawa. Indeed, building such a memorial would be a very important statement that what happened in the past should never happen again. The memorial would also help those peoples whose freedom is slipping away.

The next speaker was Markus Hess, president of the Estonian Central Council and one of the initiators of Black Ribbon Day. He thanked those present at the conference and introduced the panelists. The moderator of the panel, Göran Lindblad, is a former member of the Swedish Parliament and current president of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

The first panellist was University of Toronto Chair of Estonian Studies professor Jüri Kivimäe, who spoke of the historian`s task of deciphering and understanding, rather than judging history, and gave an overview of the Soviet Union`s repressions in the Baltic states. The next speaker was Karl Altau, acting chair of the Estonian American National Council, who wore a Ukrainian blue and yellow ribbon and gave details on the demonstration at the White House in support of Ukraine as well as other similar events planned in the USA in the near future.

Ludwik Klimkowski, chairman of Tribute to Liberty, an organization devoted to the Canadian memorial to the victims of communism, as well as vice-president of the Canadian Polish Congress emphasized that communism has not disappeared, because after the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was no “Nuremberg trial” for communists. Today they have become apparatchiks and oligarchs, who exert their power in Europe in many different ways. Bernard Trottier, a member of the support group for the Baltic States in the Canadian Parliament stressed the educational value of the planned memorial to the victims of communism, and urged everyone to visit the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg (Manitoba), where the universal topic of human rights is extended and elaborated at various different levels of generalisation.

Bill Browder, the first of the two main keynote speakers is known in the western nations as Putin`s “Enemy Number One”. He is a former top investor in Russia, and currently a fighter for human rights. He spoke of the tragic death of his friend Sergei Magnitski, which provoked the black deeds of Putin’s “mafia” and incited Bill Browder to write his own book, “Red Notice” to reveal these human rights violations. Today, largely thanks to Irwin Cotler (who introduced Bill Browder at the conference), the Canadian Parliament has adopted the so-called Magnitski act, which declares that in Canada all of those guilty for Magnitski`s death are murderers. After his speech, Bill Browder signed autographs for his book, “Red Notice”.

After the intermission, writer Sofi Oksanen gave her keynote presentation. She recalled her childhood spent alternating between life in two different realities, where everything connected with the recent history of Estonia was taboo, and memories were deeply personal issues buried in the hearts of individuals. The Soviet system deprived Estonians of their social memory. Those in opposition to the official version of history were eliminated; the people were kept under a regime of fear. Since Finland was under the influence of Moscow, nothing was said publicly about the deportations and other repressions. After the restoration of independence, a decolonization process began in Estonia, which continues to this day. A national memory had to be created anew; democracy and free speech had to be relearned. Unfortunately, no such changes have taken place in Russia, which after a brief period of freedom was submitted to Putin`s regime. If one is living in a western society, this is difficult to understand, since it is almost impossible to imagine such thorough brainwashing. In addition, Russia continues to interfere with how the history of its formerly occupied territories is represented, having initiated a propaganda war and implementing an imperialist policies. Russia`s tentacles are long, and the puppets of its propaganda war often include respected citizens of other nations: people are more willing to believe their own fellow citizens, and the West has lost its vigilance with regard to Soviet-era rhetoric and manipulations.

In the concluding remarks, sponsors, participants and organizers were acknowledged and thanked. The second of the two main organizers of the event, the chief archivist of VEMU/Estonian Studies Centre Piret Noorhani spoke of the importance of memory and of the helplessness caused by the loss of memory, which happens to both individuals and peoples in crisis situations. History keeps repeating itself, and we should learn from this. Piret Noorhani emphasized that in “wars of monuments”, which always tend to turn political, the most important element should not be forgotten: the human being.

After the end of the conference, Sofi Oksanen signed copies of her most recent novel, “When the Doves Disappeared”, freshly published in English translation by House of Anansi Press.

Conference organisers Marcus Kolga and Piret Noorhani Photo: Taavi Tamtik


The commemoration of victims of deportation continued on March 29th at Tartu College, where results of VEMU’s most recent collection campaign were discussed, and viewing the 2014 Estonian film about the 1941 deportations, “In the Crosswind”.

Lea Kreinin