Telling Your Story Through Art at VEMU: Reflections on Creative Expressions of Estonian-Canadian Identity and Community

April 3, 2023

My maternal grandmother, Helen Rammo (née Elena Haljaste (Grünberg)), was a storyteller, whether she knew it or not.

Her father, Johann Bernhard Haljaste, was an Estonian military colonel and the engineering service head in the 22nd Estonian Territorial Corps. On June 14th, 1941, during the infamous June deportations, he was seized by the Red Army due to his outspoken political opposition to the Stalinist regime and notoriety as an Estonian nationalist; he died the following year as a political prisoner in Norillag, Norilsk Corrective Labour Camp. My great-grandfather’s capture, and the subsequent occupation of Estonia by the Soviets, made refugees of the family he was forced to leave behind. Familial records tell me that my grandmother, her brother, and their mother immigrated to Canada in 1949 after eight years in displaced persons camps around Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The rest is history. My grandparents fell in love and birthed a daughter, who eventually birthed another daughter. That’s me.

I know all this not only through photographs, historical documents, and obscure profiles on Ancestry websites made by estranged family members; oral histories were a large part of my growing up, of how I came to understand the mechanics through which my family came to be situated on this land. I was raised on old Estonian, German, and Russian songs – and though I remember their words to this day, as a nonEstonian speaker, their meaning is lost on me. I grew up with tales of fortunetelling nomads that predicted my grandmother’s emigration and folkloric myths of gnomes, faeries, and other mythical beings. I used to write plays for my grandmother and me to perform together, infusing Eastern European mythologies with contemporary themes. From a very young age, I learned to express myself through songs and stories and to use art as a vessel of self-understanding and realisation. My grandmother passed away when I was sixteen years old in August of 2013, and, for a while, the stories stopped.

Fast forward ten years. I am now a professional artist, playwright, and educator living and working in downtown Toronto. In the early weeks of 2023, I was approached by Piret Noorhani about hosting a workshop for VEMU, intended to engage the Estonian-Canadian community in a series of exercises around “Turning Your Story Into Art.” Though I was enthusiastic at this prospect, I had my hesitations: Was I Estonian “enough” to host a workshop like this? As an early career artist and researcher, how could I leverage my experience towards community building in a community that I often find myself on the margins of?

On Sunday, March 5th, 2023, this workshop took place at Tartu College. Inviting local Estonian-Canadians across generations to participate, this workshop aimed for participants to gain comfort working with and sharing their own personal stories and archival materials. No matter where these participants were situated in the Estonian-Canadian diaspora, the aim was to reflect on their own sense of belonging or ‘relationship’ to Estonia differently. Participants were asked to bring in personal artefacts of pieces of ephemera (for example, photographs, travel documents, pieces of traditional Eesti clothing or memorabilia, letters, etcetera) that they felt connected them to their Estonian heritage and were taken through a series of solo and group creative tasks to consider the relationship(s) between memory and story, archives and ephemera, historical fact and personal narrative. Where do our memories come from? How have we arrived at where (and who) we are now? How can we connect physical, emotional, and generational boundaries to achieve a greater sense of the Estonian-Canadian community?

In the early moments of the workshop, I was surprised at how many connections existed between the participants in the room. Many had been to the same mass cultural events, knew the same people, or were connected through different social and familial circles. The degree of openness towards, and hunger for, a sense of community was pervasively felt. For the first time, I also got to engage members of my own family (namely, my mother, Marina and my auntie Gail) in my work, bringing me closer to understanding their intimate journeys in navigating this delicate terrain. Once participants began to open up about their chosen objects (especially in relation to objects that others had brought), the personal memories and stories lurking in these artefacts exploded into full-blown creative exploration. Participants made maps and collages, wrote personal essays and poems, and made plans to reunite with other participants outside of the workshop setting for future conversation and community building.

The biggest thing I took from this workshop was our urgent need for community-engaged spaces and activities, especially in bridging historical and social gaps between older and newer generations of EstonianCanadians. Whereas we tend to think of “art” as a product-oriented, professional practice, my aim as an educator and workshop facilitator is to reconceptualise storytelling as a community-driven vessel for reflection and connection, where the focus is on the process as opposed to the product. I hope to bring events like this to our community in the future, to foster a greater sense of community in and beyond Toronto amongst EstonianCanadian-identifying persons of all ages and walks of life.

As a child, my Estonian grandmother showed me that stories are often our greatest teachers. Preserving cultural heritage isn’t just about historical facts, documentation, or record; it’s also about the feelings, sensations, and experiences that can only be passed down through more creative forms of expression. I would like to thank VEMU, Piret, and my wonderful workshop participants for being so open and enthusiastic about this venture. I hope this is the beginning of a long and fulfilling conversation between us all.

First published in Eesti Elu/Estonian Life

Camille Intson