Visiting Estonians in Toronto

June 7, 2014

After the Second World War, some of the largest communities of Estonians in exile formed around the world – Stockholm, Sydney, New York, Lakewood in New Jersey, and so on. One of the most important centres was Toronto, where thousands of Estonians found their new home.

In February of this year, I had the opportunity to visit the Toronto Estonian community for the first time, as well as two archives. I spent two weeks in Toronto, though not nearly enough time, I got a brief overview of the developments of the Estonian society, its structure and functions, as well as materials found in the archives.

Until now, I had only visited the diaspora communities in Brazil, which today has nearly vanished. The multi-layered community that Toronto has managed to maintain surprised me in a positive way. Even though the heyday of the Toronto Estonian community is behind it by a few decades, it remains one of the last and strongest of the exile Estonian communities. The abundance and diversity of different organisations is impressive, reflecting on what could be a parallel world, built at the time Estonia was occupied –they have their own bank, many different religious congregations, a nursing home, two cultural centres, the Estonian House and Tartu College, many choirs and folk dance groups, and a well written and formatted weekly newspaper.

I had the good fortune of visiting many of these organisations. Since I had planned my trip around being in Toronto on 24 February, Estonian Independence Day, I was able to participate in many events surrounding this occasion. These events included: the Toronto Estonian School creative evening, the Independence Day concert in the Grand Hall of the Toronto Estonian House, the honorary consul Laas Leivat’s reception at Tartu College, which in its authenticity and with the large number of participants symbolised the sustainability of the Toronto Estonian community.

For diaspora researchers, this multifaceted community is enlightening and inspiring, and makes one think about spending more time in Toronto to do in-depth research together with VEMU and the Estonian Central Archives of Canada, as well as participatory observations of members of the Estonian society in order to understand the mechanisms behind a single vibrant diaspora community.

Sander Jürisson