Estonian Canadians

The Republic of Estonia is a northern European country, located in the Baltic region. It is bordered by Finland, Sweden, Latvia, and the Russian Federation. The first Estonian settlement in Canada was established in 1899, near Sylvan Lake in central Alberta. The 2016 census reported 24, 530 people of Estonian origin in Canada (6155 single and 18, 375 multiple responses).



History

Estonia has been ruled or occupied by many foreign countries. Estonia declared its independence from Russia and Germany in 1918. In 1940, it was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Estonia declared its independence from the former Soviet Union on August 10, 1991; the last Russian troops left in 1994. Estonia joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Migration and Settlement

From 1900 to 1944, fewer than 3000 Estonians immigrated to Canada. Approximately 72, 000 Estonian political refugees fled to Sweden and Germany in 1944 to escape Russian communism. Of these, nearly 14, 000 immigrated to Canada between 1946 and 1955. Balts, mostly Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, were among the first displaced persons selected by Canadian immigration during the Second World War (WWII). Between 1947 and 1949, almost 1600 of them crossed the Atlantic, arriving along the US east coast and Nova Scotia, in 9-20 m "Viking" boats that they had bought in Sweden. Many Estonian refugees who came after 1940 were middle-class professionals (engineers, medical doctors, etc.), however, most were originally placed as farmhands in Alberta. Almost all left the farms and moved to cities after their one-year contract expired.

Until 1960 relatively few Estonians immigrated to Canada. Several small Estonian farming communities emerged in southern Alberta during the first half of the 20th century as a result of immigration placement and the promise of free land (see Dominion Lands Act), but most pre-war Estonian immigrants eventually settled in urban areas. The postwar immigrants settled in industrial cities, especially in Toronto.

The 2016 census reported 24, 530 people of Estonian origin in Canada. The majority reside in the provinces of Ontario (15, 075), British Columbia (4840) and Alberta (2720).


Social and Cultural Life

Because of their professional and occupational skills, Estonian immigrants did not encounter serious adjustment problems, although few were able to maintain their former professions. Estonians have contributed particularly to the development of amateur sports and, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, to architecture and the construction industry.

Traditionally, most Estonian congregations in Canada are Lutheran, but there are also OrthodoxBaptist, Pentecostal and Seventh-Day Adventist congregations.

The Estonian Central Council was established in Canada in 1951. It is a national organization of elected members who support local community societies across Canada and represent the interests of Canadian citizens of Estonian heritage. Historically the council advocated on behalf of the citizens of Estonia regarding human rights violations during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, but since Estonia's independence, the council has focused on cultural exchanges and trade between Canada and Estonia.

Since the 1950s Estonians in Canada have maintained an elaborate structure of ethnic organizations and social clubs, especially in Toronto, and the Estonian Federation and the Estonian Central Council head offices are in Toronto. They continue to co-operate closely with similar communities of the Estonian diaspora in the US, Sweden, Australia, England and Germany. Every fourth year these communities organize a week-long Estonian World Festival that rotates between cities in Canada (Toronto), the US, Sweden and Australia. The first Estonian World Festival was held in Toronto in 1972. Estonians annually celebrate Independence Day on February 24.

The Estonian communities abroad continue to maintain strong choir-singing, theater, folk-dancing, amateur sports and scouting traditions. The official language in Estonia is Estonian which is closely related to Finnish. Estonians belong to the Finno-Ugrian (and not the Indo-European) language group. Partly because Estonians have easily assimilated into Canadian society, only in Toronto have a significant number of second- and third-generation Estonians continued to use Estonian as their home language. In the 2016 census, 5695 Canadians reported Estonian as their mother tongue language (first language learned) (see also Immigrant Languages in Canada). 


Further Reading

  • K. Aun, The Political Refugees: A History of Estonians in Canada (1985); Howard and Tamara Palmer, "Estonians in Canada," in H. and T. Palmer, eds, People of Alberta (1985).

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