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The Estonian Central Council: Renewal, Global Leadership and Action

Proud celebration or EV100 at Nathan Phillips Square (2018)Proud celebration or EV100 at Nathan Phillips Square (2018) Over the past four years, The Estonian Central Council in Canada, has been working towards renewal to reinvigorate its advocacy activity on behalf of all Canadians of Estonian heritage in Canada, and those living in Estonia.

Estonia and our community both in Canada and around the world, are facing new and significant challenges. A revanchist and aggressive Russian government has attacked and occupied Georgia and Ukraine. The collective defence that Estonia relies upon for its national security in NATO has come under increasing pressure from member states with populist governments who question the alliance’s purpose, including the current US administration. Within our own community, divisions about local community centers and support for Estonian extremist-populists, have created further, difficult challenges.

International Estonian organizations that EKN is a member of, including The World Estonian Council, have remained largely stagnant since Estonia’s successful ascension into NATO and the EU, and have become increasingly crippled by internal politics and lack serious ambitions, leaving the organization rudderless. Despite this, EKN has worked with our counterparts in Sweden, Australia and the United Kingdom to advocate for sweeping new changes in the way that our communities interact with each other and the Estonian government, through the creation of an Estonian government standing committee on Global Estonian affairs, which has been created thanks mainly to EKN’s non-partisan advocacy work.

EKN: A Storied History
EKN has a long and remarkable history of non-partisan advocacy and support for the Estonian community in Canada. Established as an offshoot of the Estonain Federation of Canada in 1952, EKN then called the National Estonian Defence Council (RVN), was created to lead the struggle for Estonian independence in Canada. They established high level contacts in government, including the offices of several Prime Minister - all of whom refused to recognize the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

RVN/EKN was also historically influential in the United States. In 1953, it was tasked with gathering and providing evidence to the US House Select Baltic Committee, better known as the Kersten Committee, for investigating Soviet crimes in the Baltic States.

Throughout the Cold War, EKN was instrumental in leading both international and national advocacy and awareness campaigns - most notably under the leadership of Laas Leivat - among partner organizations and groups in the Central and Eastern European communities.

Among the most unique efforts, was a project undertaken in 1956-57 in which radio programs produced by Canadian Estonians were delivered to Taiwan for broadcast to provide information from the free world for Estonians living in Siberia.

Estonian-Canadians should be proud that many former and current Members of Parliament, and Central and Eastern Community leaders continue to remark positively about Laas Leivat’s work, leadership and extraordinary legacy, working on behalf of our community in Canada and around the world.

It was with the understanding of the historical achievements of this storied organization that we began our work four years ago, to honour that legacy, while at the same time, reeneerzing it with a new set of goals to meet the challenges of our times, and to renew the foundations upon which the organization is built.

Organizational Reforms
One of our biggest challenges was understanding EKN's legal governance structure and modernizing it, a process that EKN is continuing to move towards under the leadership of Helgi Leesment, Mart Leppik and with the help of Sven Linkruus.

EKN also re-established regular, formal, monthly meetings of its National Executive and twice annual meetings of the National Council -organized with the help of Marta Kivik- as well as the digital publication of meeting agendas and minutes, prepared by Executive Vice President Kairi Hemingway - which are available to all community members upon request. Taavi Tamtik and Mart Leppik have led the digitization effort and the rebuilding of EKN’s web presence.

EKN’s national council has representation from each region of Canada, with Brigid Zurock and Helgi Leesment representing Western Canada, Marta Kivik covering the Maritimes and Paul Läänemets representing Ottawa and Central Canada.

Electoral reform has been a major challenge for EKN - where the costs associated with the previous 2015 election cost nearly $30,000. To mitigate unreasonable costs, EKN has been investigating alternative solutions including adopting an E-Voting strategy and in-person balloting in key Estonian centers across Canada, which we hope will cut 90% of these previous costs.

Most importantly, EKN has subscribed to a philosophy of proactive organizational renewal by encouraging younger community members to participate in EKN debate and activity. Included in this is an active succession strategy, whereby members of the Council are encouraged to take leadership of advocacy campaigns and inside the council itself. In January 2019, the EKN Executive was re-structured and introduce new roles such as VP, Communications and Outreach, VP, Youth and VP Community and Events, with the active participation of Toomas Tammark and Juku Gold.

At its final National Council meeting on November 2nd 2019, EKN established a non-voting President Emeritus role on the National Executive, which will allow past presidents to mentor and encourage new leaders in efforts to support organizational renewal efforts. By giving everyone the opportunity to lead, we provide EKN with new ideas and views that will constantly reinvigorate EKN’s activity, along with the support of historical knowledge and knowhow of former EKN leaders.


Domestic Canadian Advocacy

Jõekääru Tax Exemption
EKN adopted an incredibly ambitious four year advocacy agenda after the new Council was EKN's two year effort to advocate for property tax exemption for the Jõekääru Estonian Children's Camp concluded in 2017, when the Province of Ontario,York Region and Town of Georgina agreed to new boundaries for the camp, which made over 70 acres that include all camp buildings, tax exempt, saving the camp early $2 million over the next 20 years based on current trajectory of property taxes. EKN will continue to advocate for tax exempt status for the remaining vacant lands.

Magnitsky Legislation
Canada unanimously adopted legislation in October 2017, that allows the Canadian government to place sanctions on corrupt Russian and other international human rights abusers. EKN actively supported the legislation over the past decade and was instrumental in its historic passage into law in Canada.

Education and Historical Awareness
EKN has been a lead partner in the effort to promote historical awareness of the history of the Baltic States and the contributions of the Estonian community in helping build the Canada we live in today. Nick Kazakoff is leading a team to update Ontario’s education curriculum and to update text books.

EKN has regularly organized commemorations of important historical events in partnership with VEMU and with the help of Piret Noorhani, including the June deportations at Toronto’s City Hall; March Deportations with award winning author Sofi Oksanen. EKN led the organizing of the EV100 event at Nathan Phillips Square with EKN national executive member Anne-Liis Keelmann.

EKN has organized internationally significant events to reinforce our history, including a recent event to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, where former Chess Grandmaster and Russian Opposition leader, Garry Kasparov, was the keynote speaker, and where Minister Freeland, former Ontario Premier, Bob Rae, former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander and Estonian Parliamentary Foregin Affairs Committee Chairman, Enn Eesmaa spoke.

Government and Community Outreach
EKN engaged in an intensive ongoing outreach campaign with federal, provincial and municipal political leaders with our Baltic Federation and Central and Eastern European Council colleagues. EKN as been a key partner in organizing meetings for pro-democracy and human rights activists from the Central and Eastern European region as well as Russia.

EKN organized meetings with former Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Defence, MP John Mckay, and met with Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan, regarding Canada’s contribution to NATO’s operation reassurance in the Baltic States, which the Canadian government has thankfully committed to and is leading in Latvia.

The Government of Canada has recognized EKN as a leader among the CEE communities and has been thanked publicly by the Minister of Foreign Affairs for its efforts.

EKN currently holds the Presidency of the highly influential, Central and Eastern European Council in Canada, which represents the interests of 4 million Canadians of CEE heritage.

New, regular meetings and communications with the embassies of the Central and Eastern European communities has also helped with the effectiveness of our community advocacy programs.

Support for Russian Human Rights Activists
EKN has organized several events to support Russian human rights and pro-democracy activists, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, Garry Kasparov, Zhanna Nemtsova and Mikhail Kasyanov - and maintained strong relationships with them. These have included appearances at the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foregin Affair and Public Safety as well as a screening of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s film, “Nemtsov”.

In March 2019, EKN led the CEEC initiative to have a street in a Toronto city park, named in honour of Boris Nemtsov, which was rejected by the Parks Department after suspected interference by the Russian embassy and consulate. EKN is working to have this decision overturned and calls on all community members to contact the Mayor’s office to ask him to do so.

Global Estonian and Estonian Government Advocacy

2019 Election Town Hall
EKN took leadership in February, by organizing a Global Estonian Election Town Hall that was live streamed on the ERR and Postimees websites and which had nearly 10,000 viewers from around the world and was among the most effective channels for communicating our community issues to Estonain policy makers, that has ever been organized.

Global Estonian
EKN adopted a resolution in the Fall of 2017 calling on the government of Estonia to adopt measures to help improve communication and understanding between global Estonian communities and the government of Estonian.

First, was a proposal to add at least one seat in Parliament, for a representative to be elected by Estonians living outside of Estonia and who would represent them in Parliament and perhaps the Government. This has not been adopted by the Estonian government, but EKN is continuing to discuss this with members of government and opposition parties, who have expressed interest in further considering this proposal.

The second proposal adopted by EKN was to create a standing parliamentary committee for diaspora affairs, roughly modelled on the Canadian parliamentary committee model, with the addition of representatives from the largest elected, diaspora groups, such as EKN.

Former Culture Minister Indrek Saar, was an early supporter of the EKN’s Global Estonian proposal, as were high ranking civil servants, Piret Hartman, Irene Käosaar and Anny-Ly Reimaa. Opposition members, Eerik Niiles Kross, Kaja Kallas, Marko Mihkelson, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus and Kristen Michal were also early supporters.

In Spring 2018, Justice Minister Urmas Reinsalu, became an active supporter of the Global Estonian movement, and expressed his public support at a UEKN meeting in Tallinn. The proposal to create a government committee was later supported by Prime Minister Ratas, and adopted by his cabinet that summer. Funding for the committee and movement was championed by Urmas Reinsalu and Isamaa.

At no time in history has there ever been closer cooperation between the Estonian government and our global Estonian communities as there is today with the Estonian Government Committee for Global Estonain Cooperation, which met for the first time in September 2019. This has been achieved thanks to EKN’s close and complex cooperation with our Swedish, Latvian, Australian and UK communities and Estonian political groups and civil servants.

It should be noted, that unfortunately there has been some resistance to these initiatives within UEKN, from its former and current chairperson, including what appears to be an effort to advocate for the removal of funding for the Global Estonian NGO, in October 2019.

UEKN - World Estonian Council
One of the challenges EKN faced was the renewal of the World Estonian Council. The Council includes representatives from Canada, Sweden, USA, Australia, UK, Latvia, Germany, Czech, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia.

In the four meetings EKN participated in, the majority of discussion focused on the previous year’s meeting minutes, accounting and debate about a book.

EKN failed to trigger any significant reform that would have reinvigorated activity or triggered discussion about policy that would benefit the global Estonian communities.

Despite this, EKN through UKEN has developed strong, collegial working relationships with EKN’s Swedish, UK, Australian, Latvian and German counterparts, which we hope will develop later into greater action. Canadian UEKN delegate, Tõnu Altosaar's extensive business and political network in Estonia were a great benefit to EKN’s advocacy work in Tallinn.

EKN was responsible for the organizing of the Global Estonain Congress at ESTO2019, which was organized primarily by Reet Marten Sehr and Sweden’s Leelo Pukk. The well attended event was organized to inspire discussion about the pressing issues faced by our global diaspora communities. The President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, Global Estonian Minister Riina Solman and Reform Party MP, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus all spoke. Former US Ambassador Jim Melville, Reform Party MP Eerik Niiles Kross, Historian Imbi Paju, Senior advisor to EU President Donald Tusk, Riina Kionka, EKN honorary member, Juku Gold and Estonian Institute of Historical Memory representative, Sergei Metlev, participated in the panel discussions.

A New Beginning
The initiatives listed here are only a select list of EKN’s achievements over the past four years.

With a new election, we hope that EKN is injected with new ideas and perspectives in order to continue the work that has been done for decades and certainly over the past four years.

Current EKN President Marcus Kolga, will not seek re-election, in order to give others the opportunity to lead EKN and our community. Both Marcus and EKN strongly believe that the active renewal of our organizations is critical to both their survival and their ability to generate new, creative ideas that we can all benefit from. Marcus will continue to serve our community in other volunteer capacities and on EKN as President emeritus and will continue to serve as our community’s representative on the Central and Eastern European Council for the next year.

EKN thanks all Estonian-Canadians who have honoured us with their trust and who gave us the opportunity to represent their interests in Ottawa, Tallinn and beyond.

Please consider running as a candidate for this amazing community organization, EKN and don’t forget to register to vote.

Elagu Eesti Vabariik!
Elagu Eesti Kogukond Kanadas!








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DIGITAL Estonian Life No. 30 - July 31, 2020 



Take a look at other digital issues here:
Eesti Elu Nr. 29 - 24. juuli 2020 - DIGILEHT
Eesti Elu Nr. 28 - 17. juuli 2020 - DIGILEHT
Eesti Elu Nr. 27 - 10. juuli 2020 - DIGILEHT
 

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