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Putting community first

(Submitted opinions reflect the viewpoint of the author.)

Few people ever openly write or talk about the most prickly issues that affect our community. And that’s perfectly understandable given its small size.

Interactions that intersect our involvement in community organizations and our peer groups artificially impose civility, but they push open discussion about difficult issues into the margins – swept as it were, under the rug. In those grubby corners, divisions fester, grievances grow and the individual ambitions of some metastasize, slowly tearing our small community apart. This threatens the long-term cohesion of our community and ultimately the survival of our Estonian heritage and identity in Canada.

Personally, I’m extremely grateful to have been raised in an extraordinarily vibrant and active Estonian community that has offered all of us the opportunity to love and embrace the rich culture, history and language of our Estonian heritage.

The choice of how we express the Estonian part of our Canadian identity is extremely personal. The definition of a Canadian-Estonian is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Our shared Estonian roots, our history, culture and experiences here in Canada establish a common, inclusive foundation for our modern community.

After the birth of our children, my wife and I chose to pass along this incredible gift to them so that they would be free to choose exactly how to express their Estonian identity. In our family, we chose to give the Estonian part of our identity a prominent and full-time role in our daily lives. As for many Estonians, that began at home, where Estonian was and continues to be the primary language with which we communicate. We sent our children to Estonian schools, camps, scouts and choirs so that they could develop their network of Estonian peers and, if they choose, become active members in our community. 

Our family benefitted from all the organizations and physical infrastructure that our ancestors developed and built for us, as volunteers. We’ve now been privileged to have been given the opportunity to honour their proud historical legacy by embracing the responsibility to maintain it.

Over the difficult past few years, our community volunteers have not only managed to sustain our organizations, but many of them have even grown. Children from across North America are participating in the Toronto Estonian School’s virtual sessions. A new Estonian school in Hamilton is thriving and growing. Our community organizations in Calgary and Vancouver have been re-energized by enthusiastic and committed volunteers and activists.

Without those volunteers, their leadership and their lifelong commitment to our community, there would be no Estonian community or heritage in Canada.

The Estonian government has also started to realize this. In 2017, I proposed a draft philosophical sketch for the Global Estonian movement, which was taken up by The Estonian Central Council in Canada and has now formed the basis of the Estonian government’s diaspora policy. An entire department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now been committed to this and is supporting our communities, thanks to the leadership of Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu and Prime Minister Kallas.

Yet when we lift up the corner of the metaphorical rug that our community stands upon, we see the growing mound of dust and dirt that has accumulated over the years. In fact, that bulge has grown to the size of an elephant and has become a tripping hazard for the long-term sustainability of our community.

The debate about the sale of the Toronto Estonian House and the construction of a new centre have simmered and occasionally boiled over in the past few years. Differing opinions have emerged – we’re Estonians after all – but a serious, open and inclusive discussion where the views of community members and volunteers are aired and respectfully considered, has not been organized. And so, the pile under the corner of the rug has continued to grow. 

The employees of the new Estonian Centre have indeed held pro forma meetings with community organizations and their volunteers to discuss their current and future infrastructure needs. However, those meetings have failed to materialize a plan of action for those organizations and the volunteers who lead them. Having spoken with many of them, there is a sense of having been kicked to the curb and abandoned with the doors locked behind them after the doors of the old Toronto Estonian House were locked up.

There has been very little or no advice or guidance about how to transition between the old Estonian House and the new Estonian Centre. Community groups have been forced to scramble on their own to find new spaces, some in churches and others, thankfully, in the Latvian Centre. Nor has any clear indication been given as to whether these groups will be guaranteed a permanent home in this new centre, or of the costs.

The uncertainty, combined with sky-high expectations, has understandingly led to frustration and a fracturing of our community. What should have been a bright new future at Madison and Bloor for everyone has turned into a bitter disappointment for many community volunteers who sustain our cultural heritage in Toronto.

The President of Estonia has now been dragged into this debate. His office has apparently prioritized a cocktail event with the wealthiest donors of the new Estonian Centre during his visit to Toronto. A move that may unfortunately cause further division within our community. The allure of a shiny new object, that is becoming ever more disconnected from the actual Estonian community, has proven hard to resist for many within the Estonian government and now the President’s office.

Instead of digging ever deeper trenches that threaten to normalize the division within our community, we need to have a frank and respectful discussion about how to overcome it. We must take an inclusive community-first approach that is driven by the volunteers and activist leaders who tirelessly, and often thanklessly, fight for the sustainability of our community. 

Thanks to them, we have Estonian schools, churches, camps, choirs, Scouts, Guides, culture and exhibitions in Canada. Thanks to them, we have an Estonian community in Canada. 

The future of the Estonian community in Toronto will not be defined by concrete and glass. It will be defined by our community’s resilience and our ability to adapt to the challenges we face today. It will be defined by the hard work and selfless commitment of the volunteers who bring our community together and and fill it with the Estonian spirit to help create new generations of proud Canadian-Estonians. 

(Marcus Kolga is a proud lifelong Estonian community member and activist.)

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