A Little Bit of History
Many of our ancestors immigrated to Canada as a refugee in the late 1940s. Thousands of Estonians escaped as Soviet forces were on the offensive to occupy the Baltic States for the second time. Many of our forefathers have the same story of fleeing into the dark night under a new moon. They took to the perilous sea in a small fishing boat where many lives were lost. Due to the nature of the escape, the history of the first wave of Estonian immigrants into Southern Ontario were much the same. They were mostly from either the islands of Hiiumaa, Saaremaa, Muhu, Kihnu, or from costal cities such as Parnu, Haapsalu, and the capital, Tallinn and immigrated into Sweden before coming to Canada. Starting in 1947, year over year thousands of Estonians had immigrated into Canada. In 1952, there was an estimated 16,000 Estonians and by 1972 that number grew to 20,000.
The Early Years
Before WWII there were only about 100-150 Estonians living in Southern Ontario. They were mostly farmers or in skilled professions. Many of them became sponsors to new Estonian immigrants who, in large, landed as political refugees between 1947-1951.
In South-Western Ontario (outside of the GTA), since the mid-1950s, there were the four main areas where Estonians settled; Hamilton/Burlington, Kitchener, London, and St. Catherine's/Niagara.
The Four Societies of South-Western Ontario
Hamilton had the largest population at this time with 800-1000 Estonians living in the Hamilton/Burlington Area; Kitchener with 150-200; London with 200-250; and St. Catherines/Niagara 400-600.
In 1949-1950 each of these areas formed their own Estonian Societies.
These societies lead to the development of choirs, folk dance, boy scout and girl guides, churches, schools, camps, and various other special interest clubs.
They had joint ventures with Toronto and Hamilton/St.Catherines even hosted the Ontario Estonian Summer festivals from 1949-1952. Kitchener joined the Hamilton Estonian church and had a joint congregation in Hamilton.
These societies also organized commemorative assemblies with Latvia and Lithuania. They hosted regular events such as Estonian Independence Day ceremonies, Mother's Day, Summer events, Sporting events, Christmas and even New Year's Eve.
In the 1960s, Estonian university student associations existed in Hamilton and Waterloo. The combined membership of the four Estonian societies has been about 400 to 600, the enrolment in supplementary schools from 60 to 70, with about 50 to 60 scouts and guides.
Still, in Hamilton - the largest centre - a rejuvenation of the leadership has taken place. There are approximately 100 members of HES today. The choir has about 20-30 members, the supplementary schools continue with remarkable regularity with students attending from Kitchener, Grimsby, and St. Catherines area. They continue with the traditions of Estonian independence day celebrations, deportations remembrances, Estonian school assemblies, and Christmas traditions. Hamilton Estonian Society participates regularly with Seedrioru work weekends and summer festivals to this day.
Estonians in Canada were proud of their culture and heritage and their passion for maintaining the language and culture was evident right from the beginning.
Hamilton Estonian Society encourages newcomers from Estonia or those Canadians who have been away to join, maybe even in a leadership role! We still see enthusiasm in continuing these traditions which started over 60 years ago.
The collective achievement of southern Ontario Estonians has been Seedrioru, which originated as a children's summer camp. That remains its primary purpose. Having found separate summer camps impractical and expensive, the four societies jointly purchased a 62-acre farm near Elora on the-Grand River in 1955. Many years of unpaid volunteer work has resulted in the beautifully landscaped grounds, modern central hall, three camp dormitories, a sauna, an outdoor swimming pool, an open-air theatre complex and an artistically designed monument to Estonians who fell in many wars. Thousands of man hours of volunteer work have been devoted to the project, in addition to administrative duties.
Seedrioru's historical main fundraiser is Suvihari. It is held in June close to "Jaanipäev" or summer solstice. HES and the other 3 societies needed funds to pay for the mortgage and purchase materials for building the new hall and barracks along with other projects. Summer festivals were held annually since 1956 which included song festivals, folk dancing, gymnastics, concerts and open-air theatre performances.