The monument honouring Rear Admiral Johan Pitka was formally unveiled in Fort St. James, British Columbia on August 3rd. Our Estonian language pages have covered the event in detail. This week’s issue features a profile of the monument’s sculptor, Aivar Simson. English-only readers may be interested in the text that was on the plaque on one side of the monument. The contents of the traditional time capsule that often is sealed behind the cornerstone in such historic monuments will be known only in the distant future. Pitka’s memorial is the first such erected abroad honouring an Estonian statesman.
The following is the text on the plaque.
CELEBRATING BC 150 ESTONIA 90
Rear Admiral Johan Pitka, locally known as SIR JOHN, is a symbol of Estonia’s freedom and independence. He was a man of determination and action. He founded the Estonian Navy in the War of Independence in 1918-1920, built up a crucial fleet of armored trains, founded the voluntary national Defence League in 1917 and was knighted by the British as an ally against the Bolsheviks in WW I. He took up arms again in WW II.
As a former merchant mariner and a representative of the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. he had learned about Canada’s attractions, its immigration policies and availability of land for homesteading. Pitka was so impressed by the natural beauty of B. C., by the provincial guidance offered and by the promises for new roads and a railway, that he decided to establish a settlement here in the Sowchea area across the lake from the Hudson Bay Co. post at Fort St. James.
Pitka’s group arrived in Fort St. James on April 3, 1924. The initial settlers were his family: Lady Mari-Helene Pitka, sons Edward and Stanley, daughters Saima and Linda and son-in law Lt. Aleksander Päären; families Andrekson, Rosin and Saar; Col. Steinman, Mr. Nilk and Mr. Pärtelson with wives; and Messrs. Kuusk, Olem, Puhm, Sulakatk, Vaimel, Unger and Wilmanson.
The Estonian settlers praised the Hudson’s Bay officials, the local Dakelh people and other residents but regretted that the change of the Provincial Government and the depression delayed local development, frustrating access to markets. Thus, things did not work out as hoped and by 1932 all the members of the group had moved elsewhere or returned to Estonia. However, despite their short stay, they left their mark on the community: note Pitka Mountain, Pitka Bay, Pitka Bay Resort, Lind(a) Lake, Colony Point and Paaren’s Beach Provincial Park.
Upon return to Estonia some prosperous years followed for the Pitkas but then tragedy struck. In 1941 their three sons were arrested by the Soviet occupiers and perished. Pitka himself first escaped, later organized military resistance and is believed to have died in battle in 1944. Lady Pitka and her daughters with their husbands fled to Sweden in 1944, re-immigrated to Canada in 1948, settled in Vancouver, B.C. and are buried there.
Society for the Advancement of Estonian Studies in Canada
Estonian Ministry of Defence
Friends of Fort St. James National Historic Site.
District of Fort St. James, B.C.
Pitka monument contains time capsule