One has probably never witnessed within the Estonian community abroad such an intensive and prolonged advertising campaign as the one inviting participants to the recent Community Summit at Estonian House in Toronto. For those that did attend, the lackluster number of praticipants present (some 100+, with seniors in the majority) was disconcertingly unexpected. About the same number followed proceedings on real-time internet hook-up, but their participation was passive in the main.
It certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying. The Summit’s organizer, the Estonian Foundation in Canada, certainly expended an all-out effort in trying to gain “the pulse of the community” on issues germaine to our collective future. The Foundation also needed wider input on what sectors to prioritize, on how to increase the effectiveness of their support, in backing organizations and activities which contribute to the sustainability and growth of our community. Too often one interprets the latter as focussing exclusively on youth-oriented groups. But in fact our distinctive cultural flavour and identity have been the results of initiatives three generations ago.
The public meeting tackled questions closely linked to the sustainability of our community abroad: Does the prevalent use of the Estonian language at community gatherings prevent the full participation of unilingual individuals? How do we make the community more inclusive and activities more attractive to those (many are Estonian-speaking recent arrivals) who rarely participate? Is the perceived overabundance of Estonian organizations and consequently the unnecessary duplication of activities detrimental to community cohesiveness?
It was naïve to expect definitive answers to these issues, much less unanimity in finding universally acceptable approaches. Neither was it expected that true, visionary solutions would be generated. But, as “typically Estonian”, all who took the microphone as representatives of their particular discussion groups, were willingly pragmatic in their suggestions. No maximalist took the floor.
While the language issue perhaps raised mild emotions (both English and Estonian were used), all agreed that pragmatic compromises would have to be made for the community to become more inclusive. There were polite (also very Estonian) differences of opinion as to how extensive the compromises should be. (The notion that simultaneous translation of Estonian, through modern transmission technology, is always possible at gatherings.) All agreed that language is an elemental foundation of a culture and efforts should be made ( by expanding Estonian classes, finding better teaching methodologies, boosting interest etc.) to maintain its important role in our society.
Although it was mentioned that our community is shrinking in size and causing a numerical erosion of various organizations, just a passing reference was made of the fact that the last two Canadian censuses showed a growth of a few thousand (to approx. 23,000) of those respondents who identify themselves as having Estonian heritage. This alone should set our targets for growth rather than shrinkage.
The Estonian community lacks a “cultural administrator”, an accepted authority tasked to monitor, regulate and enforce proposals generated by meetings such as the Summit. We should all feel empowered to affect positive change and replace a “you must” attitude with an “I will” determination.
Community Summit: Will “you must do something” change to “I will do something”?