In 1984 I was 11 years old. That summer, Toronto hosted ESTO '84 and Canada was deciding whether to choose John Turner or Brian Mulroney as its next prime minister. That year also represents a moment of political awakening for many of us in the Estonian community in Canada.
The sight of thousands of Estonians, from around the world, marching down Queen Street to Nathan Philips Square at Toronto's city hall, singing and loudly calling for Estonia's independence, injected all of us with a lifelong sense of belonging to a global Estonian community. It triggered a sense of patriotism and sense of duty towards freeing the occupied homeland of our parents and grandparents.
Community leaders like Laas Leivat, Priit Aruvald, Markus Hess, Reet Sehr and others whose passionate commitment to our community and the independence of Estonia, inspired us all to continue our struggle and helped reinforce our pride in our heritage and our captive nation.
The Estonian Council in Canada, EKN, was instrumental in working to maintain our community and in fighting for Estonia's independence. Unfortunately, the organization has silently slipped into near total obscurity over the past two decades.
Without a defined cause, there has been no central rallying point. But the survival of our community and our voice at all three levels of Canadian government, as well as with the government of Estonia, still need a strong and well organized representative body like EKN.
The organization is completely foreign to the vast majority of younger community members who know nothing about the organization. But they cannot be blamed for that. Finding information about EKN online is difficult: the organization no longer has even a basic website that should offer basic information about it.
For those who aren't aware, EKN is the elected representative body for the Estonian community in Canada. The organization has some 30+ members who are ostensibly supposed to meet regularly to discuss and develop positions on issues pertaining to Estonian-Canadians. EKN also has an executive which is elected by the organization to carry out decisions made by the entire body. The organization is generally recognized as the voice of the Estonian community in Canada.
The mandate of the existing organization expired, ostensibly, in the summer. Now delayed, but rushed, elections are being held.
It is fundamentally important that Canadians of Estonian heritage both participate in these elections and choose individuals who they believe are best suited to help bring our community back together both in Toronto and from communities throughout the country. The elected members of EKN will also represent and advocate for our community and our organizations for the next four years. Nominations will be accepted - electronically - until Monday noon.
Below are a few areas and issues that anyone who is thinking about participating in the upcoming EKN elections, should consider.
As geopolitical instability and uncertainty continue to disrupt and cloud Estonia's future, the Estonian community in Canada is in greater need than ever of strong, effective and sustained advocacy at all levels of government and in the media. This includes renewed engagement in existing organizations such as the Baltic Federation, that has been allowed to go dormant over the past few years.
Our community requires leaders who actively understand how government and policy are developed and how the media works. We require ongoing, regularly scheduled and open discussions on political threats and strategies on how to overcome them. By discussing and developing strategies together, we will be stronger.
Our community needs to be aware that the threat posed by Vladimir Putin on Estonia's frontier is not the only front in the very real battle to protect Estonia's sovereignty. In Canada, there is a growing threat to our voice, history and community posed by Putin's well funded and resource rich proxies on this side of the Atlantic.
For example, on May 9th this year, the Soviet victory in Europe was celebrated at a rally in a Toronto city park with several thousand pro-Putin supporters waving Soviet flags including the Estonian SSR flag - a deeply disturbing symbol of the occupation of Estonia.
With deep pockets and endless resources, the Kremlin, either directly or through its proxies, has even employed former Canadian diplomats, political staffers, academics and others to provide voices in Canada to justify its aggressive tactics and it's gross violations of human rights at home. We need to identify and engage all Estonians who are concerned about these issues and especially those who are politically active: regardless of party affiliation.
Canada's new government and our community will require that a credible EKN, is available to brief and advise them on regional Baltic issues as well as the domestic concerns of Estonian-Canadians.
EKN also needs to reopen dialogue and communications with the people it represents and our fellow Canadians. This includes some very fundamental items, like the maintenance of a basic website to explain who EKN is and information about our community for both our members and Canadians in general. An effective media advocacy strategy is also a fundamental to ensuring that our voice is heard in Canada and abroad.
We have great and diverse strengths, that if converged, will energize and strengthen our communities in Canada and around the world. But we must start communicating with each other in our local communities. We need to reach out to each other across the country and with our sisters and brothers in Estonia. By communicating and embracing our successes and sharing our challenges, we'll be able to provide a stronger community for our children and grandchildren in generations to come.
We must bring the community together by rebuilding EKN and the way that it operates.
An annual Congress will bring together organizations from across Canada to discuss their activities, successes and challenges. For example, those organizations who work with our youth would benefit from a committee and forum which would allow them to exchange ideas and strengthen their organizations and programming. Through active and constructive dialogue, organizations and activists can identify commonalities and work together to overcome challenges. By talking and working together, we can rebuild a unified and connected community that ensures long term sustainability for our communities across Canada and the world at large.
Our friends in the Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and other communities have established systems to encourage and support youth leadership and succession planning for their organizations though youth congresses. This has always been and continues to be a challenge for the Estonian community. We cannot expect our community to stabilize and even grow without a well planned strategy for developing future leaders.
The perpetuation of cliques and recruiting from single community groups like fraternities, sororities and certain generations will only continue the fracturing of our currently fragile community. Broad participation and consensus is the only path to sustainability and longterm engagement by community members.
EKN must establish a Youth Congress that brings together our most talented and enthusiastic young leaders into a structured forum for dialogue that helps nurture and support them. Their voices need to be heard and empowered in order to ensure their ongoing active and long term participation. Our community's long term survival depends on effective succession planning.
Our small community must also look for inspiration form other, more successful groups and communities and harness our diversely talented professional community to help our youth access work opportunities and grow their careers.
Many of our central organizations, including EKN, must impose term limits to ensure that fresh ideas and perspectives to keep our community evolving and alive.
Many younger Estonians born after the 1980's may not remember ESTOs.
In 1996, the ESTO flag, during said festival, was taken from Stockholm on a ferry and brought back to Estonia, from where it was taken some 50+ years earlier. The emotional moment was symbolically touching and marked the homecoming of Estonians living in exile. The need for large scale gatherings of exiled Estonians was over and we could now continue to celebrate Estonian culture and heritage in our liberated homeland that our community struggled for over several decades.
Successive Estos were organized after what seemed to be the symbolic conclusion of ESTO, but none of them ever measured up to the original ESTOs that were organized up until 1996.
Many Estonians in Canada now travel to Tallinn to participate in our national song and folk dancing festivals - singing and dancing with the very best in the world, among hundreds of thousands of their compatriots. Estonian-Canadian youth are forever plugged into Estonian culture after participating in such events and discovering that there really is a place in this world where others speak and understand our otherwise secret language.
In North America the wonderful tradition of West Coast Estonian Days - much smaller in scale in comparison to previous ESTOs - has emerged and is based on a seemingly sustainable financial model.
The currently planned 2018 ESTO requires the input of the community and an examination of the needs and funds available for it. The incredible legacy left by those ESTOs of yore, deserve respectful reflection when we consider a reboot.
Our global community is small and there is still much work to be done to overcome the division between Estonian exile communities and those at home. The ESTO festival can bridge this remaining gap by continuing in Estonia and in partnership and collaboration with the song and dance festivals to encourage our global Estonian community to discover their culture and language in Estonian. Organizing yet another ESTO in Toronto will only continue to aggravate old wounds and perpetuate the notion that there are "foreign" Estonians and "native" Estonians (väliseestlased vs. kodueestlased). In 2018, we have an opportunity to demonstrate that Estonians around the world are one by discarding these outdated notions and those traditions that reinforce them.
I hope that all Canadian Estonians participate in the upcoming EKN elections and that those of us who feel strongly enough about sustaining our community, consider submitting their name to work together for a stronger, open and inclusive Estonian community in Canada.
For A Strong and United Estonian Community in Canada (3)