On Saturday, January 28th, the Estonian Central Council in Canada will hold it’s first all-member session after its general elections in the fall of 2011. This plenary meeting is probably anticipated more than many similar sessions of the past years in that a very high percentage (56%) of the current Council have been elected for the first time. With that they bring to the forum new understandings of the Council’s priorities, expectations that their participation has real purpose, enthusiasm about tackling seemingly daunting challenges etc.
The Council consists of 25 members, elected nationwide every four years. Anyone at least 18 years of age, of Estonian heritage or married to someone of Estonian heritage, qualifies to vote. (The Council promotes inclusiveness.)
Created over 60 years ago by a nucleus of Estonian pre-war cabinet ministers, members of parliament and other exiled high officials of the Soviet-destroyed Estonian government, the Council’s prime goal was to help regain Estonia’s independence. (For the first 20 years the Council was named Rahvuslik Välisvõitluse Nõukogu – loosely translated: National Council Fighting [for Freedom] Abroad. In English it’s always been the Estonian Central Council in Canada.)
In spite of Estonia’s re-gained independence in 1991, a similar mandate guided much of the Council’s activities until foreign troops left Estonia in 1994 and Estonia finally acceded to NATO in 2004. In other words the Council was closely guided by its concern for the national security of Estonia.
It’s the intention of many of the current members to establish fresh directions and goals for the Council. Realizing that the Council has no executive or administrative powers in our community, measuring effectiveness and success of its activities is no less difficult as prioritizing the community’s needs. The Council is sure to agree that its efforts should aim at community requirements at least 20-30 years down the road.
Is it realistic to expect a thriving, vibrant Estonian community abroad 30 years hence? The question remains rhetorical. But issues of substance have been part of public discourse for years. While nobody rejects the notion that the community must promote inclusiveness, the magic formula for attracting passive Estonians into community activities has been elusive. Neither has anyone offered a universally acceptable solution to creating a comfort level and an inviting milieu for those unable to speak Estonian, but who are motivated to participate.
It’s the observation of the Estonian consulate general in Toronto that the “potential Estonian community” in Canada is much larger than Stats Canada data indicates. (The most recent census figures have not been released. Previous estimates put the size around 23,000). For a number of years the consulate has been witnessing a steady stream of applicants for Estonian passports, many who identify with their heritage but have avoided community involvement. This constitutes a formidable critical mass for pursuing growth.
The most basic question also needs an answer – why is it even necessary to expend energy and material resources to maintain a community? Why not succumb to the inevitable - cultural assimilation? One, amongst many differing answers would be the need for tiny Estonia, whose own sparsely manned diplomatic corps simply does not have the numerical clout, to take on lobbying efforts internationally wherever they are needed. Local Estonian communities, citizens of the host country, have greater leeway than diplomats in supporting issues favourable to the country of heritage. While not currently a compelling reason for many, the concern for Estonia and its people gave the community in exile a singular purpose during the Soviet years. Just witness the tens of thousands that enthusiastically made a political statement at the Toronto, Baltimore and Stockholm ESTO demonstrations, during festivals that were ostensibly cultural.
How does the Council move toward its identified goals? Not through social engineering. But engaging the community in widespread ongoing discourse can be in and of itself a societal process. By getting people involved in the ongoing debate, in searching for an acceptable concensus is in essence getting them participating in the community. At least this could be
Quo vadis EKN? (3)