Some time ago the Estonian national library digitalized old newspapers and these can be found on line at
Most Estonian language newspapers published outside Estonia from 1944 are there including Toronto’s Vaba Eestlane from 1952 to 2001 when it merged with Meie Elu.
I grew up in southern Ontario with my parents reading Vaba Eestlane which arrived by mail twice a week. Reading these old issues brought back many memories of people and events long gone. It brought home how our expatriate community has changed over the decades.
The coverage given to Estonian Independence Day celebrations known as Aktused over the decades is both instructive and sobering. Memories of those occasions are baggage that we carry with us as part of our Estonian heritage.
In 1952 about 2600 people gathered at Toronto’s Massey Hall that had a seating capacity of 2700. A Mr. F. O. Brand represented the mayor. This was probably the last year that our parents and grandparents arrived in any great numbers from Germany and Sweden. Stalin was still alive and the Korean War was raging. The West had belatedly woken up and realized what the Soviet Union really was.
Fast-forward to 1962 when about 3000 people gathered in what is now known as the Sony Centre. A good number of prominent guests were there including Roland Michener representing the federal government, Mayor Nathan Phillips, provincial cabinet minister John Yaremenko, MPP Andy Thompson and others.
That year a young University of Toronto professor was head of the Toronto Estonian Society that organized these events. In his speech he mentioned that an organization then known as RVN (that subsequently became EKN), had requested that the invitation to a tenor named Heinz Riivald should be revoked. The request had been complied with and he did not perform. However, the professor in his youthful boldness was undiplomatic enough to state in his speech that he felt that another organization should not be telling them what to do.
The professor was one of the founding members of a youth organization known as Metsaülikool (Forest University) that sometimes voiced progressive views about relationships with our kin behind the Iron Curtain not entirely to the liking of the greybeards at RVN. That however, is another story but it perhaps explains why he was so outspoken.
I gather that Forest University is still operating each summer. Attendance may be down somewhat, but nearly not as much as aktus. Also, the average age of the attendees seems much lower than the aktus goers. With the passage of time controversial ideas about how our kin in Estonia should be treated were proved to be right.
It was not clear what sin or error of omission Mr. Riivald had committed but given that RVN did not like him, it is easy to surmise that he must have been some sort of communist fellow traveler or pinko or perhaps he had committed the then unforgivable sin of visiting Soviet Estonia.
The following year attendance halved to 1500.
Fast forward another 10 years to what was described as a very well organized Aktus at Ryerson Institute (now Ryerson University) in 1972. Younger people including Andres Raudsepp, Anne Vilde, Toomas Marley and Tarmo Heyduck had taken over and done a great job.
Again, almost 1500 people again but alas, noticeably less guests. Other than the usual representatives from the other Baltic States, only a senator and Toronto alderman showed up, both married to spouses with Baltic backgrounds.
This was also the year of the first world Esto festival held in Toronto that represents the high water mark of Estonian expatriate society although few realized this in the euphoria surrounding the event. About 20,000 people gathered for the finale at the CNE grounds. This was and remains the greatest single gathering of Estonians outside the kodumaa (homeland). It seems very unlikely to happen again.
Yet another 10 years forward to 1982 and we are at the University of Toronto convocation hall where almost 1000 have gathered. The headline picture features a young Laas Leivat, head of EKN.
Yet another decade forward and it is 1992 and the location has moved to Lawrence Park Collegiate auditorium. Mr. Leivat is still head of EKN. It is now just 6 months after Estonia regained its independence and for the first time ever, the aktus has as a guest a cabinet minister from Estonia. No numbers are given as to how many attended but the location speaks for itself.
It is 2001, the last year Vaba Eestlane published. Mr. Leivat is still head of EKN. This man obviously had great energy and staying power. He is like the Energizer Bunny pounding its drum that just keeps going and going. Problem is, it is not clear if the Canadian politicians are listening anymore since they stopped attending aktus decades ago.
Guests included the Tallinn Finnish boy’s choir from Estonia as well as a handful of army officers from the language school at Camp Borden. No numbers were given but the Vana Andrese church seemed somewhat full from the picture.
Eesti Elu, born of the merger of Meie Elu and Vaba Eestlane, covered this year’s aktus held at Toronto Estonian House. The pictures speak for themselves. Yet again no numbers were given. I understand that it was held in what is called the suur saal (big hall) that seats around 300. It did not appear to be a full house and it was very grey.
Reading those old issues of the Estonian language Toronto paper also brought memories of other papers that suddenly arrived unasked at my parent’s house one day. These were from the Soviet Republic of Estonia. The soviet security organs must somehow have gotten their trotters on the mailing list for Vaba Eestlane. The message was clear and chilling: YOU THOUGHT YOU HAD ESCAPED BUT WE KNOW EXACTLY WHERE YOU LIVE!
I also noticed that some archived copies of the paper from the 1950’s and early 1960’s clearly showed the name and mailing address of a subscriber that lived outside Toronto.
How did his paper end up in the Soviet Union? Was he mailing it to his relatives thinking that they would actually get to read it, or was there a more sinister reason such as the organs using his relatives as pantvangid (hostages)? We will probably never know.
Baggage. We carry lots of it with us. Much is good some not.
Yet even more baggage - old newspapers