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Estonian, Settlement

Despite its small size and relative obscurity on the international scene, Estonia is a country that has had the unfortunate experience of being located at the "crossroads of Europe." Along with its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia is one of three Baltic nations that sit on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. Estonia is bordered by Latvia on the south and Russia on the east. Sweden and Finland are the other "Neighbours" to the west and north, respectively, but separated by the Baltic Sea.

Largely as a result of geographical circumstance, Estonia and its Baltic partners have had a very turbulent history that has been shaped largely by its powerful neighbors. For the most part, rule in Estonia had fallen under the control of Sweden and Germany until the early 1700s when the Russian Empire wrestled control of the small, but coveted nation away from the German landlords. Foreign rule, had been harsh, particularly under the Russian Imperial regime. Russian became the language in government institutions and schools, local authorities became increasingly under the control of the Russian centre, the importance of the Russian officialdom increased. Organizations in the national movement were closed down, censorship became stricter, conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church was encouraged in a further attempt to Russify the indigenous population. At the turn of the 20th century, the Russian Empire began to feel the strains of over expansion and corruption. In 1905, the stormy events of the Russian revolution caused an increase in social activism and encouraged the development of democracy in society. The atmosphere throughout Europe at the turn of the century were volatile, particularly in central Europe. Although Estonia and the Baltic States remained under the control of the Russian Empire until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, secret societies within the country had begun to lay the groundwork for independence. Once the Russian Empire had been defeated by the Red Army, Estonia enjoyed a period of relative independence for some 19 years prior to Soviet annexation at the outset of World War II. Although the Estonian community in Alberta remains relatively small, their arrival in Canada coincided with times of acute political upheaval in their homeland -- the loosening of Russian Imperial control in the 1890s, the proclamation of Independence on February 24, 1918 and the annexation of all three Baltic States by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Unlike many other groups from Europe that fled to Canada to find renewed economic prosperity, Estonians came to find refuge from harsh political realities. Those who came to Canada during the first wave of migration (1890s-1914) left Estonia to escape harsh Tsarist rule. Tsarist rule ended in 1917 and the second wave of migration (1920 - 1930) were primarily economic refugees seeking improved prospects in Canada. Unfortunately, the second wave of Estonian settlers arrived in Alberta at the onset of the Great Depression. Upon arrival many found poor economic conditions and therefore ended up leaving the province to eke out a living elsewhere. Those who stayed in the province tended to migrate towards communities such as Eckville and Stettler in central Alberta where earlier Estonian immigrants had already established communities. These were places where they could share in familiar traditions, speak their native language and find a sense of belonging amongst their neighbours from the old country.

At the onset of World War II, the Soviet Union moved quickly to annex the Baltic States. The Baltic region had been coveted by the Soviet regime from the time these strategically important States had gained their collective freedom from the old Russian Empire in 1920. World War II was devastating for the Baltic States as they served as the battleground for numerous battles between their rivals, Germany and the Soviet Union. As a result, may of the Estonians residing in Canada at the time enlisted in the Canadian forces.

The third wave of immigration by Estonians to Alberta came at the end of World War II. The chaos and upheaval at the end of the war allowed for many to escape Soviet occupied Estonia. Many of those who fled were considered the elite or intelligentsia of Estonia who had suffered greatly under the wartime occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Regime -- doctors, lawyers, teachers and architects, who left everything they knew behind in Estonia only to find work as farmhands or laborers in their new homeland. Working as labourers until their contracts expired, these Estonian immigrants usually relocated to larger urban areas to find work that suited theirs skills and training. It was also these groups that helped establish Estonian cultural organizations in Alberta, thereby stimulating language retention and maintenance of cultural identity. Although these groups have declined in activity, Estonian Albertans continue to be an active part of Alberta's cultural mosaic.

Estonian Settlers

Estonian Settlers