Estonian President Meri
Lennart Meri, the President of Estonia from 1992 to 2001, visited Alberta for two days in July of 2000. Accompanied by his wife Helle, daughter Tuule, press secretary Epp Alatalu and his bodyguard Alvar Ridamäe, Meri was welcome at the Calgary International Airport by twenty local Estonians.
Peter Leesment, wearing a Stampede cowboy hat, read the welcome speech. Milvi Tiislar and Melanie Matiisen, dressed in traditional Estonian costumes, presented flowers to the President and his wife. President Meri wanted to visit Alberta for primarily three reasons: to visit the oilsands at Fort McMurray, greet Alberta's Estonian descendants and view the world famous Rocky Mountains.
President Meri had expressed his own personal interest in learning about Estonian diaspora. Decades before Estonia's independence in 1991, President Meri had studied and visited numerous Estonian villages across western Russia.
Years later he wanted to learn about 19th and 20th century Estonian settlements in Canada. His interest in Alberta's Estonian community was spurred by Estonia's media coverage of the Stettler Centennial celebration in 1999. Of particular interest to president Meri was Linda Hall.
The organizing committee of Helgi Leesment, Parja Tiislar and Helle Kraav meticulously planned the two-day affair. Alta Flights Inc. of Edmonton, owned by Dave Robertson and his Estonian wife Christine Lepik-Robertson, flew the six member delegation to Stettler in a private Cessna. En route, the President had an opportunity to chat with Bob Kingsep, the grandson of Alberta's first Estonian pioneer (Hendrik Kingsep), and Bob Tipman, an Estonian descendant and oilsands engineer.
In Stettler, President Meri toured the Estonian Chapel, Cemetery and the Stettler Outdoor Museum. The President found the log house and its contents of particular interest. At Linda Hall, president Meri humoured the crowd and signed a 100th birthday card for Anne Tipman.
While President Meri toured northern Alberta's oilsands his wife and daughter did some shopping in Calgary and learned about Alberta's cowboy culture at the Calgary Stampede. At a barbeque later that night the Estonian delegation members were each presented with white cowboy hats.
President Meri's visit sparked an interest among Alberta's Estonian descendants in retracing their family lineage and broadening their knowledge about Estonian culture. This resurgence of interest in all things Estonian directly contributed to the formation of the Alberta Estonian Heritage Society in April 2005.
President Meri passed away on March 14, 2006 at the age of 76. A sympathy card bearing a photo of the Rocky Mountains was mailed to the late president's wife and daughter on behalf of Alberta's Estonian community.