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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Stories by Marilyn Moysa

Roots

The ethnic history of Edmonton

Distinct melodies on piano

She's in tune with Estonia

Canadian-born Helve Sastok, 18, has preserved her ethnic culture in an ususal way.

A promising music composer, f"iiss Sastok creates piano arrangements that have distinct, Estonian melodies in them, even though she has-never visited her homeland.

This characteristic, says Mrs. Lydia Pals, her music teacher at Alberta College, is a sign many third generation Estonians possess.

"Music as an art form l1asalways held a very impqrtant part in our cultural life," said Mrs. Pals, who immigrated to Edmonton 27 ye'ars ago.

"In a small country like Estonia, the only way you can survive is through your culture," she said.

Recounting the settlement of the first Estonian immigrants in the Barons, Milk River, Brooks, Medicine Hat, Stettler, Eckville and Peace River areas in 1890, Mrs. Pals says the Estonians have come a long way in preserving a culture that has been cut off from its homeland for more than 30 years.

"The Eckville area has still maintained its identity to some' degree," said Mrs. Pals, explaining that Eckville was the site for the first Estonian school in the early 1900s and is an area that still cultivates the small, creamy Estonian potatoes, first seeded in the area in 1890.

Closed before the Second World War, the Eckville School was the first and last attempt to preserve the Estonian language in, Alberta.

"Even though many Estonians in Edmonton don't speak the language any longer," said Mrs. - Pals, "they still get together privately to enjoy music and their food."

More than 1,000 Estonian folk songs telling a story of oppression of culture and religion are among the main means of preserving the ethnic culture.

Estonians here get together on Independence Day, Nov. 18, to sing these songs that date back to the 13th century, Mrs. Pals said.

Intricate woodwork and pottery, Estonian literature and food (which is adapted from Soviet cooking) are just a few of the customs from their cultural past that Estonians still observe, said Mrs. Pals.

Today, Estonians here are involved in all types of occupations, said Mrs. Pals, and many don't associate with the Edmonton Estonian Association because they are still afraid of retaliation against their relatives in Estonia.

"Many still fear Communist persecution," Mrs. Pals said. A concert pianist in Estonia, Mrs. Pals says the years she and her husband have spent in Canada have been happy ones.

"Some people say we were discriminated against, when we first came here, but I spoke English so I never experienced this," Mrs. Pals said, explaining that it was a policy in Estonia that all children learn four languages, one of them being English.

With a small community of about 60 families here, Mrs. Pals says the Estonians are trying to maintain their cultural identity but can't isolate themselves at the same time.

"The cultural awareness of Estonians isn't dying because of traditions," she said, "but we are proud - to be Canadians."

Intense desire for freedom

The peoples of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (formerly known as the Baltic States), didn't share that much in common linguistically or culturally.

For example, the Lithuanians and Latvians spoke one of the oldest languages in Europe, which has striking similarities willi Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Gothic, while Estonian was clearly similar to Finnish and Hungarian.

But despite dissimilarities, the peoples of the small land area on the Baltic Sea were united in one common cause - a desire for political freedom.

Located at the crossroads between Germany and Russia, the Baltic countries historically experienced a seesaw of occupations by the two powers.' In fact, the Baltic States enjoyed a short and troubled independence only from 1918 to 1940.

The wars, uprisings, poverty and persecution impelled many of these peoples to yearn for a country free of turmoil. Some saw Canada as the land of opportunity.

As far as can be proven, one of the first to come to Alberta was a Lithuanian named Petras Baltrusis, who died in Edmonton in 1948 at the age of 98 years.

During the 60 years Mr. Baltrusis spent in Alberta, he was alternately a trapper, prospector and farmer. The date of his arrival in Canada from Lithuania, which was at that time under Russian rule, was between 1880 and 1890.

Although Mr. Baltrusis came early, immigration to this province was basically in two main waves.

The first was in the late 1920s after the United States had changed its quotas on immigration. Immigrants from the Baltic countries came seeking land, trades and more money and their. journeys west from Halifax and Nova Scotia were sponsored in most cases by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many of them came alone until they had saved enough money to bring their families over. A conservative guess of Lithuanians in Alberta by 1923 borders around 1,500, but this number was reduced by the Depression, which caused many to seek employment in Toronto and Montreal, reducing the population in Edmonton to less than 100 people.

The second main wave came after the Second World War, after several years of fighting across the Baltic.


Edmonton Journal

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