For the past several years, IMANTA has had the privilege of using our casino funds to provide education scholarships on an annual basis. Each year we ask students to submit an essay about a topic that is relevant to our Latvian heritage. It is one criterion upon which awards are based. This year’s essay question was:
The Edmonton Latvian Society, IMANTA, is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. How do you think it has contributed to the Latvian community in Alberta and how would you define its role and importance now and for the future?
The Scholarship Committee was very impressed with the top two essays this year and felt that they should be shared with our community. The authors are Karl Korns and Felix Murrle.
IMANTA’s 65 years of history, a glance at the future
By Karl Korns
Looking back through the years since IMANTA has been established makes it hard to believe so many years have passed. One of the main reasons this organization has been able to sustain its operation for 65 years is thanks to the help of its dedicated volunteers. The hard working, resilient people are the roots that keep the Canadian-Latvian community alive, and they are the keystone pieces that are required to ensure its operation will persist well into the future as the society moves forward. The society was formed by displaced Latvians who recognized the need for a Latvian-Canadian society here in North America with the goal of reaching out to other refugees and to protest the illegal occupancy of their home land. Since its establishment, IMANTA has been a place where recently landed Latvian people could come when they needed guidance in a foreign place, or to connect with those who have already settled. Over the years, the society has accumulated experience and knowledge that has been documented and refined, and this bank of information is available to those who are in need. To have access to a resource like this was, and will continue to be, extremely helpful to those who decide to visit, or to those who will start a life in Canada.
A good example of how important this organization is to both Latvian-Canadians as well as European-Latvians is the role IMANTA played during the time leading up to, and immediately after Latvia’s independence in 1991. The political demonstration of the Baltic Way signaled the movement of the Baltic States towards independence; the hardships endured by the people in the motherland were finally coming to an end. Although morale was at a high, decades of oppression had left the people with dated resources. In response to this circumstance, IMANTA called out to the Canadian-Latvian community and helped organized a relief effort to gather as many resources as the community could source. Inspired by the events back home, the North American response was to help out those back home in any capacity that they could, either by sourcing needed resources for export or offering their time to organize and prepare the gathered donations that would be sent away. These people included my parents, grandparents, and family friends, who contributed by sourcing and repairing shipping containers that would be used by the community, as well as acquiring needed commodities like medical supplies, dental tools, clothing and furniture. Reflecting on moments in history like this helps put things in to perspective: the strongest sense of community and the cohesion of this community are experienced at times of celebration or at times of hardship. For all the gaps in between these events, IMANTA has always been an organization that people can turn to when they are experiencing their own difficulties, a place where people can give back to community, or a place to share accomplishments in any capacity.
Moving forward, the Edmonton Latvian Society will continue to act as a central hub, connecting those in Latvia to those here in Canada. As the population of Latvians in Canada grows, it becomes increasingly important to keep in touch with these people. Policies and procedures regarding visas, immigration, and permanent residency will likely change in the years to come, by using the experience from those who have had to undergo these formalities in the past will help guide others through these processes with greater efficiency in the future. The importance of organizing social events such as Jani or church service encourages people to gather, celebrate, reflect, and reconnect with family, friends, or strangers. These traditional settings remind people of their heritage and allow them to stay connected with Latvian culture. Also, social gatherings provide people with the opportunity to network with one another, allowing experiences and information to be passed around. The sharing of ideas is arguably one of the most important facets of a progressive society as it promotes collaboration amongst people, and helps define what is commonly called community. The unity of Latvian community has played a huge role in preserving its culture over time; IMANTA has taken this template and mirrored Latvian society here in Alberta. The foundation built by the organization thus far will serve as the cornerstone for future generations of Latvian-Canadians. It is important that the organization continues to provide participation and volunteer opportunities to the people who reside here in Alberta as younger generations may find the need to become educated about their heritage. The use of social media has made great strides in recent years to maintain the connection with the community and to reach out to a wider audience, including the youths. The website does a great job of keeping the following community in the loop regarding up and coming events, volunteer opportunities, and sharing stories and news. I believe that IMANTA’s presence on Facebook was a step in a new direction that will become increasingly important in the future, as new generations focused on social media will continue to be aware of the society’s existence and be able to access the resource with the ease of a few clicks.
For 65 years, The Edmonton Latvian Society IMANTA has strived to create a place that encourages sharing of wisdom and experiences, while maintaining connections between its people and their heritage. The success of the society can be attributed in large part to its volunteers’ commitment, past and present. This topic encouraged me to investigate some of my own family history, and what I learned about their involvement in the development of Latvian-Canadian culture inspired me to remind myself of my heritage on a more regular basis. As a youth, I believe the continued use of social media will play an important role in staying connected to as well as reaching out to future generations. IMANTA’s role as an educator as well as an organizer of events will ensure Latvian culture will live on here in Canada.
IMANTA and the Preservation of Latvian Culture
By Felix Murrle
By the end of the Second World War in 1945, thousands of Latvian citizens had fled west in an effort to avoid the horrors of the war and Soviet occupation. Latvian communities emerged all over the globe from the resulting diaspora, most notably in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Sweden, although there were many others in South America and elsewhere in Europe. For many Latvians, the intent was to return home once the war was finished, but as it became clear that the Soviet Union had no intention of restoring Latvian independence, most of them decided to remain in exile.
With the onset of Stalinism and the subsequent assimilation policies enacted in the Soviet satellite states, Latvians abroad watched apprehensively as the Soviet machine attempted to grind their thousand-year-old culture into the pages of history. It was quickly becoming apparent that if Latvian traditions were to survive at all, it would have to be abroad. New societies, such as the IMANTA Latvian Society in Edmonton, sprang into existence to provide support for incoming refugees who had either barely escaped the country in time or had finally made it west of the Iron Curtain, and to prepare for the education of the first generation of Latvians born abroad. To this effect, many communities began Sunday schools, choirs, and dance groups in an effort to keep the culture alive and vibrant, and eventually contributed to form national organizations. These national organizations were instrumental in facilitating communication between local ones, and were able to organize and fund larger projects such as Latvian summer schools like Gaŗezers, as well as traditional song and dance festivals by working with various non-Latvian communities willing to host them.
IMANTA in particular was a beacon for Latvians in western Canada, and as the strong economy of Alberta drew many of them to Edmonton with the hope of finding steady work, its primary role was to provide support for these newcomers. The society was able to help them find jobs in their field, act as a reference, and put them in touch with other Latvians estranged from their country. Many of the more active members formed a choir and a dance group, and actually performed in some of the earlier Latvian song and dance festivals in America. Beyond helping individuals, IMANTA organized events in recognition of Latvian customs, such as the Independence Day celebration of November 18th and Līgo, which allowed Latvians to meet newcomers to the community while observing a cultural function or paying homage to their native country.
These events are still held today and with much the same effect. Even in times of global economic trouble, Alberta remains one of the few relatively economically and politically stable places in the world, and therefore attracts the attention of a great deal of immigrant workers. Recent years have seen an influx of both native and non-native European Latvians, and IMANTA has done its utmost to welcome each and every one of them upon their arrival in Edmonton. Events planned by the society are a chance for them to meet other Latvians living in the area and establish a network of connections, as it can often be difficult to get on one’s feet after moving to a new city. As Alberta’s economy continues to grow, it will be important for IMANTA to maintain the aid it provides newcomers since this will also generate interest in societal proceedings and likely boost event attendance.
Unfortunately, IMANTA no longer has a choir or dance group in which people can participate. Until recently, very few new Latvians had taken up residence in Edmonton – before the economic regression in 2008 most of them migrated to the east or west coasts due to the larger communities found there. For this reason, IMANTA today is conspicuously lacking a young generation. However, now that many of the Latvians settling in Edmonton have young families, it is vital that they are presented with more options to involve themselves in the community. Many Latvian culture education programs have seen a drop in attendance and a loss in funding in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union because the obvious cultural threat of Russian assimilation was no longer present. However, the cultural threat has been by no means eliminated: in Latvia, close to thirty percent of the population is Russian, and only sixty percent are native Latvians. This has led to increased socio-economic tension within the country and left many people divided on key political issues. With the advent of globalization and the currently poor economy, many native Latvians are steadily moving away from their cultural roots to pursue better job opportunities abroad. It seems that now more than ever it is essential that youth education programs are available for Latvian children, who will grow up in foreign countries. The preservation of Latvian culture is essential to the well being of a healthy and proud nationalist sentiment, and Latvia has a rich history from which much can be learned. IMANTA’s role in the upcoming years will be to not only preserve what cultural elements it can, but also to present an educational initiative and encourage incoming and extant Latvian families to contribute to it.
The celebrated author M.G. Vassanji once said that people are inevitably drawn to their cultural roots at some point in their life because they want to know where they’ve come from. In the case of Latvian heritage, as is unfortunately the case for many other smaller cultures, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain information pertaining to folk history. Whether this interest in ancestry is sparked earlier or later, it is the responsibility of cultural societies such as IMANTA to ensure that there is something to find when people come looking.