The Canadian government is supporting the planned Keskus International Estonian Centre, due to be built in Toronto, with 750,000 Canadian dollars, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario; the Estonian government has so far not allocated a cent to the new centre, despite the political rhetoric on the importance of supporting the Estonian diaspora.
Ellen Valter, the project leader of the Keskus International Estonian Centre, said the C$750,000 contribution from the Canadian government enables to go forward with the work on the centre’s building site, including removing contaminated soil from the former city parking lot, waterproofing the Toronto subway infrastructure, backfilling it with clean soil, covering the subway tunnels and erecting structural concrete and steel, on which the open and publicly accessible courtyard rests.
Filomena Tassi, the Canadian minister responsible for the development agency, noted in a statement that the Keskus was “a fantastic new community space for families to gather and celebrate their cultural heritage”. “Our government is happy to support projects like these that foster inclusivity and connectivity while leaving a lasting legacy for the Estonian community in Canada,” she said.
The cornerstone centre
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the new centre, called Keskus, was celebrated in April last year, marking the first time in over half a century that a new Estonian community hub is being built abroad. The name comes from the Estonian word “keskus” – a compound word that consists of “kes” meaning “who” and “kus” meaning “where” – that stands for a “centre” or a “hub”.
The Keskus International Estonian Centre is aiming to become the cornerstone of Estonian culture, business and community relations in Toronto and is also aimed at attracting the global Estonian diaspora.
The centre is being built by the Estonian community in Canada and is supported by donations from around the world. As of July 2023, the Estonian government hasn’t allocated any funding for the new centre – despite the political rhetoric of the various ministers and MPs of the need to support the country’s global diaspora.
According to Ellen Valter, Keskus will welcome everyone, tell the Estonian story and be a multifunctional space where all can feel at home. It is hoped the centre will bring prominence to Estonia and its culture and help launch business opportunities between Estonia and North America.
Previously, the Toronto Estonian House filled the community’s cultural needs, but as the old centre could no longer operate sustainably, a redevelopment of the existing site was envisioned. When it became evident that such a project was not possible, four Estonian-Canadian organisations came together, bolstered by a global fundraising campaign and honorary chaired by the former Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, to build a new centre. The old Toronto Estonian House was sold in 2020.
The state-of-the-art Keskus building was designed by the Estonian Canadian architect Alar Kongats and is expected to open in 2024, with a cost of C$41 million.
Estonian community in Canada
Toronto and the southern Ontario area are home to a significant number of Estonians and their descendants. The 2006 census estimated there were 23,930 people of Estonian origin in Canada.
Between 1900 and 1944, it’s estimated that fewer than 3,000 Estonians immigrated to Canada. However, in 1944, approximately 72,000 Estonians escaped the Soviet occupation of Estonia by fleeing to Sweden, of whom nearly 14,000 immigrated to Canada between 1946 and 1955.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Canadians of Estonian origin are among the ethnic groups with the highest average educational levels and incomes. Estonians have contributed particularly to the development of amateur sports and, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, to architecture and the construction industry.”
Disclaimer: Silver Tambur is a board member of Estonian Arts Centre, the charity associated with Keskus.