Lithuanians in Toronto

A small community with a big heart. Written by Krystyna Cap and originally posted April 27, 2012

Lithuania was once part of the largest state in Europe. In alliance with Poland from 1386 until its third partition in 1795, the commonwealth at its height occupied almost 1.2 million square kilometres – about one quarter the size of the European Union. Today, Lithuania is approximately 65,000 square kilometres, just slightly smaller than the province of New Brunswick. Yet, Lithuanians have a rich culture and heritage spanning more than a millennium.

This year and last has been filled with cultural celebration for Lithuanians as 2009 marked the 1000th anniversary of the first mention of Lithuania in an historical document, and 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Lithuanian independence. Toronto is privileged to be able to count this group as part of its cultural mosaic.

The Lithuanians in Canada

The first Lithuanian immigrants arriving in Toronto in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were predominantly peasants escaping tsarist oppression. These early immigrants settled where work was available: mainly on the farmlands of Western Canada, or near the factories, coal mines and railway lines of Montreal and Toronto.[1] To aid successive waves of newcomers, the Lithuanian enclaves throughout the country began forming mutual aid societies. As migration increased, and the size of the Lithuanian community expanded, more sophisticated cultural groups were established.

In 1927, the Toronto Lithuanian Youth Association was formed. It soon boasted a 50-member choir and acting troupe. A Catholic Women’s Association had chapters in Toronto, Montreal, London and Delhi, and the Toronto Lithuanian Women’s Relief Circle “Dania,” the first welfare organization for refugees, was formed in 1941 to lead fundraising initiatives for the Canadian Red Cross.[2] The Lithuanian Catholic Student Federation, “Ateitis” (“Future”), which had its origins in Lithuania in 1910, established chapters nationwide, with the largest in Toronto.

Although a small community, like other ethnic groups, the Lithuanians in Toronto published newspapers. The Lithuanian-American Workers’ Literature Association’s Toronto chapter published Darbininku Žodis (The Worker’s Word), which continued after 1936 under the title Liaudies Balsas (The People’s Voice).[3] Although Téviškés Žiburiai(The Lights of Homeland) came to be “more representative of the views of the postwar [Lithuanian-Canadian] majority” who were Canadian-born, and no longer dependent on the Lithuanian-language press for acculturation, the Liaudies Balsas nonetheless survived until the 1970s.[4]

According to Arunas Pabedinskas, Curator of the Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada in Mississauga, the first Lithuanian parish was established in 1928 in Toronto, around Dundas West and Ossington. The Lithuanian community thus settled around that area, with many living on Euclid, Manning and Claremont. By 1955, a second area of Lithuanian residents sprung up on College Street, just east of Dufferin. As time passed, the parishes themselves relocated, with the St. John the Baptist parish moving to Mississauga and the Resurrection moving to Bloor Street West between Islington Avenue and Kipling. Still today, however, the original Lithuanian ornamentation on the St. John the Baptist Church at Dundas and Gorvale is visible.

“Lithuanians have a strong tradition of designing crosses, both ornate metal and wooden ones,” says Pabedinskas when discussing the church and the establishment of the first ethnic cemetery in Canada – belonging to the Lithuanians – in 1960. “The Lithuanians were the first to convince the archdiocese of Toronto to create an ethnic Lithuanian cemetery. Other groups then followed suit.”

St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery at the Anapilis Christian Community Centre in Mississauga is home to the ornamental metalwork for which Lithuanians are renowned. The chapel roof, in particular, and the cross on the chapel tower embody this beloved cultural tradition, which harkens back to the 14th century when, it is thought, crosses began being placed upon a hill just outside of the city of present-day Siauliai, Lithuania to symbolize passive resistance to foreign occupation. Many of the crosses erected on what is known as the Hill of Crosses were placed there after the nineteenth-century peasant uprising in the Russian Empire, and throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the period of Soviet occupation.[5] UNESCO has declared Lithuanian cross crafting as part of its list of World Immaterial and Oral Heritage Objects.

At the end of the Second World War, almost two million refugees were scattered throughout Western Europe, among them some 63,000 Lithuanians. The majority of Lithuanians settled in the parts of Germany then occupied by the Allies, while the rest travelled to Austria, Denmark or Italy for resettlement.

The largest number of Lithuanian immigrants came to Canada after the Second World War, with the then-Dominion Bureau of Statistics showing 943 Lithuanians in Toronto in 1941, 3,587 in 1951 and 8,287 by 1961.[6] Lithuanian immigrants arriving after the Second World War were more well-educated professionals, and included doctors, lawyers and engineers.

In 1949, the Baltic émigré communities across the country established the Baltic Federation in Canada, a united alliance comprised of the Estonian Central Council in Canada, the Latvian National Federation in Canada, and the Lithuanian Community of Canada. The main goal of this organization was to raise awareness of the need for greater action against the Soviet Union and to inspire to action Canadian parliamentarians to condemn Soviet aggression.

In the early 1970s, representatives of the three communities began organizing annual Baltic Evenings in the Confederation Room on Parliament Hill, and also assumed a more active role in demonstrations against the Soviet Union. These and other activities led the Lithuanian community to place increasing pressure on Canadian politicians “to demand the Soviet Union observe human rights in Lithuania.”[7] Grassroots Lithuanian communities, more specifically, organized annual celebrations of Lithuanian Independence Day (February 16), to remind Lithuanians in Canada and elsewhere, including in parts of the USSR, that “it [was] impossible to force a nation to forget its history.”[8]

The Lithuanian Song Festival

Revived in 2006 for the first time since the 1970s, the Lithuanian Song Festival has a rich tradition. The first song festival was held in Lithuania in 1924. As immigrants arrived in Canada, they carried the tradition with them, establishing parallel song festivals with their brethren in Lithuania for a brief period. With communism, however, the festival in Lithuania was subsumed with the party platform and lost some of its patriotism.

Toronto Adult Choir (Photo courtesy of Rasa Kuras)

When Lithuania regained its independence in 1991, they called it the “Singing Revolution.” Coined by Estonian activist and artist Heinz Valk after anti-communist demonstrations were held at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds in which demonstrators sang patriotic hymns, the term “Singing Revolution” came to refer to all three Baltic states.[9] In Lithuania, protestors assembled in public places across the country to sing national songs and Roman Catholic hymns. Throughout this period three-year period of protest, the Soviet military responded aggressively to demonstrations, killing or injuring non-violent protestors, such as those defending the Vilnius Television Tower and Parliament in January 1991. Yet, demonstrators throughout the Baltic bravely confronted Soviet tanks, by forming unbroken human chains singing in protest.

In Canada, however, the festival was alive and well. After the seventh Lithuanian song festival held in 1978 at Maple Leaf Gardens, however, there was a hiatus. The song festival was resurrected under new leadership in 2006, after nearly three decades.

Nijole Benotas, Toronto Youth Choir Director (left) and Dalia Viskontas, Artistic Director (right) (Photo courtesy of Rasa Kuras)

“Song has been a way of passing traditions and customs,” said Rasa Kuras, the festival’s Co-Chair. “For the young generation, who remember their parents singing in church or at social functions, it is also important to engage them as well.”

“The repertoire [for the festival] had to reflect our lives,” said Dalia Viskontas, Artistic Director when asked about the musical selection. “It had to be something meaningful to our youth. The songs were chosen so they could bring our thoughts, beliefs and feelings to life.”

As such, the festival’s theme, “I am the Song,” was chosen to represent the cycle of life, with its sunrise and sunset and many contrasts. The repertoire has several original compositions, from composers, both young and old, from the United States and Canada.

M. K. Ciurlionis National School of the Arts, Youth Choir, from Vilnius, Lithuania participating in the Song Festival. (Photo courtesy of Rasa Kuras)

What remains unique about the festival is its approach. Over the course of a four-year period, performers from all over the world who wish to take part in the July 2010 event can download the repertoire from the website and practice wherever they may be in the world through sheet music and .mp3 recordings. In 2006, choirs came from Nebraska, New Jersey, Califoria, Florida, Connecticut and Vilnius, Lithuania, in addition to Canada. Letters of congratulations were sent from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and even then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

This year, 48 choirs are attending, ranging in size from eight to 93 people. Together, the Lithuanian Song Festival will total 1,100 singers. In composition, the choir is expected to be approximately one-third Canadian, and two-thirds international, travelling from the United States and Europe. “It’s an exciting phenomenon,” says Mrs. Viskontas, “To have people coming together from across North America, and even the world, to sing.”

Young children at a choir practice in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Rasa Kuras)

Although the event brings together the Lithuanian community, the festival organizers emphasize everyone is welcome. As Paul Kuras, Festival Co-Chair says, “We embrace everyone and welcome all who attend.”

The Lithuanian community in Canada, albeit small in size, is vast in its contribution to our multicultural mosaic. In Toronto, this small community with a big heart welcomes everyone interested in learning more about their rich history, culture and legacy for successive generations of Canadians.

For more information about the Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada, please visithttp://www.klb.org/klma_EN.htm

For more information about the IX Lithuanian Song Festival, please visithttp://lithuaniansongfest.org

Notes
[1]. Edit Petrovic, “Lithuanians,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Foundation of Canada), , accessed April 6, 2010.
[2]. Gaida, et al, Lithuanians in Canada (Toronto: Lights Printing & Publishing, Co., 1967), 271.
[3]. Jonas Yla, “Darbininku Žodis and Liaudies Balsas,” Polyphony 4, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1982): 128.
[4]. Ibid.
[5]. “Hill of Crosses (Lithuania),” in Pilgrimage: From the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia, eds. Linda Kay Davidson and David M. Gitlitz (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2002), 233-4.
[6]. Gaida, et al, 244.
[7]. Giedrius Janauskas, “Forms of Political Expression in the Lithuanian Community of Canada (1973-1990),” LITHUANUS: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences52, no. 3 (Fall 2006).
[8]. Ibid.
[9]. Henri Vogt, Between Utopia and Disillusionment: a Narrative of the Political Transformation in Eastern Europe (Studies in Contemporary European History: Berghahan Books, 2005), 26.

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