Lithuanians create cultural hub in Canada

  • 2004-02-05
  • By Irena Ross
According to Canada's War Office documents, the earliest known Lithuanian arrivals in the North American country were soldiers who fought in the British Army in Canada in 1813-1815 - nearly 200 years ago. Though the descendants of these earliest immigrants have been assimilated into Canada's population, more recent newcomers from the Baltic state have built a strong community to preserve their unique heritage.

There are three popularly recognized waves of immigration of Lithuanians to Canada: the first wave, the economic immigrants from the early part of the 20th century, 1905-1940; the second wave, post-World War II political immigrants who fled communism; and the third wave, post-1990 immigrants arriving in Canada since Lithuania's restoration of independence.
In 1941, statistics indicated a population of nearly 8,000 Lithuanians in Canada. By 1951, this number had doubled to 16,000. In l961, the census indicates 28,000. Currently, the approximate number is close to 60,000 Lithuanian-Canadians, a tiny glitter in the mosaic made up of a total population of just over 31 million. Because government policy and practice encourage multiculturalism, Canada proudly sees itself as a mosaic of many ethnicities and traditions.
Canadian-born Petras (or Peter) Meiklejohn is an active member of the executive committee of the Lithuanian Canadian Community. The son of a Scottish father and a second-wave Lithuanian mother, Meiklejohn values his dual heritage.
"Thanks to the determination of my parents and extended family, I had the opportunity to not only learn the Lithuanian language, but also to absorb what is involved in being a Lithuanian," he said, adding that Canada offers a choice to second generation immigrants to either be assimilated or retain their unique ethnic character.
"When I accepted an opportunity to work in Lithuania for the summer of 1991, I quickly felt at ease, being "home," and thus was happy to stay longer - ultimately for a memorable five-and-a-half years." Upon his return to Canada, Meiklejohn came with his bride from Lithuania, Solveiga. Their two Toronto-born sons are some of the newest members of the Canadian mosaic.
Although statistics show residents of Lithuanian origin in 37 of Canada's municipalities, the largest concentrations are in Montreal, Hamilton and particularly in Toronto. To this day, Toronto-Mississauga with a total population equaling that of present-day Lithuania remains a center of Lithuanian cultural, educational and religious activities outside the Baltic country. There are two Roman Catholic parishes and one Evangelical Lutheran congregation. Next to the Church of the Lithuanian Martyrs in Mississauga stands St. John's Lithuanian Cemetery, established in l960 by the late Rev. P. Azubalis, who lies buried along with just over 3,500 others in the only Lithuanian cemetery in Canada.
In the west end of metropolitan Toronto where the majority of Lithuanian-Canadians have chosen to settle, there is also a non-denominational Lithuanian House that welcomes activities during the week and on weekends: choir and folk dance practices, committee meetings and social gatherings large and small. There is even a Lithuanian-style pub called Lokys in the building. In this part of the city, there are also two Lithuanian credit unions - very popular institutions for local Lithuanians to invest their savings, to arrange their mortgages, or to borrow money.
The community founded a museum in the Lithuanian complex "Anapilis" in Mississauga. Since its establishment, has been run by Dr. Rasa Mazeikaite. Incidentally, her parents chose to return to Lithuania permanently in their retirement years. "Anapilis" also houses the relocated headquarters of the only remaining Lithuanian-language weekly newspaper in Canada "Teviskes Ziburiai" - The Lights of Homeland - begun in December, 1949, by a team of like-minded publishers who invited the late well-known historian Dr. Adolfas Sapoka to be its first editor. After his untimely death, Monsignor Pranas Gaida became the next editor and continues in his post as senior editor even now as a nonagenarian.
The current publisher and managing editor of "Teviskes Ziburiai" is Ramune Sakalaite-Jonaitis, born in Canada of second-wave post-war refugees. She is fluent in both of Canada's official languages - English and French - and as well in Lithuanian, of course! She discusses both the joys and the dilemmas of being a Lithuanian-Canadian: "Having a Lithuanian background in Canada can be immeasurably enriching, yet restrictive; for example, those of us who delve into it may rarely venture further than our own community. It also imposes a certain responsibility, which many of my generation do not undertake for a variety of reasons. I feel that our heritage marks us with a duality that some of us struggle with, others balance or simply ignore. Yet it gives us a whole other dimension that is truly unique and fulfilling."
The other weekly newspaper that originated in Montreal was called "Nepriklausoma Lietuva" or Independent Lithuania, and became defunct in 2001. Even the surviving weekly is facing the challenge of remaining relevant for a changing readership since many of the original second-wave immigrant readers have died out and their descendants' command of Lithuanian is considerably weaker than that of their forebears. Meanwhile, the third-wave immigrants' differing interests and concerns are not necessarily those reflected in a newspaper begun in a totally different era to which they are unable to relate.
However, the parishes founded by Canada's Lithuanians continue to thrive especially because of the fresh input by young priests - part of the third wave from Lithuania arriving to help out the surviving second-wave priests. These parishes, built as spiritual buttresses for post war immigrants, continue to meet both their and their descendants' needs half a century later. Each parish consists of a place of worship and a spacious church hall. These halls remain social centers used for concerts, theatre performances, poetry readings, dances, parties, bridal showers, weddings, wakes and annual commemorations of nationally and historically important events such as Feb. 16 - the date of the signing of the Act of Independence in l918.
Heritage language schools, known as Saturday schools, started in l948 and continue to provide a Lithuanian-language environment for youngsters from ages 4 to 16. They spend Saturday mornings learning the formalities of the Lithuanian language and related subjects. This ethnic identity inculcation and Lithuanian language reinforcement continues in the summer at youth camps far away from the city environment. However, with the passage of time, the fluency in Lithuanian is decreasing with each new generation. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of second-wave immigrants are far more comfortable in English (and French in Quebec) than in the language of their Lithuanian grandparents or great-grandparents.
With the increasing number of new immigrants arriving from Lithuania as part of the third wave, there are more and more young people with a native speaker's command of the Lithuanian language. It remains to be seen whether they will have the impetus to maintain the institutions founded predominantly by the second wave of immigrants or whether they will eventually become assimilated, as did the first Lithuanian immigrants nearly two centuries ago.