Just 72 short years from Halifax Pier 21 to the $1 million donation to KESKUS
When Lembit Jänes Sr. managed a fish processing plant in a small Newfoundland outport in the mid-1950s with no electricity, just a diesel-powered generator, and something went wrong with the equipment, there was no handy list of nearby professionals to consult for help. It was “do-it-yourself” more often than not.
His son Lembit Jr. believes his father’s can-do attitude and his remarkable mechanical aptitude was the linchpin that led to the eventual creation of a frozen food empire with four manufacturing locations, based in Toronto, that shipped products across North America.
“When you’re in a small community, you have to figure out how to do things yourself. There’s no one around to fix things for you!” Lembit laughs.
The Janes brand of frozen foods is a supermarket staple well known to many consumers, and grew from the family’s humble beginnings when they emigrated to Canada in 1948 and settled on the east coast.
The family is proud to support KESKUS International Estonian Centre with a $1 million donation in memory of Lembit Sr. and Meeri (née Koppel) Jänes.
The generous donation will help build the KESKUS Grand Hall, the place for celebrations, events, festivals and performances. It will be known as the Jänes-Koppel Grand Hall to pay tribute to both his mother’s and father’s families, explained Lembit.
“It’s important for a small nation to preserve its culture and build for the future,” he said. “Canada has been incredibly kind to Estonians, and we have been very fortunate. This is my family’s way of giving back.”
Lembit lives in Toronto with his wife Karen (who as a child performed rhythmic gymnastics with the renowned Evelyn Koop) and sons Zachary, 25; Dylan, 24 and Spencer, 21. The family business was sold in 2012 and today Lembit is an active investor and supports many charities.
Lembit, a former triathlete who competed in the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii, recalls how the family came to Canada from Sweden in a precarious journey.
Lembit was just a baby when he came to Canada with his parents by sea from Sweden on a retrofitted fishing boat called Ostervag. The Estonian captain Evald Past and his 75 passengers landed successfully at Pier 21 in Halifax in August 1948 after a two-week journey. They were subsequently detained for two months before the Canadian government eventually accepted them.
Captain Past wrote a book of his life “By Land and By Sea” that describes the trip in detail. “We were among the first group of immigrants to arrive from the Baltics and the government didn’t really know what to do with us,” Lembit recalled.
But on Lembit’s first birthday they got the green light to stay, and a welcoming celebration was held for the newcomers. The birthday boy was presented with a stuffed animal by the Halifax Fire Department and ended up with his photo on the front page of the city’s newspaper.
“It was a very warm welcome,” he said. “My parents always remembered that moment.”
Lembit and Meeri were born in Estonia and met while studying at Tartu University. They had four children: Lembit Jr. (born in Sweden after the couple fled there at the end of the war), followed by the births in Canada of Arno, Toomas and Tina. Meeri’s brother Aleksei (Seia) (whose children are Rein and Mare) and sister Elma Vaino (her children are Tiit, Kersti, Toivo, Karin and Linda) also emigrated to Canada.
After their detainment, the family, along with the ship’s captain, settled in Halifax. They secured a reasonably priced house/cottage (since it had no indoor plumbing), and thus began the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit so many Estonians plunged into after arriving in their new country.
After living and working in Halifax, the family moved to Newfoundland and stayed there until 1960, before moving to Montreal, and then Toronto. They parted company with the sea captain after they left Halifax and he relocated to Victoria, British Columbia and launched a successful career as a home builder.
Lembit Sr. became the manager of a fish processing plant in Trepassey, Newfoundland and the knowledge and experience he gained led to a progression of positions that ended up with the founding of Grimm’s Foods in 1969, and which later became the family-owned business, Janes Family Foods.
By this time, Lembit Jr. had graduated from York University with an MBA and joined his father in the business.
“Dad formulated and developed the food products and designed much of the specialized processing equipment. He ran the production and I managed the sales and administration,” Lembit said.
As the manufacturing ramped up, the work force grew, and Lembit Sr. hired Estonians from his fraternity korp! Rotalia to take up senior positions.
“Harald Mandel was the night shift supervisor and Ilmar Kaljurand supervised the day shift,” Lembit said. “The two would have a friendly competition to see whose shift would produce the most.”
The business did well, grew and prospered. “We mortgaged everything we owned, ultimately bought out all the other investors and developed the Janes brand with exciting new products.”
For Lembit’s 80th birthday the family went to Estonia for a visit and to see the old family farm near Mõisakula that borders on Latvia.
His father had Alzheimer’s by then, but after 58 years, he recalled quite capably how to get to his homestead. The farm had been turned into a Soviet collective farm and the only thing left of their family home was the foundation of the root cellar.
“It was a very emotional experience,” Lembit recalled, as his father walked around the family’s former property.
Now, he says, it’s time to embrace the future with passion and enthusiasm.
“I have always been proud of my roots,” he added. “I’m so pleased with the fact that Estonians from all over the world will be able to visit and be involved with KESKUS. This is coming full circle for my family.”
“I encourage the community to give generously to KESKUS to make it the best it can be.”
Get involved and help support our future
Please join the growing list of capital campaign donors! KESKUS International Estonian Centre’s donor categories are Kalevipoja Laud for gifts of $100,000 and above (including naming rights for specific areas), Viru Vanemad for gifts of $10,000 and above, and Kungla Rahvas for gifts under $10,000. KESKUS generous donors are listed here.
To make a donation, please call +1.647.250.7136 or email email@example.com. Donations may be made as a family gift, or in honour of an individual or family. Donations from Canada, U.S. and Estonia will be issued a tax receipt.
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