When Jüri Otsason’s parents, August and Saale, settled on a farm in Sweden after escaping from Hiiumaa, Estonia in 1944, Jüri’s father would travel by bus into Stockholm to sell the family’s milk and eggs to local merchants.
Despite the new immigrants’ limited means, August believed strongly in supporting the fledgling Estonian community there, and he donated to local artists and writers and also bought shares in Stockholm’s Estonian House so it could get established.
Now, almost 75 years later Jüri, his wife Bernadine Morris, and their son Rein live in Toronto and have stepped up with the same spirit of giving. The family has donated $100,000 to the development of the new International Estonian Centre (IEC) in downtown Toronto.
“The location is fantastic, and with the business accelerator that will be established, there is an obvious connection to Estonia’s digital expertise,” Jüri remarked. “The new, fresh approach and outstanding design is sure to attract the younger generation – and others – who may be drifting away from the community.”
In his early years, while living in Sweden, Jüri (now retired from his position with the executive team at Enbridge) attended Estonian night school in Stockholm while working the day shift in a plastics factory.
“That was a game-changer for me, and enabled me to connect with my Estonian heritage,” he recalls.
He decided to link up with some of his mother’s relatives in Canada, and emigrated here at age 20. He went on to attend the University of Toronto where he earned a Master’s degree in engineering.
“After leaving Sweden, I had planned to try out Canada, the U.S., Brazil and Australia – but I never made it past Canada!” he laughs.
Son Rein is following in his footsteps and is completing his Master’s in electrical and computer engineering at the same university. He plans to start his PhD in the fall.
“The design of the new centre is so welcoming and it’s within walking distance of where my whole life is right now,” Rein said, adding he looks forward to meeting friends there.
IEC is in close proximity to the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. It is in the heart of a vibrant part of the city known as the Bloor Street Culture Corridor, home to other major cultural institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum.
Bernardine is equally enthusiastic about IEC. “The new centre will highlight the accomplishments of the Estonian community – and it’s been a very successful story with many going on to build successful professional lives,” Bernadine said. “And the fact that it will be so close to two subway lines – it’s amazing.”
Saale Otsason, who followed her son to Canada from Sweden “after she realized I wasn’t coming back!” lives at Ehatare, a retirement and long-term care facility in Toronto. She is 102. The road from Hiiumaa, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden and then to Toronto, Canada is similar to the journey so many Estonians undertook.
It is thanks to her generation’s strength, endurance and foresight that the future looks bright and without limits.
Keep in touch and find out what’s happening!
Join us on Friday, June 7 from 5.30 – 7.30 p.m. at Tartu College for a special Community Engagement Session that will shine the spotlight on the IEC’s outdoor space. North Design Office will present their landscape design, which includes the rooftop garden. After the presentation, come over to 11 Madison to take a peek inside this heritage building that will form part of the Centre.
Check out our website – it is updated with all the latest news and information: www.estoniancentre.ca
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