On Nov. 18, optimism and realism in Canada

When I was little, 18. novembris consisted of two parts: a solemn church service with lots of room for tears, and a formal ceremony that left oodles of time to doodle on the program. Both usually occurred on the weekend closest to the real date—and the formal ceremony was usually dominated by solemn speeches and official presentations.

“The ceremonials had become mere rituals devoid of any real meaning, substance or emotion,” explains Valdis Liepiņš, chairman of the organizing committee and first president of the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre (LCCC) in Toronto. “They were over in about three to four hours, and everyone could go home satisfied in the knowledge of having done the right thing.”

But growing numbers of people, especially the younger generation, thought otherwise, and attendance at these formal ceremonials dwindled from one year to the next.

When the LCCC became a part of the Toronto landscape in 1979, it also brought a new angle to Independence Day celebrations.

“Something more memorable, more authentic, more substantial was required,” recalls Liepiņš. “Something that addressed the reality of Latvia, and gave each of us the opportunity to be connected, at least spiritually, with Latvia and Latvians under Russian occupation.”

Nov. 18 became “Diena Latvijai” (A Day for Latvia), a celebration, not a commemoration. That celebration would take place on the real date, regardless of whether it fell on a weekday or a weekend, and would start with a flag raising ceremony at 7:30 a.m. (early enough so those who chose could make it to work). It would be followed by not just three or four hours of passive sitting, but a whole day of active participation. Over the past 23 years, “Diena Latvijai” has become a integral part of the Latvian Centre’s program, and like everything else, has gone through various phases and demographic shifts.

For the first few years I accompanied my family to the early morning ceremony, but after a while I found little in the full-day program that appealed to me, not to mention few kids my age I could hang out with. Fortunately the evening programs, at least initially, were interesting combinations of song, poetry and images that inspired, for example, the way the Latvian school Valodiņa celebrated Nov. 18. In later years there have even been performances by the Latvian post folkloric group Iļģi.

I dropped out of the “Diena Latvijai” scene for about 15 years, but returned two years ago, when the celebrations fell on a Saturday, to organize a half-day children’s festival complete with clowns, face painting and a range of activities coordinated by 10 Latvian children’s organizations in Toronto. I wanted to give my children a “Diena Latvijai” they could enjoy.

Diena Latvijai 2002

This year “Diena Latvijai” falls on a Monday—which makes things not just difficult, as they always are, but even more difficult. “Every year there are less people,” says Auseklis Zaķis, current president of the LCCC. Today people over 65 account for about 80 percent of “Diena Latvijai” participants.

“The older generation is dying off, and the younger generation isn’t as committed, and isn’t willing to take a day off from work,”  Zaķis says.

This leaves organizers in a conundrum. If the bulk of participants are seniors, should the program be created mainly for them? If there is a program for those under 65, will they take the day off and attend? Moreover, where do you find volunteers to organize a full day of activities for three different demographics—and is it worth it?

This year, kids’ activities are limited to the preschool set. The Latvian Centre Playgroup, which has 20 members under the age of four, is inviting children one to four years old (and their parents) to celebrate Latvia’s birthday with singing, flag crafts and cake.

The official program, entitled “Our Limitless Possibilities,” kicks off with a keynote speech by city planner and architect Andris Roze, who will talk on a city vision for Rīga in 2020. That’s followed by “There and Back Again,” a panel discussion exploring what happens to Latvians from Canada who live in Latvia for a few years, and then return “home.” What’s their post-Latvia experience? Participants include Vizma Maksiņa, Ingrīda Mazutis, Andris Roze and Dagnija Staško.

As is customary, there will be a 1 p.m. live broadcast of the president of Latvia’s Independence Day speech in Rīga. This is followed by an opportunity to view all the “Sveiks” television programs broadcast to date, while those interested can watch the film Latvian Legionnaires and participate in discussions led by Austris Siliņš, president of the Latvian National Youth Association of Canada. Toronto Sun reporter Bob MacDonald will follow with a talk on his personal experiences during the Cold War.

The official ceremony, which used to occur outside the Latvian Centre’s program, has now become part of the Toronto Latvian community’s daylong celebration. It will feature a speech by Imants Purvs, president of the Latvian National Association in Canada, and a concert by Toronto Latvian High School students and various musicians.

The day ends with an evening celebration featuring the international (that’s Canada and the United States) men’s choir Straume, as well as performances by the folk dance groups Daugaviņa, Diždancis, Dižais Dancis and Mēnestiņš. Ēriks Taube, organizer of this year’s “Diena Latvijai,” says he’ll consider the event a success if people say they had a good time, and if they look forward to next year.

“If, at the end of the day, it feels like we’ve celebrated the new Latvian independence, then we’ve finally moved past regretting the lost old independence,” he says.

That said, there are still many issues to resolve when it comes to Nov. 18 celebrations. What does the community need? What does the community want? What will “Diena Latvijai” celebrations look like in 2020?

“That’s a good question, and would make for a good 18. novembris topic of discussion,” says Zaķis of the LCCC. “That is, if we could do it optimistically and realistically.”

Optimism and realism—apparently that’s what keeps us ticking.

Mara Gulens is an editor and writer based in Toronto.

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