Jõekääru (“Riverbend”) kids camp was established an hour north of Toronto in the early 1950s, as a wave of Estonian refugees arrived in Canada, escaping the Soviet occupation of their country. Jõekääru was one of the places in exile where they could ensure that their culture and language lived on through their children’s generation. Last summer, photographer Kristen Dobbin documented the camp while exploring her own ethnic culture. 

My grandmother worked as a cook at Jõekääru, and my uncle and mom were campers. I spent my childhood visiting our family’s nearby one-room summer house, not much bigger than a trailer. I loved being in that Estonian enclave, saying “tere” to strangers instead of “hello” and swimming in the river.

When I was a kid, the camp was only for children who could speak Estonian. My dad was Canadian, and so my parents had decided not to teach my sister and me the language. While I have a deep fondness for Jõekääru, which served as a backdrop for so many wonderful childhood experiences, the camp itself was a cultural institution that was inaccessible to me.

Being outside the diaspora community in this way never hindered my curiosity about my Estonian identity. As a kid, I was fascinated by my grandmother’s stories of life in her small village and of spending nearly two weeks on the Baltic Sea after escaping Estonia in a fishing boat.

Supported by the Estonian Studies Center, my project on Jõekääru is a documentation of a diaspora institution in transition. With Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union more than 25 years ago, the urgency of preserving the language and culture is gone. Attendance at the camp has dropped significantly since the early years, and mixed marriages continue to change the demographics of the community.

These days, all kids with Estonian heritage can attend the camp, regardless of their language skills. While I wasn’t allowed to attend, my children could, and many participate today who are of mixed ethnicity A handful of the program’s coaches and kids now come from the homeland, Estonia, to have international experiences and to meet Canadian friends.

The future of this place is unknown, but for the time being, young Estonian-Canadians continue to gather at the flagpole each day of summer to raise the Estonian and Canadian flags side by side; they share camp meals in the apple orchard and fall asleep in bunk rooms that haven’t changed much since their parents were campers. For most of these kids, Jõekääru is a place to feel that unique sense of connection that only a shared culture offers.

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