By: Dominique Liboiron
If you read my column regularly, you know I like to travel. One reason for this is that speaking with people from other countries helps me to better understand Canada. I wasn’t able to travel this summer, but I met a couple from Latvia recently and we had an interesting discussion about how Canadians view the Second World War and the Soviet Union.
Kristaps Priede and his wife Dana are Latvian. Their small country of about two million people is located along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. It’s bordered by Russia to the east.
The Priedes arrived in Canada June 23 as part of a year-long trip during which they plan to cross the country and work along the way. Their journey began in Toronto and from there they toured Ontario, but made a heartfelt pilgrimage in Guelph to search for a family member’s grave.
Dana’s grandfather’s uncle escaped Latvia during World War Two after the Soviets invaded the country. His name was Zanis Ziberts (pronounced Janis Jibberts) and he fled to Canada where he worked as a sailor. Dana has read some of the letters he wrote to his family in Latvia and she describes him as a good-humoured person.
After the war and for the rest of his life, Zanis wanted to visit his relatives, but he was afraid the Soviets would revoke his passport and force him to stay in Latvia. This was a common fear among exiled Latvians. He maintained contact with his family through letters until he passed away 20 years ago, Dana explained.
No family member had ever visited Zanis’ grave so Dana and Kristaps made it their duty to find his resting place. They were able to locate the retirement home where he lived in Guelph, but oddly there’s no record of him in the cemetery. It’s Dana’s hope that Zanis’ ashes were spread at sea so he could return to Latvia.
After touring Ontario and Quebec, the Priedes headed west to Winnipeg en route to the Rocky Mountains. Kristaps, an electrical engineer, said they were driving from Winnipeg to Calgary and decided to stop in Maple Creek for no particular reason except that he didn’t want to drive too far that day. They stepped out of their motel room to catch a wi-fi signal and could hear Xtreme Bull Riding at High Chaparral Arena. Intrigued, they followed the sound. The rodeo organizers learned the Priedes were visiting Canada and let them watch the rodeo from the chutes. That’s where I met them – I was taking pictures.
Dana seemed a bit weary of standing so close to 1,500 pound bulls, but Kristaps said he liked the adrenaline rush it gave him.
After the rodeo, their first ever, we spoke about the trip they were on. Many parts of Canada, especially Ontario, reminded them of Latvia, which is a country of forests and lakes. In fact, the Priedes often feel they’re at home when travelling in the treed portions of the Great White North. They said Latvians share a cultural trait with Canadians – both like nature. Kristaps’ last name hints at this appreciation of the outdoors – Priede means pine tree.
However, one aspect of the trip shocked the Priedes, especially Dana. She can’t believe the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg doesn’t so much as mention the long list of atrocious crimes committed by Joseph Stalin, the former dictator of the Soviet Union.
Dana’s grandfather was the mayor of his town and he was rounded up and sent to a Soviet prison camp. Political figures disappeared as a matter of course as the Soviets strengthened their control of Latvia.
Dana raised an excellent point. Canadians generally don’t know that under Stalin’s reign anywhere from 20 to 60 million people (sources vary) were killed. There isn’t space here to get into details, but long story short Stalin murdered way more people than even Hitler.
Of course, if your ancestors came to Canada from Russia or from countries the Red Army invaded you know how terrible Stalin was.
The question is why don’t most Canadians know what Stalin was like? Is it because Stalin helped Canada, the US and Britain defeat Nazi Germany? (At no small cost by the way – 20 to 26 million Russians died in WWII, far more than any other nationality.)
Part of me wonders if a left-leaning province like Manitoba would prefer to gloss over the crimes of a fellow socialist like Comrade Stalin. Probably not. Even in right-wing Alberta few people are aware of Stalin’s blood-stained past. I also wonder why I was never taught in high school about what really happened in the Soviet Union. Why isn’t this discussed in Canada?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they fascinate me and they open my eyes about what Canadians know and don’t know about their history and about themselves. Educating myself about the world is one reason to travel or to converse with people from other countries.