Documenting the Story of Latvians in Canada

Nova Scotia, Pier 21
Documenting the Story of Latvians in Canada

Viesturs Zarins

Even though there have been Latvians in Canada since at least the 1890s, there is no definitive history that documents their story in this country. There is however a collection of books and articles focussing on specific individuals and regional histories of Latvians in Canada.

Most recently are the three books that I have published starting in 2019 with “Latvian Pioneers, Socialists and Refugees in Manitoba – An illustrated journey through the history of Latvians in Manitoba (1895-2018)”. It chronicles three waves of Latvian immigrants, the first being those who left Latvia then part of the Russian Empire and largely under the control of Baltic German nobility and gentry. These immigrants were looking for land they could own and farm. Being masters of their own destiny was a common mantra.

The second were political refugees who fled after brutal suppression of the failed socialist inspired 1905 Revolution. Over 5,000 found a home in North America settling mostly in the Rust Belt of the United States. Some, longing to escape big cities and work long hours in squalid factories packed up and headed west including a number who settled in Winnipeg and Manitoba. There many farmed, worked in the forests, prospected and trapped. A number joined the budding labour and socialist movement in Canada’s prairie provinces.

Prior to World War II (WWII), there were just under 1,000 Latvians in Canada with half in Manitoba. They were supplanted by the wave of displaced persons from refugee camps in Germany and Sweden who had fled Soviet occupation of their homelands. After arriving in Canada, they had to sign one or two year labour contracts. Those assigned to Manitoba worked on the farms of the province, in lumber camps, mines and as domestics or hospital workers in Winnipeg. After fulfilling their contract, most headed to the Toronto area, which was to become the Latvian “capital” in Canada. Those who stayed in Manitoba built a robust Latvian community in Winnipeg that lasted into the early 21st century.

There are also a number of other publications that provide insights to the Latvian presence in Manitoba. In 2010, Aina (Gulbis) Turton published the book “The House Beside the Rock Hill”. She was born in 1926. Her father had immigrated to Manitoba from Brazil in 1908 where he had first settled after leaving Latvia. But the hot tropical climate was not to his liking. Aina’s mother arrived later directly from Latvia. In the book, Aina described growing up in Bird River, a small predominantly Latvian community northeast of Winnipeg near the Ontario border and the town of Lac Du Bonnet. There were several other Latvian settlements in the area totalling 60 to 70 families.

There have also been several regional histories, collections of family stories that have been published in Manitoba and include Latvians. Two are from the Lac Du Bonnet area titled “Logs and Lines” (1980) and “Caviar and Venison” (1991). “Memoirs from the Past” published in 1999 includes stories of Latvian settler families who farmed in what is now the Rural Municipality of Mossey River north of Dauphin. Up to 20 families, some related to each other, had established homesteads in the area prior to World War I.  “The History of the Lindenberg Family in Manitoba” published in 1985, is a family history, that includes the story of the Latvian settlement of Libau (the German name for the Latvian port city Liepaja) northeast of Winnipeg, the first home of the Lindenbergs in Canada.

Much about the early story of Latvians in Canada can be gleaned from “Kanadeetis”. It was a newspaper published for one year out of Winnipeg in 1913 and contained literary pieces, topical questions, and news updates that would have been of interest to Latvian immigrants. Its readership was much wider than just Winnipeg or Manitoba. A collection is housed at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The largest settlement of Latvians in Manitoba was in the Lac Du Bonnet area about an hour northeast of Winnipeg. The district’s Historical Society has done much to preserve the story of early immigrants including those from Latvia in the area. The Society has hosted a number of Latvian themed events and its museum has various Latvian exhibits including photos and artefacts. As of 2024, the Society is working on developing a self-guided Latvian Heritage Trail that when completed will have up to 30 stops complete with a brochure, map and accompanying web site. The envisioned trail will be unique without any Latvian rival outside of Latvia.

The Latvian presence in Manitoba is preserved through a large number of Latvian place names including the village of Libau as well as various roads, lakes, creeks and landmarks. Lettonia, the Latin name for Latvia, was the largest Latvian farming settlement but has since been absorbed by the Regional Municipality of Lac Du Bonnet. Historical plaques commemorating the Latvian presence in Manitoba have been placed at four locations. The first is at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Winnipeg, a German congregation whose church was used by the post WWII Latvian congregation for many years. Next is the plaque at Lettonia Cemetery east of Lac Du Bonnet. Another plaque has been placed at the cenotaph in Fork River north of Dauphin. The fourth is at the Bird River Cemetery. Two Latvian community halls were built in the Lac Du Bonnet area. The first was in Lettonia, built in 1924 and no longer standing. The second was in nearby Lee River built in 1931 which was home of many Latvian social events well into the 1950s and is now in non-Latvian hands.

Much smaller in size, was my second book titled “The Latvians of Matheson Ontario” published in 2021. It is the story of a small Latvian settlement of homesteads founded circa 1910 about an hour east of Timmins and seven hours by car north of Toronto. The book focusses on the interplay of the original settlers and that of a WWII Latvian refugee family who came to Matheson and purchased one of the Latvian homesteads after completing their labour contract.

Prior to WWII, Alberta had the second largest number of Latvians in Canada. Unlike Manitoba, Latvian settlements in Alberta were less concentrated and somewhat transitory. The first Latvian church in Canada was built in 1903 jointly with a German congregation. It was located in Josephsburg, in the southeastern corner of the province and is no longer standing.

Three books and monographs document the story of Latvians in Alberta. The first is in Latvian with an English summary and titled “ The beginnings of Latvian immigration in the province of Alberta and the homestead of Charles Plavin” (Karlis Plavins) published in 1979. It was written Paul Kundzins, a renowned architect in pre-WWII independent Latva who fled the country as a refugee and settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia after the war. Kundzins had been one of the architects of Latvia’s open-air ethnographic museum (Brivdabas muzejs) just outside of Riga and still thriving today as a cultural repository of traditional Latvian country life. The focus of Kundzins book is Plavin who fled Latvia to avoid retribution after the 1905 Revolution. After a stint working in the quarries near San Francisco, he moved to Alberta eventually ending up in the Peace River District of Northern Alberta. There he became a prosperous farmer, a civic leader and philanthropist. Although much of the book is about the architecture of the buildings on Plavin’s homestead, Kundzins provides some context about Latvian settlement in Alberta. Of note, is that Plavin’s homestead is now preserved by the province as a place of significance in its Register of Historic Places.

A monograph published by Jane McCracken in 1979 was titled “The Overlord of the Little Prairie”. It focusses on Charles Plavin and includes historical photos but also describes the opening up of the Peace River District in Alberta. A broader paper was published  in 1980 by Ausma Janitens-Birzgalis, a refugee from Latvia who settled in Edmonton after the war. While early Latvian immigration to Alberta is covered, the focus is on social attitudes within the post WWII community in Edmonton based on the analysis of  questionnaires returned to her with summaries published in a number of tables.

There are a number of early Latvian stories further west in British Columbia. First up is the story of a gang of Latvian anarchists who moved from California around 1910 and set up a counterfeit printing operation on remote Nootka Island off the coast of Vancouver Island. They produced high quality $10 bills with state of the art photographic equipment which with the help of sympathetic passing seamen were distributed in the United States. The intent was to fund the revolution in Russia and to bring down the American economy. Ultimately the FBI and Canada’s RCMP caught up with them and the ringleader was arrested in New York in 1912. The story can be found in a 1942 edition of the BC Police Journal and the website of now deceased Professor Andris Straumanis of Wisconsin.

Another Vancouver Island story is that of the enterprising Perry brothers (the surname was possibly anglicized from Porietis) who also made their home in the Nootka area arriving in 1921 and 1922. One of them was an avid photographer and his collection of photographs chronicling pioneer life in the area is housed at the British Columbia Archives in a separate collection. Their story is documented in one chapter of “Salt Chuck Stories from Vancouver Island’s West Coast” published in 2006. Perry River, Perry Lake and Perry Bridge are named after the brothers.

Robert Aller was the youngest son of John Aller who was likely the first Latvian settler in Manitoba arriving in 1895. Robert gained international recognition as an artist (he was mentored by Canadian Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer) and art educator. As an adult, he settled in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Robert was inspired by the art of Canada’s indigenous First Nations peoples and would work with troubled youth on reserves and in residential schools. His life is documented in the book “Robert Aller – The man who speaks with wolves” (a nickname bestowed on him by the First Nations) published by Anne Pley in 2006 shortly before Aller passed away in 2008.

Another notable of Latvian descent is Arnold Sphor. His grandfather was one of the original settlers in Libau, Manitoba. Arnold role to prominent first as a ballet dancer and then for many years as the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. His story is interwoven in “40 Years of One Night Stands”, a documentary film on the troupe produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 2008.

No doubt there are other stories yet to be discovered. For example, perusal of early pre-War Latvian periodicals published in North America pick-up references to Latvians in far-flung places such as Blind River and Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), both in Ontario, and mining town Fernie in British Columbia. Having said that, it is also possible that these fragments have been lost forever in time.

My third book published in 2024 is titled “Nova Scotia Latvian Connections – Untold stories of arrival, haven and home”. There were few in any Latvians in Nova Scotia prior to WWII. However, Halifax and the province figure prominently in the history of Latvians in Canada. Thousands of Latvians from the refugee camps in Germany and Sweden arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax after the war, some arriving illegally after crossing the Atlantic in a treacherous voyage in small boats. Most stayed only for a few days and then went on assigned labour contracts further in central or western Canada. Some stayed in Nova Scotia for several years and others for good. Among those who arrived were a number of prominent performing artists, ballet dancers, opera singers, conductors and composers, who had already broken onto the European stage before the war. Unlike most, they were able to gain immediate employment in their fields in Nova Scotia with some in New Brunswick, and greatly contributed to the cultural scene of Atlantic Canada. There were also a number of families who were assigned to work on the province’s farms who then later purchased their own farms. A number of their descendants continue to farm today. Nova Scotia has also had numerous cultural, athletic and political contacts with Latvia at international events and competitions in the province since Latvia regained independence in 1991.

There was also a Latvian presence in Newfoundland. The story of prominent pre-WWII Latvian economist and politician Alfreds Valdmanis is profiled in the book “Alfred Valdmanis and the Politics of Survival” published by Gerhard Bassler in 2000. Valdmanis rose to become Director General of Economic Development in Newfoundland shortly after the province joined Canada. He fell in disgrace several years later. Ilga Leja has documented the story of a group of Latvian engineers who settled in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, after the war, recruited to work in the town’s mills. It can be found in the 2021 anthology “Land of Many Shores” and the chapter “Newfoundland’s Offer: How Baltic People Came to Corner Brook in the 1950s”.

The story of Latvian refugees who arrived in Canada after World War II and the thriving communities they built primarily centered in Southern Ontario and still going strong today, has yet to be written. There is a wealth of material that can be found in Latvian newspapers and journals published in Canada that are accessible at, the digital collection of the National Library of Latvia and at the library of the Canadian Latvian Cultural Centre in Toronto. For the most part the material is in Latvian and fragmentary. For example, there is an excellent series of articles written by Martins Stauvers in “Montrealas zinotajs” on the foundations and early years of the Latvian community in Montreal. Demographic information on the community can be found in census data published by Statistics Canada. There are also the three recent books published by Uldis Lote and Karina Mierins, somewhat similar to a Who’s Who, that profile Canadian Latvian artists, artisans, cultural figures, community activists and organizations. Someone will have to piece things together in a coherent narrative.

Note: This author’s three books can be purchased online or in person at Letts Shop in the Canadian Latvian Cultural Centre in Toronto. However, the Manitoba book is close to being out of print.