World War II refugees from Latvia, finding sanctuary in Canada immediately founded congregations and schools, and along with them, choirs and folk dance groups. The first Latvian choir in Canada, indeed North America, was a choir of Latvian refugee gold miners in northern Ontario, founded by composer Imants Sakss in 1948. Sakss went on the found the choir of the Hamilton Latvian Society not long after.
Understandably, these refugees wanted to recreate the song festival traditions of Latvia, that, in many people’s view, helped create a nation. The first such festival in Latvia (these festivals are on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage) took place in 1873 in Rīga, the first festivals in the “New World” in 1953, in both Chicago and Toronto.
The Latvian Song Festival Association in Canada was founded in 1958, (following the Second Latvian Song Festival in Canada), to provide support for future festivals. Since that time, the LSFAC has been responsible for all festivals, choosing festival dates and location, recommending an organizing committee, compiling suggestions from the membership and providing operating capital. LSFAC members are all Latvian choirs and dance groups in Canada, and all the organizations that are stakeholders in the festival.
From the very beginning, the of song festivals aim was to maintain cultural traditions, and to support choirs and dance groups until the time when Latvia would be free from oppression again. The earliest organizers were often also creative artists: composers and choreographers, authors and visual artists, and new creations have always had a large role in Canadian and American festivals. The current festival will be replete with new works in music and dance, literature and art.
Since Latvia’s renewed independence, the focus of the song festival association is also on Latvia, and working together with its singers and dancers and other artists. All festivals since 1991 have enjoyed the participation of artists from Latvia, and for 2019, we are preparing for a particularly large number of guests. In the opposite direction, the Latvian Ministry of Culture and National Cultural Centre have sent choir conductors and dance masters to help our singers and dancers to prepare for festivals in Latvia, which they are doing in increasingly large numbers.
Several generations of professional artists in all disciplines have grown up outside of Latvia, and the festivals are wonderful opportunities for them to share their talents next to colleagues from Latvia.
As Latvians sing in a favourite folk song “My father’s town was small, but mighty!”. Outside of Latvia, we are that small town of Latvians, very far from the capital city Rīga, but we ARE mighty!