Celebrating our Latvian & Estonian Roots

In January 2022, Northern Birch Credit Union celebrates our 2 year anniversary! But our history is, of course, much longer than that. Our countries and cultures have much in common, and both of our founding credit unions have a long history of supporting our respective communities here in Ontario.

It is an exciting journey to bridge our communities and Northern European cultures here in Ontario, through our common credit union!

Both the Estonian Credit Union and the Latvian Credit Union were started in the 1950s by members of the communities who had recently come to Canada. Both credit unions have always had a strong focus on our members and our communities, providing service in our home languages and in a familiar setting. Members could feel comfortable banking with others who understood where they had come from and what their current needs were.

The Estonian Credit Union was founded in 1954. Business was initially conducted in the common room of St. Andrew’s Church in Toronto – on the first night that the credit union opened, the room was so crowded that business was even conducted in the kitchen! By the end of its first month of operations the credit union had accepted $5,329.30 in deposits and had granted 3 loans totaling $1,000. The credit union continued to grow and moved into the Estonian House in 1960.

Founding board members and employees of the credit union in 1973 – using an old NCR machine.

The Latvian Credit Union was founded in 1959. The first board was elected at a meeting held in May of that year, with 54 members participating in the meeting. When the credit union was opened for business in June of 1959, short term savings rates were 3.5%, long term rates were 4% and personal loan rates were 9.6%. The Toronto Latvian Credit Union was the first Latvian credit union abroad! In the 1970s, the Latvian credit unions in Hamilton and London joined the Toronto credit union. In 1980, the branch at the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre was opened.

Feb 16, 1959 – Toronto Latvian Credit Union Interim Board, signing the Memorandum of Association in order to establish the Credit Union.

Both the Estonian and Latvian credit unions continued to modernize over the following decades, offering traveler’s cheques in the 1970s, and later providing debit cards and online banking options. Bringing together our two credit unions gives us the opportunity to build and to offer a wider range of financial services, while still providing member services in our own languages in a community-oriented way.

In our two years of working together in a united credit union, what have we learned from and about each other? We asked some of our staff members to share their experiences.

Holidays and celebrations:

Latvians and Estonians share many of the same holidays and celebrations. Midsummer is a big celebration in both countries, with Līgo (Lat)/Jaaniöö (Est) celebrated on the evening of June 23rd and Jāņi (Lat)/Jaanipäev (Est) on June 24th. Being nature-loving people, we celebrate by weaving wreaths from flowers and leaves, enjoying the long day with bonfires, and searching for the elusive fern blossoms, as well as with singing and dancing. Six months later, we celebrate Christmas, which both countries celebrate on December 24th. Estonians wish each other “Häid pühi!” or “Häid jõulupühi!” while Latvians wish each other “Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus!”

Traditional Latvian wreath

Due to our shared history of occupations, each country also has two independence days. Estonians celebrate February 24th 1918 and August 20th 1991. Latvians celebrate November 18th 1918 and May 4th 1990. In 1918, both countries declared their independence for the first time; in 1990 and 1991, Latvia and Estonia restored their independence after decades under Soviet rule.

Traditional Estonian folk costume


What better to unite two cultures than food? We have had a couple of opportunities to be together with staff from all NBCU branches, where we have learned that we all very much enjoy pīrāgi (Lat)/pirukad (Est) and kliņgeris(Lat)/kringel(Est) (and that we all enjoy debating the best fillings for pīrāgi/pirukad). Around Christmas, we were able to enjoy some piparkūkas (Lat)/piparkoogid (Est). Latvian Centre branch staff have enjoyed some rasols (Lat)/rosolje (Est) – beet and potato salad – that a member has brought in for them. And thanks to Lett’s Shop in the Latvian Centre selling goodies from both Latvia and Estonia, we have all discovered some new favourite treats!

We have also discovered that our Christmas meals are quite different. Christmas sausages are a requirement on the Estonian Christmas table, whether those be verivorstid (barley and blood sausages) or valged vorsti/makid (barley and pork sausages). Latvians do eat blood sausages, but they are not a Christmas dish there. A Latvian Christmas meal is not complete without pelēkie zirņi (grey peas, with bacon and onion) – it is important to finish this dish, otherwise you will cry all year. A Latvian Christmas dinner must consist of at least 9 dishes, including the grey peas and pīrāgi.


Although the names of some of our favourite foods are similar in the two languages, Estonian and Latvian are in fact very different languages. Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, while Latvian belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. But even if we do not understand each other’s languages, it is interesting to get to hear the different languages at work. A few of our staff members have been so immersed in the “other” language over the past couple of years that they have even managed brief chats with members in a language they have just picked up at work! Here are a few key words and phrases we have learned from each other:

Thank you!Aitäh! / Tänan!Paldies!
I do not speak Latvian Es nerunāju latviski
I do not speak EstonianMina ei räägi eesti keelt 
GoodbyeNägemist/Head päevaUz redzēšanos

Cultural activities here in Ontario:

Estonians and Latvians here in Ontario work hard to maintain our languages and cultural heritage abroad. While many of our cultural activities have had to take a break from in-person activities, NBCU has continued to support our organizations throughout the pandemic. The Latvian National Youth Association in Canada had to cancel their annual in-person art showcase ŠMIJ and was looking for ways to continue to engage their members and hold a virtual event. NBCU reached out and supported their virtual “šķēršļu gājiens” (scavenger hunt), which included Latvians from Canada, the United States, England and Latvia. Members are already asking about this year’s virtual event! Estonian Music Week also had to pivot their activities over the past couple of years, and NBCU continued to support the event through sponsoring some of the virtual performances in 2020 and the “Northern Birch Stage” when shows were able to be held live in 2021.

Many of us who work at Northern Birch are also active in the Estonian and Latvian communities outside of work. Our staff members are Latvian and Estonian School teachers, singers, folkdancers, summer camp board members, Guides and Scouts, Fraternity and Sorority members, book club participants, and so much more! We are thankful and proud to work somewhere that supports these community activities and initiatives, from our youngest members in the Kindergartens to our members who have been with the credit unions since the beginning, and everyone in between.


Do you have a community project or event that you’d like our help with? 

Email us at newsletter@northernbirchcu.com with details!

Author: NorthernBirchCU

A co-operative financial institution based out of Toronto, Ontario.

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