CANADA'S CONTRIBUTION TO LITHUANIA’S ROAD TO INDEPENDENCE 1987-2004
Through the Lens of the Press
The secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed by Germany and Russia on August 23rd, 1939 resulted in Lithuania’s forcible annexation into the Soviet Union. It remained an occupied country for the next 50 years. This annexation was never recognized as lawful (‘de jure’) by the international community. Over 50 years of Soviet occupation failed to extinguish Lithuania’s quest for freedom.
The quest for independence in the diaspora began the day Lithuanians, forced to flee from Soviet occupation of their homeland at the end of the Second World War, landed on foreign shores. Lithuanians newly arrived in Canada organized into community groups in the early 1950’s and launched aggressive political action calling for Lithuania’s independence continuously for 40 years until Lithuania re-established its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
On March 11, 1990, Lithuania re-established its independence through what is now called “The Singing Revolution”. “De facto” and “de jure” international recognition of the Republic of Lithuania began in 1991 when on September 17th it was admitted to the United Nations and was completed by 2004 with acceptance of Lithuania as a full-fledged member into NATO on March 29th and the European Union (EU) on May 1st .
The road to independence was complex and hard fought. The Lithuanian-Canadian diaspora had been active in lobbying the Canadian government since the 1950’s and, as the pivotal events of 1989-1991 unfolded, provided assistance as required and requested.
Action by Canada’s government and the Canadian-Lithuanian community was triggered by events moving at a very fast pace within Lithuania as well as in the international arena. Canada re-established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Lithuania on September 2, 1991. We present the story of Canadian involvement in the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence as reflected in the headlines and selected articles found in the Canadian and Lithuanian-Canadian press**.
(Click on the Chapters below and follow our story as told by the press in their words. To expand the articles, click on the image of the article as it appears on the right side of the page. Chapter Introductions feature a “Triggering Event” and the corresponding “Response” from the diaspora or Canadian Government or Lithuanian-Canadian Community.)
- 1987 “Perestroika”;1988 Birth of “Sąjūdis”
- 1989 “Sąjūdis” liaises with diaspora; contacts with the West intensify
- 1990 Independence and Push-back from Moscow begins
- 1991 Soviet aggression intensifies; Canada Recognizes an independent Republic of Lithuania
- 1992-2004 Lithuania Joins the International Community: NATO, EU
(** Sources: clippings collected and gifted to the Lithuanian-Canadian Museum/Archive in Mississauga, Ontario from: The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, The Hamilton Spectator, The Ottawa Citizen, The Montreal Gazette, The Lights of Homeland (“Tėviškės Žiburiai” Lithuanian-Canadian newspaper published in Toronto/Mississauga, Ontario).
1987 “Perestroika”;1988 Birth of “Sąjūdis”
TRIGGERING EVENT: When the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policy of “perestroika”, aiming to reform the economic and political system of the Soviet Union, his ideas fell on fertile ground in Lithuania. It was embraced as a legitimate opportunity to bring about change. However, it soon became clear that reforms sought in Lithuania were not considered legitimate by the Soviet leadership.
RESPONSE: The Lithuanian-Canadian Community (LCC) placed a full-page ad of protest in Canada’s leading national newspaper The Globe and Mail (February 12, 1988). The Soviet embassy in Ottawa issued an official note to the Canadian government protesting the activities of Lithuanian Canadians. This was followed by a 3 day hunger strike on February 16th, 1988 by Lithuanian-Canadian youth in front of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa.
TRIGGERING EVENT: The following year, at a meeting at the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences on June 3rd, 1988, the Sąjūdis Initiative Group was formed to organize a movement to support Gorbachev’s perestroika. Its founding conference was held in Vilnius on October 23rd, 1988. Thus the Reform Movement of Lithuania “SĄJŪDIS” was born and Vytautas Landsbergis, a musicologist, was elected its chairman. Its goal was to re-establish Lithuania’s independence.
RESPONSE: Despite controversy in the diaspora about establishing direct official links, the Lithuanian World Community (LWC), largely influenced by the Canadians who made up half of the executive, decided to accept Sajudis’ invitation and sent the LWC president to its founding conference in Vilnius. The President, Dr. Vytautas Bieliauskas from the US attended and addressed the conference. He represented the diaspora and established direct liaison with Sąjūdis.
1989 “Sąjūdis” liaises with diaspora; contacts with the West intensify
TRIGGERING EVENT: Although commemoration of the Feb. 16th 1918 Lithuanian Independence Day was prohibited and could result in arrests, Sąjūdis, through the Lithuanian World Community (LWC) invited national executive representatives from 24 countries to attend. Only two countries: the Canadian-Lithuanian delegation of four persons and one person from Germany received visas from Moscow.
RESPONSE: The Lithuanian Canadian Community (LCC) delegation, after overcoming blockages at Sheremeteyevo airport in Moscow, successfully reached Lithuania on Feb. 15th, 1989, and gave speeches at the Sąjūdis organized commemorations in Kaunas and Vilnius.
TRIGGERING EVENT: 1989 was a period of intense activity: visits by Sąjūdis officials to Canada and other countries to test the waters regarding support for Lithuania’s call for independence increased.
RESPONSE: LWC and LCC funded these visits as Lithuania had no access to foreign currency. Canadian government officials and parliamentarians met with the visitors. Face-to-face meetings with the diaspora increased and joint communiques were issued calling for independence.
TRIGGERING EVENT: 1989 August 24th Baltic Way linking of hands from Vilnius to Tallin – commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which enabled the annexation of the Baltic States into the USSR and garnered international attention. An appetite for Lithuania to represent itself at international forums grew.
RESPONSE: LWC and LCC enabled participation by the Lithuanian Green Party leader Zigmas Vaišvila in the CSCE Conference on the Environment in Sofia, Bulgaria on October 28-29, 1989. Lithuania spoke for itself and presented memoranda to the international forum prepared jointly by the LCC working group from Toronto with input through Sąjūdis.
TRIGGERING EVENT: The year culminated with the break of the Lithuanian Communist Party from Moscow.
RESPONSE: Preparations began for the first multi-party elections to Lithuania’s Supreme Council in February 1990. Sąjūdis envoys to Canada (Zigmas Vaišvila and Česlovas Senkevičius) attended LCC’s Annual National Convention in Toronto in November and requested assistance from the Lithuanian-Canadian Community.
1990 Independence and Push-back from Moscow begins
TRIGGERING EVENT: While the international community was preoccupied with prevention of war in the Middle East during the Gulf War Crisis of January 1990, on January 11-12th, Gorbachev arrived in Vilnius to warn against seeking independence. He was met with mass demonstrations demanding: “Red Army go home”.
RESPONSE: Canadian-Lithuanians held vigils across Canada demanding independence for Lithuania.
TRIGGERING EVENT: On February 24th, the first multi-party elections in 50 years were held in Lithuania to the Supreme Council of Lithuania (per Soviet administrative structures in the USSR).
RESPONSE: A Canadian all-party delegation of Federal and Ontario parliamentarians, assisted by members of LCC, arrived in Lithuania as official election observers and verified the legitimacy of the electoral process and the election results. Sąjūdis won an overwhelming majority, rechristened the “Supreme Council” to the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania – the “Seimas”, and, by vote of the Seimas declared Independence on March 11th, 1990.
TRIGGERING EVENT: Blockades and push-back from Moscow began. Soviet tanks rolled into Lithuania.
RESPONSE: Canadian politicians debated the issues in Parliament; “SOS Lithuania” action was launched and the Crisis Centre was established in Toronto by the Lithuanian-Canadian Community. LCC hired a full-time lobbyist in Ottawa and hired a full-time LCC Executive Director in Toronto. “One Million for Lithuania” drive was launched to raise funds to support the work of Sąjūdis. Medical aid from Canada was shipped by truck convoys via France to Lithuania. Canadian Lithuanian youth went to work as volunteers for V. Landsbergis and Sąjūdis in Vilnius. LCC launched a telegram campaign asking Canada’s Members of Parliament to recognize Lithuania’s Independence. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark summoned the Soviet Ambassador to Canada for talks.
TRIGGERING EVENT: The Conferences for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) took place in Copenhagen (June 5-29, 1990) at which Lithuania requested observer status and in Paris (Nov. 17-19, 1990) at which Lithuania requested member status and placement of the issue of Lithuania on the CSCE Conference agenda.
RESPONSE: The Lithuanian World and Canadian-Lithuanian Community representatives, together with representatives from Lithuania, prepared and distributed Lithuania’s memoranda, organized international press conferences, visited the delegations attending the CSCE and enabled the participation of Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas and Sąjūdis representatives at the CSCE conferences in Copenhagen (June 5-29, 1990) and Paris (Nov. 17-19, 1990).
1991 Soviet aggression intensifies; Canada Recognizes an independent Republic of Lithuania
TRIGGERING EVENTS: The Soviets, while the world’s attention was on preventing war in the Persian Gulf, tried to destabilize Lithuania by creating economic and social crises, fomenting citizens’ discontent with Lithuania’s government in an effort to compromise its independence. Although the Supreme Council of Lithuania passed a resolution prior to Christmas of 1990, prohibiting the raising of consumer goods and food prices, on January 8th Prime Minister Prunskiene’s Cabinet raised the cost of food by four times. This resulted in massive protests. On January 9th, 1991 the Lithuanian government under Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, following her visit to Moscow, resigned. The next day, on January 10th, three Soviet special force battalions were sent into Lithuania. On January 13th, Soviet Tanks rolled into the capital city of Vilnius and stormed the TV Communications tower and Parliament. Unarmed citizens from across Lithuania rushed to defend their Parliament. On January 13th, 14 unarmed civilians were killed by soviet tanks; the press was censored; murders of volunteer border guards were carried out by the Soviets at border posts. In fulfillment of a condition for independence demanded by Gorbachev, on Feb. 6th, Lithuania held a referendum which confirmed once again the will of the people to re-establish independence.
RESPONSE: Ontario government officials arrived in Vilnius on January 12th, to work with Lithuania’s Parliamentarians and upon the arrival of soviet tanks in Vilnius, were forced to flee. Mass demonstrations were organized by LCC across Canada. Canada suspended $50M in credits to the USSR.
TRIGGERING EVENTS: On August 26th, 1991, Canada recognized Lithuania’s Independence. On September 2nd, 1991, Canada established diplomatic ties in Vilnius.
RESPONSE: Canada, via a Government of Canada jet, flew a delegation led by the Minister of International Trade and Development, Michael Wilson that included representatives of the Canadian Baltic Communities into the capitals of Lithuania (Vilnius), Latvia (Ryga) and Estonia (Tallin) to re-establish diplomatic relations with the newly independent republics. The representatives of the Canadian-Lithuanian Community were LCC president, Joseph Krištolaitis and vice-presidents Algis Pacevičius and Gabija Petrauskas. Canada’s envoy, Minister Michael Wilson, representing Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, signed protocols re-establishing Canada’s diplomatic relations with the Republic of Lithuania with Lithuania’s Prime Minister, Gediminas Vagnorius in Vilnius on September 2nd, 1991.
1992-2004 Lithuania Joins the International Community: NATO, EU
▪ 1992 Opening of Lithuania’s Embassy in Brussels on September 22nd. A major achievement of the Lithuanian-Canadian Community was the $1M “Aid to Lithuania” fundraising drive which reached its goal in under a year. The funds enabled LCC to purchase a building in Brussels and to gift it to the new Government of Lithuania so that it could work more effectively in seeking membership in the European Union and NATO.
▪ The diaspora undertook a myriad of projects providing professional assistance to Lithuania. Through the CANDLE project, teachers spent summers in Lithuania teaching teachers to teach English. Technical assistance in various fields, such as government transparency and accountability, public service and administration, health care, municipal government, justice, economic development and trade, and academia, etc. flourished. The Governments of Canada and the Province of Ontario, IPAC (the Institute of Public Administration of Canada) as well as CESO (Canadian Executive Service Overseas) took advantage of technical assistance funding grants made available by the Canadian government for projects in Lithuania to work in partnership with their counterparts in Lithuania. Many private individual initiatives were also undertaken such as establishment of dental teaching offices, gifting of book and art collections to universities and galleries in Lithuania, establishment of social service agencies for families and youth, building of voluntarism, shipments of medical aid, support for local police forces, many cultural group and performer exchanges, etc.
TRIGGERING EVENT: The priority focus now was on the removal of Soviet troops from Lithuania.
RESPONSE: A massive letter-writing campaign to government officials and parliamentarians asking that Canada demand removal of Soviet troops from Lithuania was organized by the Canadian-Lithuanian Community (LCC).
TRIGGERING EVENT: Canada was preparing to grant commercial credit to Lithuania to aid in its economic recovery. The Soviets demanded that Canada require Lithuania to use the Canadian credits to first repay “debts it owed” to the Soviet Union for expenses the Soviets incurred during the time Lithuania was under the rule of the USSR.
RESPONSE: Thanks to major lobbying efforts by LCC in Ottawa, Canada extended unconditional commercial credits to Lithuania.
TRIGGERING EVENT: In order to enhance its security, Lithuania sought membership in NATO.
RESPONSE: LCC organized a lobby effort asking Canada’s Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, to support Lithuania’s bid to become a member of NATO, while he was participating at the Madrid Conference. Petitions were presented through the Member of Parliament for Toronto’s High Park, Mr. Jesse Fliss.
TRIGGERING EVENT: Diplomatic relations between Canada and Lithuania were managed in Lithuania’s Embassy in Washington, DC through an “attaché for Canadian affairs”.
RESPONSE: LCC sent a letter to Lithuania’s president Algirdas Brazauskas asking that the temporary attaché for Lithuanian affairs currently assigned to Canada and working from Lithuania’s Embassy in Washington, DC, be elevated to the level of Ambassador to Canada and be established in Ottawa so that it can function independently from the US. Lithuania eventually opened its embassy in Ottawa.
▪ 2004 March 29th Lithuania was accepted as a full-fledged member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the EU (European Union) on May 1st.
This digital exhibition was prepared by Gabija Petrauskiene.
This post is also available in: LT