I have often wondered what exactly brought my Latvian ancestors to settle in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. The first of my Latvians to settle here was Fricis Vinakmens with his family. I am not sure if Kitchener was their original destination or not, nor do I know the entire story of his immigration (maybe one day I will find out!), but Karlis Vinakmens joined him here in 1956 with his family. Maybe Fricis helped him to secure a job here? Again, not sure! Arvids Akerfelds followed suit in 1957, to be reunited with his future wife.
In any case, whatever brought them, probably to their surprise they settled in a city with a very strong German heritage, home of North America’s largest Oktoberfest celebrations. Kitchener was settled by German mennonites, and originally named Berlin, but the name fell out of fashion quickly during WWI, and was changed to Kitchener in honor of British Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the 1st Earl Kitchener who died the same year as the re-naming. The festival has been officially running only since the late 1960′s, understandably since a festival with such roots would probably have been frowned upon in the WWII era.
Celebrations in Kitchener kick-off on the Friday before Thanksgiving, and typically include a parade, a Miss Oktoberfest pageant, polka music, traditional German dress (lederhosen and dirndl), a free-for-all pancake breakfast, an official keg-tapping ceremony at city hall, a barrel- or keg-rolling race, schnitzel and Oktoberfest sausage with sauerkraut, and of course, beer. Festhallen and biergartens are run by local German clubs (the Concordia club, Shwaben club, etc). The festival’s mascots are Onkel Hans and Tante Frieda, two roly-poly orange-skinned characters in traditional German garb.
Imagine the Latvians’ surprise when they came to Canada only to meet people with German surnames of German descent and watched Kitchener transform into a Bavarian festival for nine days each October! Or, was the prevalence of German-speakers part of the reason why Kitchener was chosen as a new home?