Latvia is a country of 24,938 square miles situated on the Baltic Sea. It is bordered by Estonia on the north, Russia on the east, and Belarus and Lithuania on the south. The region was settled by Baltic peoples in ancient times but was ruled at various times by the Vikings, Germans, Poles, Swedes, and Russians. As a result of Russian occupation in the 18th century, about 30 percent of the present-day population is Russian, while 58 percent is Latvian, 4 percent Belarusian, 2.7 percent Ukrainian, and 2.5 percent Polish. About 40 percent of the population is Christian, almost equally divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics; 60 percent are largely unreligious.
Latvian immigrants were historically divided and thus did not form the strong ethnic communities common to many immigrant groups from eastern Europe. “Old Latvians” settling in the United States prior to World War II (1939–45) were usually young and single. Most were seeking economic opportunities, though a significant number were political activists. The latter were divided among nationalists, seeking the independence of Latvia from Russia, and socialists, who were more concerned with the condition of workers under the Russian system. Latvian immigration increased following the abortive Revolution of 1905. There was little immigration between World War I (1914–18) and World War II. Because Latvian immigrants were usually included in statistics as Russians, it is difficult to know exactly how many came during this early phase of immigration. By 1940, about 35,000 people claimed Latvian descent; it is estimated that some 25,000 Latvians immigrated to the United States prior to that time. The “New Latvian” group was created when the conflict between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany left almost a quarter million Latvians in refugee camps after World War II. About 40,000 of these immigrated to the United States as displaced persons after 1946. Unlike the Old Latvians, they tended to see themselves as only temporarily displaced, though most chose to remain in the United States after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Latvia in 1991. Between 1992 and 2002, Latvian immigration to the United States averaged about 600 per year.
Few Latvians settled in Canada before World War II. Between 1921, when Latvians were first categorized as a group distinct from Russians, and 1945, only 409 arrived in Canada. Almost all Latvian Canadians were part of or are descended from, refugees and displaced persons who arrived between 1947 and 1957. Whereas the Old Latvians, who had come prior to the war, lived principally in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, more than two-thirds of the New Latvians chose Ontario. In 2001, about two-thirds of all Latvian Canadians live in Ontario, and about half of them in Toronto. Though many Latvians immigrated to Canada with professional training, they often worked in construction or related trades upon arrival. By the 1970s, they were moving back into skilled positions, especially engineering for men and medicine for women. Immigration from Latvia remained small between 1960 and 1990, generally fewer than 100 arriving in a year. Following independence in 1991, immigration among Latvians increased somewhat, as they sought economic opportunities within an increasingly global economic system. Of 7,675 Latvian immigrants in Canada in 2001, 5,155 (67 percent) arrived before 1961. About 1,500 came between 1991 and 2001.
See also Russian immigration; Soviet immigration.