An early community pioneer, Dr. Rita Matiisen

On Friday, April 24th, the Central Alberta Refugee Effort (C.A.R.E.) will be holding its first inaugural ‘Around The World’ fundraiser at the Holiday Inn on Gasoline Alley in Red Deer.

C.A.R.E. has been helping immigrants who have moved to Red Deer for more than 35 years.

In 1979, Dorothy (Dot) and Les Towns began a ‘grass-roots’ organization to assist Indo-Chinese refugees who had moved to Canada in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

This grassroots organization has developed into C.A.R.E., which provides a wide range of services in the community including community outreach, immigrant youth programs, child care, English as a second language instruction, community integration support and many other services to assist immigrants and immigrant groups as they settle in Red Deer and area.

There is a long history of refugees and immigrants who have contributed greatly to our community, going back to the very earliest days of Red Deer.

One remarkable individual who contributed a great deal to Central Alberta, and the province as a whole, was Dr. Rita Matiisen.

Dr. Rita Sigrid Matiisen was born on May 25, 1909 in Jogeva, Estonia, in a private hospital operated by her father.

She graduated in Medicine, magna cum laude, at the University of Tartu, Estonia, in 1934.

She then obtained a specialization in dentistry from the University of Vienna in Austria in 1937. She practiced dentistry in Talinn, Estonia, for more than five years.

Meanwhile in 1932, she married Voldemar Matiisen. They had two sons, Hendo (1938) and Arne (1939), and a daughter Eda (1943). Voldemar got a position as a head of forestry in the Estonian Department of Agriculture.

As Dr. Matiisen developed her dental practice and raised her family, the Second World War raged around them.

In 1940, Estonia was occupied and then annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the pact made between Hitler and Stalin at the start of the War. In 1941, Germany suddenly turned on its ally. It invaded Estonia, the Soviet Union, and other countries under Soviet control.

In 1944, the tide of War turned again.

The Soviets reoccupied Estonia. The Matiisens fled to Sweden as refugees. The family became fluent in Swedish. Voldemar got a job in reforestation. Rita was allowed to restart a dental practice.

However, times remained tough in post-war Europe. The Matiisens decided to emigrate to Alberta. Voldemar’s two brothers had settled in the Eckville area in the 1930s. Voldemar and Rita were able to purchase a small farm in the Gilby area after their arrival in 1948.

The family now had to master English – their fifth language.

Rita worked with her husband on the farm, became very active in community affairs, and took correspondence courses to improve her Canadian education.

In 1965, she was able to enroll in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta where she secured a teaching certificate. She then taught at the Eckville High School for many years and worked as the school librarian.

Rita became an active member of the Medicine Valley Estonian Society, an executive member of the Eckville Home and School Association, provincial president of the Alberta Federation of Homes and School Associations and vice chair of the Parkland Regional Library Board.

She was a Board member of the Central and East European Studies Society of Alberta, an executive member of the Red Deer International Folk Festival Society, a member of the Parkland Weavers’ Guild, and a board member for the Red Deer and District Museum Society.

After her husband died in 1980, Dr. Matiisen moved into Red Deer. In 1984, she was honored with an Alberta Achievement Award for Community Service. On Nov. 26th, 1998, she passed away in Red Deer at the age of 89.

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