A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History

A History of Greek Immigration to Canada

 

Yannis Phokas, the first Greek believed to have visited Canada, arrived over four hundred years ago. He came from the Greek island of Cephalonia and landed on Canada's West Coast as a member of the Spanish Fleet. Permanent Greek emigration didn't occur until the mid-1850s, when a number of Greek sailors deserted ship near Quebec City. In 1900, there were only 39 people claiming to be from Greek descent in all of Canada.

Between 1900 and 1911 this number grew to 2,000 Greeks, arriving mostly as refugees from the war between the Greeks and the Turks, and the loss of that war to the Ottoman Empire. The Turks imposed a constitution which forced Greeks living in territories now controlled by Turks, to serve in the army.

The Greeks were also fleeing terrible economic conditions. Many of the first arrivals were single men desperate to re-make their lives. Sometimes they married local Canadian women; often they returned to Greece to find a bride arranged by their families.

The Greeks who came to Canada tended to settle in the urban centres with the majority settling in Montréal, Toronto and to a lesser degree, Vancouver. Within these cities, Greek communities formed, usually in older parts of the city where rents were cheaper. Often, several families would live together in one house, sharing expenses until they became established and could afford their own homes.

The immigrants tended to be uneducated, unskilled and spoke neither official language. Once in Canada, many worked long hours as waiters, manual labourers, or factory workers. Others developed an entrepreneurial spirit and ran small businesses, such as fruit and grocery wholesale and retail firms and travel agencies.

Greek immigrants brought some of their political quarrels from the old country. In the case of Montréal Greeks this divided the community between Monarchists and Democrats. One of the unifying factors was the church. The first Greek Orthodox Church in Canada was acquired from the Methodists in Montréal in 1906. In Toronto, a Greek Orthodox Church was built three years later. The Church was not only a place of worship, but the Priest resolved community disputes, offered financial advice and marriage counseling.

During World War I, many Canadians viewed the Greeks with suspicion, partly because they didn't speak English and lived as a community, and partly because Greek King Constantine was a German sympathizer. As well, many Greeks had been born in Turkish territory, the country Britain and Canada were at war with. Despite the Greeks' claim to loyalty to Canada, many people wanted them declared ‘enemy aliens' - forced to bear the same restrictions as Germans, Ukrainians and Turks.

During the war years, there were isolated incidences of Greeks being assaulted and their shops being vandalized. Despite these threats and obstacles, Greek immigration increased in Canada during the 1920s, with the pattern of settling in the cities continuing. As the first generation of Greeks raised in Canada came of age, many of the old biases which had divided the Greek community faded away. Greeks raised in Canada didn't care if a person was a monarchist or a democrat - they went to school together, learned English and many went on to university.

During the 1930s, Canada virtually closed its doors to immigrants - keeping the gate locked until the end of World War II. After the war, Canada stood like a beacon to the world's refugees. In one of this century's greatest humanitarian acts, Canada opened its doors to thousands of European refugees - former friends and foes alike.

Unfortunately, Greece descended into bloodshed after WWII - in the form of a civil war (1946-49). By the end of this civil war, there was a mass exodus of immigrants from Greece. Over 100,000 arrived in Canada. The established Canadian Greek communities had already assimilated into the greater Canadian culture: their children had gone to school in Canada, and many had married Canadians; the Greek language was not spoken as much; Greek customs and dances were saved for special occasions. ‘Displaced Persons', as the post World War II Greeks were referred, were scarred not only by the civil war, but by World War II. They were largely unskilled, destitute, unfamiliar with either official language, but with a fierce sense of Greek culture and a desire to preserve it. They challenged the older Greek order and changed the nature of the Greek community in Canada.

Fifty-five years later, emigration from Greece once again has been reduced to a trickle. The Greek economy is doing well. There has been decades of political stability. The ‘Displaced Persons' are now grandparents. Many of the children of these original immigrants have become established in highly respected careers. Some of the country's poorest immigrants have rebounded to become some of the greatest success stories, adding to the tapestry called Canada.