The 20th century was not kind to the country of Greece. Marred by civil wars, world wars and economic depression, many Greeks, tired of economic instability and political fighting, left the land of their birth to find better promises in other countries.
In Canada, the numbers tell the story. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 39 persons in Canada claimed to be Greek. By the end of the century, 203,345 Greek Canadians living in Canada. The vast majority of these people arrived in Canada between 1911-1929 and between 1946-1981.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Canadian Government did not encourage their immigration - Greeks were considered undesirable. The Dominion Government wanted settlers for Canada's West. The Greeks did not want to come to Canada to be farmers. Many had been farmers in Greece. Farming life in Greece was tough, hard work, the crops often failed. Farmers were not well respected in Greek society. When they emigrated to Canada, they wanted to live in the cities.
Greeks tended to congregate in certain neighbourhoods of Montréal and Toronto, and, to a lesser degree, Vancouver. Coming from the rural life of Greece and its islands, the city experience was overwhelming. The majority of the immigrants did not speak English or French. Few were skilled or educated.
Viewed suspiciously during World War I, few Greeks were allowed into the Canadian army for fear of their loyalties to their homeland. Twenty Greek men from the Montréal community, however, did join. Of this group, three were killed and seven wounded. Throughout the war, Greeks continued to try and enlist without success. As was illustrated in October 1917, the Major General of Canadian Military District #6 in Halifax, asked for General Commanding Officer in Ottawa whether or not it would be in order to enlist Greeks for the Canadian Expeditionary force. The reply was as follows: ‘in individual cases, Greeks who appear suitable may be enlisted. No special effort, however, should be made to recruit them'. The unsuitable Greeks at that time were the supporters of King Constantine of Greece who was neutral. For the majority of Canadians, Greek loyalty throughout the war was suspect.
In 1929, with the collapse of the stock exchange, Canada, like much of the world fell into the depths of a great economic depression, which lasted ten long and lean years. During this time Canada stopped accepting immigrants. Not until the Second World War brought an end to the Depression, did Canada open its doors. It wasn't until the late 1940's, twenty years after the previous influx, that Greek immigrants again began to arrived. Over 100,000 Greeks emigrated to Canada between 1946 and 1981. Many of these Greeks were attracted to Canada because they had witnessed the money sent home.
In the early 1950's Canada changed the immigration criteria encouraging sponsorship of friends and relatives. Thousands applied to have friends/relatives/former co-workers accepted. There was still racial bias in Canada in the 1950's, coupled with Canada entering a period of recession. There was growing resentment towards these new immigrants who were viewed as taking jobs from Canadians, bringing down the tone of a neighbourhood by having several families living together in one house, being members of a strange religion and eating smelly foods.
In the 1950's, there was the perception within the Greek community that the justice system favoured Canadians of British heritage over other ethnic groups. This perception was based upon both fact and here say, which led to a greater sense of isolation and distrust within the community.
Post war Greek immigrants were given the unflattering label of ‘DP' short for ‘Displaced Person'. They too faced the obstacles of the previous immigrants - lack of knowledge of both official languages, uneducated, with few skills. The established Greek community in Canada helped these newcomers get established. Many welcomed the people whom they sponsored into their homes to stay. It was not unusual for two or three families to live under one roof. The total lack of privacy, shared facilities, led to difficulties within these families.
An important Greek organization which was formed after World War II was the Hellenic Canadian Cultural Society (HCCS). It was founded by Greek Professors and physicians in Toronto in 1961, with branches in Montreal and Ottawa. It was open to any individual of Greek descent who held a degree and its main objective was to promote Greek ideal and culture in Canada. The HCCS was criticized by the new Greek Canadians as being elitist and ignoring the needs of the working class. It was further criticized for being too ideologically conservative when it remained silent during the Greek dictatorship between 1967-74.
There was conflict between the old and new Greek communities, with newer immigrants wanting to bring back a greater emphasis on Greek culture. The old insular Greek community was not always open to change. It often took the parish priest to intervene and resolve these crisis.