Greek Immigration to Montreal in the 50s and 60s

Post date: Mar 22, 2016 8:14:15 PM

A work in progress by Society member Spiro Couris Athina Maroudas, posted on his Facebook page on March 31, 2013 and shared here with his permission.

Angelo Bacoyiannis takes part in the Greek Independence Day parade in Montreal, March 24, 2013.

(Photo by Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Although Greeks had a presence in Montreal for many decades, in fact from the end of the 19th century, there was a great influx of new immigrants starting from the major earthquake that hit the Ionian Islands in 1953. These displaced Greeks started a mass exodus from Greece and many ended up in Canada. Economic trouble led many others to also leave and coupled with a more lax immigration policy a great chunk of the Greek population left Greece in the 1960s. The number of Greeks in Montreal increased from 3,000 to 15 times that in 1967. They started their own associations their own restaurants, nightclubs and even multiplied their number of Greek cinemas. Soon there was a new culture of Greeks who were not trying to assimilate into Montreal Canadian society but rather they preferred to live in a ghetto-like environment which could be called Little Greece. Their children were their connection to Canadian society since most youth were becoming Canadians but a Greek no longer needed to learn a foreign language. They were able to work, shop and play in a Greek environment and very rarely needed English or French unless they had to deal with government business. Even going to see a doctor it was only necessary to speak English if going to Emergency since there were many Greek family doctors available. When the need arose their children were ad hoc interpreters. Picture a 10 year-old translating for his mother at the gynecologist (not in the examination room but in the office afterwards)...I had to deal with that sad fact.

The first Greeks in Montreal (pre-WWII) came to find a new life and so were eager to be accepted in Canadian society. They learned English (the de facto language of the times in Montreal), dressed as westerners (most had never seen a bow tie before) and tried to conform to their new home’s values. They had help from 2 organizations around at the time. The first was the Hellenic Community of Montreal, run by the Greek Orthodox church. The second was AHEPA an merican organization that saw a need for its services in Montreal. The community was like all other Hellenic communities around the world, the spiritual guide, and like elsewhere where there were Greek immigrants all activity for Greeks centered around the church. AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) had as its main goal to assimilate Greeks into American Society. They assisted in orienting Greeks in their new land and helped them to become good Canadian citizens. New arrivals started as unskilled labourers in the shops run by Canadians and other immigrants who had arrived long before them and graduated to opening their own shops and businesses. They took part in local political events and tried to fit in to the best of their abilities with the rest of the Montreal populace. A good book on the subject is one by Sophia Florakas Petsalis “To Build the Dream: the Story of the Early Greek Immigrants in Montreal.”

It was an easy task for the first Greeks to assimilate since their number was manageable and since they arrived in small groups the local Greeks were able to cater to each new member’s needs. This was not the case however for the masses that started arriving post war. Local organizations were not equipped to handle the inordinate number of new immigrants. The Cretan Association for example had a couple of rooms above their club house where new arrivals could get a place to sleep and food to eat while they established themselves in the new environment. When boat loads of Greeks arrived in Halifax in the 60s and were then transported to Montreal by rail, they came with their whole families and if they had no relatives to stay with, it was hard to find shelter for them and many ended up shacking up with other families in small 1 or 2 bedroom apartments.

The attitude of the new Greek immigrants was live in Canada for five years then go back to Greece with money and reestablish their lives in the old country. Unfortunately, the vast majority was only able to make enough to get by and at the same time their children were mixing well with their new surroundings so were not eager to leave. Outside factors also played a part in this change of plan. First conditions were not improving in Greece as severe drought was impeding the return to farming and in 1967 the political situation came to a head with the coup of the Colonels and with them curtailing rights of the citizen in Greece. This prompted many families to stay in their new Canadian home. A new problem was created. Since both parents had to work and so have no time for their children, the new immigrants needed help in raising them. The two options at this point were to either bring the grandparents from Greece to raise the children or to send the young ones back to Greece to be raised by their grandparents. A good number of my friends have stories of meeting their parents for the first time at the age of 11 or 12 after having been shipped back to the village at 1 or 2 years old. Conversely some have stories of their grandparents mistreating them while their parents were away working long hours since the grandparents had very few child rearing skills and tried to raise their children’s children in the old ways.

The mass of immigrants changed the landscape in Montreal. 50,000 people needed services, needed access to entertainment and even to schools to teach Greek traditions for their children. Entrepreneurs were quick to provide. And so we got four Greek movie theaters, half a dozen night clubs with live music, restaurants serving purely Greek cuisine and a myriad of cafenia (coffee houses). The new immigrant was yearning for food products from Greece and the one or two corner grocers that carried Greek products around at the time were not sufficient to meet demand. As a result we got new Greek oriented supermarkets. Four Brothers, Sakaris, and PA to name a few changed their look to accommodate the increased clientele and moved to larger spaces. The Greeks were feeling at home. They also missed the company of their compatriots from the village and so formed non-profit associations to be with one another. In fact one group from the Pelloponese area around Sparti, Laconia province, had over 40 different associations; one for each of the villages around Sparti. Skaliotes, SkouroVarvitsiotes, Krokeates etc. all congregated at specified meeting places and many even opened their own club houses (lesches). Each could boast at least 100 active members. At these clubs they met for coffee, and talked about the village, about which new arrival from the village needed a job, and how to raise money to build a new clinic or a new belfry for the church in the village. They wanted their children to be ready for the return home so teaching them the village dances the village traditions and foods was primordial in their thoughts. They raised money by holding annual dances and small gatherings similar to spaghetti dinners over the course of the year (synaistiasis).

Now this is where things get interesting. Around the same time as Greeks were arriving in Montreal the Canadian government was introducing social programs geared to the poorest in society: Social Welfare, Unemployment Insurance and Public Health Care.  Since there were so many immigrants in factory and unskilled service jobs such as cleaners, waiters, dishwashers, it was soon realized that exploitation of workers was likely an issue. With this in mind and with the noblest of causes (defense of the poor) an association called The Association of Workers and Employees. (syllogos Ergatoypallilwn) was formed. Their aim was to help Greek workers get around the language barrier, fill out applications for new employment, guide them around labour laws, and help them with the bureaucracy of dealing with Unemployment Insurance. Since this attracted a left wing element they soon came to loggerheads with the Hellenic Community. They viewed the administration of the Community at the time as a barrier to self realization of Greek immigrants since most would never become self employed nor successful in their eyes. It is a fact that many workers were employed by past immigrants who had become successful in Canada. And these same immigrants were administering the Hellenic Community. In the eyes of some in the Workers Association these people that were running things at the Community were also the ones that were exploiting their workers. The left wing view was also preaching that “religion is the Opiate of the People”.  This made them a natural enemy of the Greek Orthodox Church around which the Hellenic Community was based. It didn’t take long for the Greek immigrants to start choosing sides.

At this point I feel the need to post a disclaimer. All comments are from verified facts and experiences. I do not attempt to take sides on the matter but rather to record events that changed the life of Greeks living in Montreal. In fact it was this dichotomy which resulted in the high level of organization and political involvement of the local Greeks which as a side effect created the Government subsidized Greek Day Schools and other Quebec-recognized Greek organizations such as the Hellenic Congress of Quebec and Canada. Yes The Hellenic Canadian Congress began right here in Montreal.


added March 8, 2014

My family are all located in Greece and my parents were the first to venture outside its borders.

I got to Montreal as a 7 year old from Greece. My father having an aversion to living in homes others had lived in found a multiplex which was just built near St. Michel and Rosemont. So even though I was not allowed to go to a French Catholic school (the laws were strict then not catholic no French school) I managed to learn my French on the streets. Having only 4 channels on TV I needed variety so started watching Channel 2 and Channel 10. These were the shows I learned my French with.