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 centers 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 laborers, 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.
*The scattering of seeds – a 52 part television series celebrating the contribution of immigrants to Canada *
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