TORONTO, CANADA – The Greek Canadian History Project (GCHP) celebrated 150 years of Greek immigrants in Toronto with a historic exhibit that ran May 11-17 in the Rotunda at Toronto City Hall. GCHP co-Founders Dr. Sakis Gekas and Christopher Grafos, welcomed many honored guests, including York University Dean Martin Singer, Toronto City Councillor Mary Fragedakis, and Greek Community of Toronto (GCT) President Andonis Artemakis.
Guests were thrilled to learn that Greek Heritage Week (May 12-16) was proclaimed by Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly on behalf of the Toronto City Council to coincide with the exhibit. Artemakis accepted the formal proclamation from Fragedakis.
The GCHP presented its exhibit, “Memory and Migration: A History of Greeks in Toronto,” along with the support of several Hellenic organizations and included many artifacts from Mihalis Mouratidis’ private collection. GCT featured the GCHP’s work at its March Gala Fundraiser and a speech by Grafos was one of the evening’s highlights. Two months later, at the GCHP’s reception, Artemakis once again thanked Grafos and the GCHP for undertaking the momentous task of documenting the achievements of Greeks and their descendants in Toronto.
The crowed warmly received Singer; his speech drew an extended round of applause. He shared a striking statistic: “Roughly half of York University’s 50,000 undergraduate students are either first-generation Canadians or are international students. In other words, they are unfamiliar with Canada’s past but they are also very eager to learn more about all of the diverse communities that make up Canada.”
Singer also noted that he is reminded as he travels around the world that people everywhere envy Canada. What they are envying, he continued, “is the strength that comes from communities such as yours or my wife’s own Portuguese community, and the many others. Together, it is an incredibly rich fabric which is what makes this nation great.
“The problem is the next generations. The further you get away from the original immigrating generations, the less contact there is, the less understanding there is of the past, the less meaningful it is and projects like this are intended to pass this along to the next generations. We can do our part by making it available but the students have to be motivated to drink the water. So that’s my job as a University Dean and that’s the job of our University Professors.”
“My parents” inspired Grafos to undertake GCHP, he told TNH. “They never told me to take an interest in history, I did that through my own volition, but the stories that they told me of their migration experiences simply didn’t mesh well with what I was encountering in academic sources. When I realized that their reality was probably like the majority of others, I began to feel a sense of purpose in illuminating the most prominent themes in the Greek immigrant experience. The GCHP is part of a broader attempt to fulfill my desire to learn more and to motivate others to want to do the same.”
Grafos said “long-term preservation and widespread accessibility to historical sources is part of our mandate,” and strives to ensure that benefactors know their donations will be used wisely and responsibly. “I hope GCHP becomes a great asset and supplement to the study of Canadian immigrants and Greek history and Diaspora at York University.”
The GCHP has wide support, Grafos says: archivists, librarians, academics, etc. “The GCHP has been able to bridge the seemingly wide chasm between the university institution and popular memory, which is something that scholars are increasingly concerned with.”
The most important part of the Exhibit for Grafos was “seeing hundreds of people engaged with history in ways that spoke to their own personal identities. Older Greek immigrants pointed at photos to reminisce and revive stories that they had almost forgotten. The children of these individuals became inspired by seeing the stories that they had heard, countless times, in photos and captured in real time. I was also incredibly touched by the many non-Greek visitors that asked me for a tour of the exhibit and subsequently asked thoughtful and astute questions. I was most profoundly influenced by the realization that history can transcend differences. The event had representatives from all of Toronto’s leading Greek organizations and hundreds of other guests who simply wanted to see the irreplaceable sources on display.”
The GCHP’s growing attention and increased support is fitting, Grafos told TNH, because this is a year “when Toronto’s Greek Community is celebrating its 105th anniversary along with the 150th anniversary of the first documented arrival of a Greek immigrant to Toronto.
The GCT, in turn, is impressed by Grafos’ dedication to the GCHP and thrilled about the prospect of having their collective experiences – their history – safeguarded for future generations.