February 27, 2011

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Montreal Greeks – the Greekest of them all!

In debating on what to post on my blog today, I decided to dedicate an article to the Hellenes of the Diaspora, and more specifically to my fellow Hellenes of Montreal, who are by far the “Greekest” (if there is such a word) in the world.I guess you can criticize that I am not being impartial to the well over 15 million other Greeks that live across the globe… but how can I be since this is my hometown, and you know what they say… “An den penepsis to Spiti Sou tha Pesei na Se Plakosi” (If you don't brag about your own home, then the roof will come down on you)!

Sounds silly in English, and certainly most Greek idioms do, but they nonetheless make perfect sense. Speaking of idioms, the Greek community here has its own dialect since it's a mixture of Greek, English and French… original, witty but nonetheless functional and better yet very easily understood.

Freeza, Yarda, Masini, Caro, Stekia, Mapa, and my personal favorite… mouvarisma.
Translation: Freezer, Yard, Machine, Car, Steaks, Mop and of course move.

See… that wasn’t that difficult to understand?


Tracking through historical archives, I discovered that the first Greeks to settle in Quebec were none other than sailors, most likely from the Peloponnese. It is estimated that they arrived in this French province in the mid 19 century and immediately integrated into the community by marrying locals.

In the beginning they lived in the port area and quickly began organizing their community. At the turn of the 20 century they already owned businesses, they had established the Hellenic Community Centre and they had built churches and schools near the downtown area.
More Greeks followed.

Most of the immigrants back then often worked in Greek-owned restaurants, since they felt safer in working with people who understood their language, culture and way of life. By 1920, the Greek community numbered almost 2000 citizens and surprisingly they were already operating well over 50 restaurants. It is no wonder that they are today the leading ethnic gourmet group in North America. 

The mid 20 century brought many trained furriers from Greece, mostly from the small town of Kastoria. These expert furriers, who have a tradition of over 2000 years in this business, congregated in Montréal, Toronto and New York and quickly evolved into a major factor in the Canadian fur manufacturing industry. Canada is, and always has been, known internationally as the leading producer of the world's finest furs,

After WWII many more Greeks arrived because at the time Europe was facing years of post-war economic hardship. In the early 1950s, as many as 3,000 Greeks were arriving in Montreal each year, but this new wave of immigrants included many unskilled workers. They were quickly exploited by local employers, but nonetheless they withstood the mistreatment and achieved an incredible rate of development.

Back then those who didn't work for Greeks usually ended up in the garment trade, and most Greek children went to English Protestant schools. (By 1980, over 20% of students in PSBGM schools were from Greek families. This demographic shift sparked the provincial government to create language legislation requiring children of new immigrants to attend schools where instruction was in French.).

In the 1970s, the profile of the Greek community began to really take form. New immigrants were now more skilled, they understood urban living, they had less Xenophobia than their pioneering ancestors did and more importantly they had finally settled.
Even so, the election of the Parti Québecois, in 1976, slowed the community's growth as many Greek families joined the exodus of English-speaking Montrealers out of the province. Most immigrated to Toronto and the United States. At the same time, many returned to Greece, since democracy was once again restored in the mother country. By 1976 Greece had more stability than it had known in decades, and because of this immigration to Quebec dropped rapidly and has remained at that level ever since.
By now, the veteran Greeks, those who were there over 30, 40 and even 50 years, spoke perfect French and English, but the same did not hold true for the influx that arrived there in the late 60s and 70s. My family was no exception.

Because of this they continued to run in packs… much like wolves do, and only lived in areas where other Greek people lived, in the context of integrating easier into the community. So they moved to new housing in the northern part of the island, in the area between Jean-Talon and the Metropolitan expressway, otherwise known as Parc Extension.

Parc Extension lies above Jean-Talon. Park Avenue links the area with downtown this polyglot neighbourhood is often the first home for newcomers to Montreal, whether they come from foreign countries or rural Québec. 

It was here that this new wave of Greek immigrants evolved. So much so, that the second generation Greek-Quebeckers began to outnumber their parents.

Growing up in this area, I remember specifically that most the grocery stores, bakeries, coffee shops, and even dry cleaners were all Greek owned.  Our churches were here, our high schools, grade schools and everything associated with our culture. This certainly was helpful to my mother, who did not speak any English, and/or French, and who until this day refuses to do so… resulting only to the necessary phrases such as “how much - thank-you – ok - bye”.

Cute… but like I said earlier… this is how things functioned… and still function, and funny enough it works!


By the 1980s, many had moved to larger houses in Chomedey, Ville Saint-Laurent, the West Island and the South Shore, leaving poorer families and the elderly here. Today, Park Extension still has a Greek character but it is increasingly home for new Montrealers, notably Haitians, Sri Lankans, and Latin Americans.

In writing this article, I came to the realization that our parents certainly had to deal with many things throughout those years, as did the first settlers to this city, for they lived in an era and time and location where immigrants from Europe had very few options. Don't get me wrong, I don't minimize the struggles young people have in the current era... but certainly the two struggles cannot be compared.

Today the Greek community is spread across the island. Second, Third and Forth generation Greeks have done well for themselves. They have entered the academic, scientific communities as well as the arts and culture. Most are indeed still involved in the restaurant business but nonetheless have taken the culinary industry to a whole new level.

They should be commended for evolving, while maintaining their Hellenic spirit. And they owe it all to their immigrant parents, who decided to leave their villages and families in order to give them a chance at a better life. These courageous men and women never once surrendered their Hellenistic virtues and values for the sake of “modernizing” themselves, but rather conveyed them to their children, who in return passed them on to theirs. Not withstanding all their other successes, I believe that this last achievement was by far their greatest triumph. 

Marina Spanos

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