Those who pass by the Vancouver City Hall this month may notice the blue-and-white Greek flags flying proudly next to the Canadian ones in celebration of Greek Independence Day.
Greek Independence Day is celebrated every year by Hellenes around the world to commemorate March 25th, 1821, the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman rule. This year marks the 200th anniversary.
The Greek-Canadians of Vancouver are only a few thousand, but their ancestors were among the first pioneers: Fishermen, loggers, mill and railroad workers and small businessmen.
The Vancouver Hellenes have contributed to the social life and culture of the city from the Vancouver Polar Bear swim — started in 1920 by a Greek immigrant — to the vaudeville theatres built by Alexander Pantages, to city landmarks such as the statue of Nike downtown; and from the beloved annual Greek Days organized by the Hellenic Canadian Congress of BC to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation of Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University.
The Hellenic Community of Vancouver was founded in 1927 and a few years later St. George’s, the first Greek Orthodox church, was erected on Vine and W. 7th. That church building, now part of Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, was sold in the 1970s when the fast-growing Hellenic Community built the present St. George’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral and Hellenic Community Centre on 4500 Arbutus Street.
It goes without saying that Greek Independence Day has been one of the most important celebrations in the Hellenic Community of Vancouver since the very beginning.
Once the old St. George’s church was built in 1930, the Greek Independence Day celebrations were mainly held in the church hall.
Mrs. Toula Koutlas remembers: “We arrived at the church early and gathered in the foyer. All the Greek school children that had costumes wore them proudly. I was fortunate to have an Amalia costume and I loved to wear it whenever I could. Much later I had a peasant costume. This served many purposes as our era youth danced in international festivals and we traveled to various rural communities to perform.”
Greek Independence Day celebrations took on special meaning during the WWII years when Greece was under German occupation and there was a great sense of unity and solidarity among Hellenes everywhere. During that difficult period, the Vancouver Greek-Canadians started the Greek War Relief Fund with the participation of many local philhellenes, as Mr. Angelo Pappas recalls.
On March 24, 1944, The Vancouver Daily Province reported that then Mayor J.W. Cornett and I.H.Thorlaksson, President of the Canadian Folk Festival Association, attended the doxology on the occasion of Greek Independence Day at St. George’s and that “a guard of honor composed of Greco-Canadian members of the three fighting forces” was also in attendance.
After the end of the Second World War, immigration sharply picked up and over 100,000 Greeks entered Canada between 1945 and 1971, with immigration from Greece reaching its peak in 1967.
In 1978, the Saints Nicholas and Dimitrios church and the Greek Orthodox Community of East Vancouver were founded on 4541 Boundary Road and in the 1980s the Hellenic Community of Surrey and the Fraser Valley and the Saints Constantine and Helen church were established.
Nick Panos and Peter Capadouca have many memories of past Greek Independence Day celebrations from the 1970s and 1980s:
“On Greek Independence Day community members with school children dressed in Greek national costumes would go to the War Memorial cenotaph at Hastings and Cambie streets to lay wreaths and sing the Greek national anthem in memory of those valiant Greeks who died, so Greece would be free.”
“For a finale to this ceremony, they would also sing the Canadian national anthem. In 1993 the Hellenic Community of Vancouver cenotaph was built and since then the wreath laying ceremony on Greek Independence Day is now held annually at the HCV Centre.”
“Letters of invitation were sent in advance to the Consul General of Greece in Vancouver, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of B.C., to local MLAs, the Mayor of Vancouver and other ethnic and representative guests inviting them to a banquet celebrating Greek Independence Day at the Hellenic Community of Vancouver Centre.”
“At the banquet, there was the usual speeches related to Greek history, accompanied with video clips and posters of Greek heroes. Also, there was Greek school children and dancers from the Greek societies dressed in regional costumes performing traditional dances.”
“Of course, during the evening delicious Greek food was served to all. And, as usual, Greek music and dancing was enjoyed by everyone till the ‘wee hours’ of the morning.”
Greek Independence Day celebrations have remained a highlight of the Hellenic Community of Vancouver to this day. Most members of the Hellenic Community of Vancouver these days are second- or third-generation Greek-Canadians. Yet, they are still very proud of their Hellenic heritage and stay connected with their historical past.
This March 25, due to COVID-19, the Greek-Canadians of Vancouver will not be able to celebrate physically the 200th anniversary of Greek Independence Day. However, they can still share memories of past celebrations and look forward to the future.
About the author
Sophia Karasouli-Milobar was born in Chios, Greece. She studied classics as well as library and information science. Karasouli-Milobar has been working as an information librarian since 1994 and has been involved in the Vancouver Public Library’s “Hellenic Stories of Vancouver” project. She has published a book on the folklore of Chios, contributed a story to “Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food” and edited two books. Recently, at the suggestion the Consul General of Greece in Vancouver and the Hellenic Community of Vancouver, Karasouli-Milobar prepared the commemorative album “Celebrating Greek Independence Day in Vancouver.”
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