Untold Stories

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Sofie Kirk

Chris Dassios (LLB ’84) started his first job at age 11, hawking lemonade coupons for Fran’s restaurant, where his Greek immigrant father worked as a short order cook. It was a weekend position, located outdoors at the intersection of College and Yonge in downtown Toronto, and no matter how inclement the weather, Dassios stuck to it. “It’s where I first learned about the value of work,” he says.

For many descendants of Greek immigrants, it’s a familiar story, and one to which they can relate. Nearly everyone has their own version of the newcomer narrative in which hardship (combined with diligence and devotion to the deep national history of Greece, the foundational culture of Western civilization) are common themes.

It’s a living history, something that the archives of the Greek Canadian History Project at York University have been painstakingly preserving since their founding a decade ago. The collection of primary source materials – newspapers, photographs, yearbooks, videotapes, baptismal announcements, even a restaurant flyer or two – has served as an important resource for scholars and researchers ever since Toronto historian Christopher Grafos (MA ’09, PhD ’17) launched the project in 2012 with his then-academic mentor, York professor Athanasios (Sakis) Gekas, a world authority on Greek communities in Canada.

“Why I started the project,” says Grafos, himself the son of Greek immigrants, “is that when I started studying history, I didn’t see the stories of my grandparents or parents reflected in the academic literature. I was so disheartened that I told myself that I would change this. I’d collect the objects that give shape to those stories in nuanced ways.”

A new $1.4 million contribution from the Hellenic Heritage Foundation will now take his initiative to the next level, allowing for an expansion and digitization of the archives, in addition to increased public access.

When I started studying history, I didn’t see the stories of my grandparents or parents reflected in the academic literature. I was so disheartened that I told myself that I would change this

The gift, announced in September, jump-starts a five-year fundraising campaign to pay for a specialized librarian and project manager, among other enhancements. New features include a public search portal where users can access oral histories derived from interviews and an interactive map tracking Greek businesses in Toronto from the 1920s to today.

“The Hellenic Heritage Foundation donation is a major step in the creation of a permanent digital and physical home for the records necessary to study, research, teach and learn about the history of Greeks in Canada,” says Gekas, a native of Corfu who holds the Hellenic Heritage Foundation Chair in Modern Greek History at York. “It will enable us to add resources that will expand the archives and increase our capacity to engage with our community’s past and present.”

In recognition, the University recently changed the project’s name to The Hellenic Heritage Foundation Greek Canadian Archives. As before, the collection will be housed at York University Libraries’ Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, but with an enlarged framework for the study of the Greek community in the GTA and beyond.

“The archives will be public and available for people to study,” stated Hellenic Heritage Foundation president Tony Lourakis at the gift’s September announcement. “They’ll be able to learn about Greek Canadian history in a way that they might not experience from other public historical records. And in turn, we can engage with the public in a more familiar and intimate way than we might have otherwise.”

According to the 2016 census, there are an estimated 271,000 Canadians of Greek origin living in communities across the country. The majority dwell in major urban centres where, historically, Greek immigrants have commanded whole neighbourhoods – among them Toronto’s Greektown, which stretches for blocks along Danforth Avenue – while contributing to the economic and cultural development of their adopted country. Well-known Greek Canadians include soprano Teresa Stratas, Coffee Time founder Tom Michalopoulos, real estate developer Andreas Apostolopoulos, luxury bridal designer Rita Vinieris, and Mike Lazaridis, creator of BlackBerry, among others. Dassios can also be added to this list of high achievers.

There is an inherent bias in archives, in that they tend to tell the stories of those who come from prominent backgrounds. But history happens every day

Like many Greeks in Canada, his parents left their homeland in the decades following the Second World War, when civil strife followed by a military junta compelled multitudes from across Greece to seek stability, security and a better life elsewhere. Both Dassios’s mother and father had only a grade-school education, but they understood the importance of working from the ground up when seeking to advance themselves in a new country, teaching by example this lesson to their children, a son as well as a daughter.

Dassios paid heed, going on to graduate from Osgoode Law School at York University, an education he paid for from his earnings at Fran’s, where he continued to work until the end of high school. Today, he is general counsel to the Power Workers Union, by far the country’s largest and most powerful energy sector labour organization. It’s only the second job he’s ever had since earning just a few dollars an hour to hand out scraps of paper to passersby on the streets of Toronto as a skinny-legged immigrant’s son.

Those coupons tell a story – or would, had Dassios held onto them. But he tossed whatever had remained in his possession long ago, assuming that the ephemera of newcomer life were not worth keeping.

“I think it speaks to what happens to historical materials as they relate to people who don’t believe their legacy ought to be preserved in an archive,” says Grafos, today the project’s director. “There is an inherent bias in archives, in that they tend to tell the stories of those who come from prominent backgrounds. But history happens every day, and we are in threat of losing that history when we don’t preserve the lemonade coupons and other materials that bring that history to life.”

Thanks to what Grafos and Gekas have achieved together over the past decade, Hellenic studies are now thriving at York, contributing to the University’s global reputation for research innovation.

In October, Gekas delivered a paper and podcast that drew on the York archives at Yale University’s Greek Revolution and the Greek Diaspora in North America virtual conference. The talk, tied to the bicentennial of the Greek struggle for independence from Ottoman rule, analyzed how Greeks in major Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal have tended to organize themselves around a common language and shared sense of national pride.

Building on that legacy is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Exchange Scholarship, which assists York students who want to do a portion of their studies in Greece. For these academic exchanges, York has partnered with universities in Thessaloniki and Athens, where, in 2014, to commemorate the Greece–Canada connection, Grafos gave a series of lectures based on the Toronto archival collection.

For Dassios, these initiatives are all a continuation of the immigrant’s journey.

“Integration,” he says, “begins with people coming over here and working and earning a living. But it becomes a permanent part of the society and its history when it gets put into something like this – a knowledge base, a storage-type hold. It’s the final consolidation, I believe, of a people in a new land.”  

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