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Sharing the history of Greek immigrants

Alexander Grasic, BA’18, in Greece.

At a public event hosted by the Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal, two hundred primary- and secondary-aged student researchers presented the oral histories they’ve collected from their grandparents about immigrating to Canada from Greece.

It’s just one initiative of Immigrec, a multifaceted Greek immigration project led by McGill with support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

“The idea is to connect the university and its research to the public, and to the immediate community surrounding us in Montreal, including the younger generations,” says Anastassios Anastassiadis, the Phrixos B. Papachristidis Chair in Modern Greek and Greek-Canadian Studies at McGill, and one of Immigrec’s two principal investigators.

To interview their grandparents, these junior oral historians used a simplified version of the Immigrec questionnaire used by researchers across Canada to interview Greek immigrants whose stories are now available in the Virtual Museum of Greek Immigration to Canada, which opened in May 2019.

“The students get to see what research is about,” says Anastassiadis. “It’s exciting. These kids have this background, but they hadn’t necessarily connected with it before. Greek-Canadian history is also their personal history. History is not just big figures and dates; their story is part of it.”

Immigrec is an international collaboration between McGill and the University of Patras, and also includes York University and Simon Fraser University.

“The project is about documenting the lives of immigrants from the moment their trip started in their village in Greece all the way to today,” says Anastassiadis. It focuses on the way ethnic languages evolve in a different linguistic environment as well as on the social history of the immigration process from the mid ’40s to late ’70s.

Archival material is essential to the project. As an undergraduate research assistant, Alexander Grasic, BA’18, helped catalogue data and digitize documents. His work mostly concerned a YMCA social work project in Montreal’s Mile End, which ultimately reached more than 2,000 Greek-immigrant families. He also helped build a digital map of Greek immigrant addresses for the virtual museum.

This research allowed him to deepen his connection to his own Montreal family history.

“I knew my grandparents had moved here from Greece in the late 1950s, but I had never really imagined what that would have been like,” he says. “They really overcame a lot. I gained a new understanding of what it meant that my grandmother had been a seamstress in Mile End who did piece work. I knew it as a fact, but I hadn’t put it in context.”

Connecting to the past

As a master’s student in History and part of the McGill Immigrec research team that includes researchers ranging from post-doctoral fellows to undergraduates, Stavroula Pabst, MA’19, looked at day-to-day consumption habits in the Greek diaspora in Montreal by cataloguing advertisements in the Greek Canadian Tribune newspaper.

“It’s an interesting exercise to read the Greek language from 50 years ago,” says Pabst, who came to McGill from Lancaster, Ohio. “It’s also revealing to see where the community was buying and selling products, where people worked and lived.”

As a Greek-American, she was also able to connect to Montreal and the local Greek community.

“I do a lot of work on businesses that no longer exist, but the locations are still there. So I made personal connections to the city. I’ve been to our public events and people from the Greek community who show up remember the stuff we’re talking about. You see how the community values your research right now. It’s meaningful to people, and that’s very rewarding.”

In addition to this research into archival material, the project also takes a more personal approach. “That includes of course the personal interviews, which are a way to preserve individual memories, but also personal documents we digitized, like passports, visas, work contracts, leases and souvenir pictures of travels,” says Anastassiadis. “Together it all builds the big story about the immigration process.”

Telling unique stories

Constantinos Yanniris is a recipient of a Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation Fellowship for Excellence in Graduate Education, which was established in 2014 to provide qualified students from Greece with the financial means to study at McGill.

A doctoral student in the Faculty of Education, when Yanniris came to Montreal in 2013 he met his grandfather’s cousin Xenofon Nikolopoulos and learned about his story of coming to Canada and making a life here, which included stints as a construction worker in the North and painting cars in a factory in Western Canada. When Yanniris found out about the Immigrec project, he put researchers in touch with his newfound relative.

“Thanks to Immigrec, Xenofon’s and other unique stories are being preserved and will provide a rich resource for the future generations to explore the history of Canada,” says Yanniris.

Looking forward

A team made up of anthropologists, historians, sociologists, linguists and psychologists from the four universities created the questionnaire for interviews with Greek immigrants like Nikolopoulos. It covers a range of topics, from reasons for migration to the integration process and whether today interviewees feel Greek or Canadian or a mix of the two. This varied group of researchers also worked together to decide on a vision for the virtual museum.

“All visitors need is a computer screen to access and navigate the museum,” says Anastassiadis. Like a physical museum, the virtual museum has an atrium and nine themed rooms.

Visitors can ‘walk’ through the virtual museum, move closer to objects, listen to items, and even tailor their experience through a search function. There’s an accompanying electronic database for researchers who want to delve further into the materials.

Anastassiadis expects the virtual museum to be a trailblazer for other projects and communities.

“Our know-how can serve others and help build comparative projects, especially for other countries with significant Greek immigrant populations from the same era we’re looking at, like the US, Germany and Australia,” he says.

Now that the museum is up and running, a second phase of the Immigrec project is a planned Centre for the Study of Greek Immigration and Diaspora.

“We want our research to be fertilized with new material as it becomes available,” says Anastassiadis, who imagines the Centre will make McGill a hub for research on human mobility and diaspora.

“Immigration is a big issue today,” says Anastassiadis. “A retrospective look is enlightening. We are part of this therapeutic process of writing history, which allows for communities to think about their past, and sometimes it’s a traumatic past. We’re writing this story with participants. Eventually they’ll participate in writing the stories, as we’ve seen with the students interviewing their grandparents.”