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Montreal’s Greek schools turn 100

It’s evening at the elementary school of the Hellenic Community Centre of Montreal – the children have gone home for the evening, teachers are preparing the next day’s lessons – and Fotis Komborozos looks around the empty corridors. “There’s no signs of it up yet,” he says, looking at the drawings and posters on the walls. “But the children, they’ll live the anniversary this year.”

Montreal’s Greek schools are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, bringing alumni together, hosting events throughout the city, and looking back on the schools’ evolution since the first school was established out of a basement in 1909. Since then, they’ve expanded to offer trilingual elementary schools with multiple branches around the island and north shore, as well as Saturday schools for high-school students and Greek language classes starting at beginners level.

The Community Centre, a complex of interconnected buildings in Cote-des-Neiges built in the late eighties, is home to the community’s administrative headquarters, as well as housing and services for senior citizens, meeting halls, a church, and the bases of the elementary and Saturday schools. Komborozos, public relations director for the Hellenic Community and formerly president of the elementary schools, showed a couple of Daily staffers around the premises while telling us about the history of the community in Montreal.

The portraits of former presidents of the Community lined one corridoor in wooden frames, sporting the haircuts and thick-framed glasses of past eras. “We call this our small parliament,” he said, showing us into a room with Quebec, Canadian, and Greek flags and partitioned seating on all sides facing toward the centre of the room. The space is meant for representatives from the different Greek communities of the greater Montreal area to converge and discuss common issues.

The schools themselves grew in tandem with the waves of Greek migration to Canada. Immigration to the North American continent swelled particularly following the destruction of the first and second world wars in Europe, as well as after the Canadian government relaxed its migration policy in the sixties.

“Greece had huge casualties in World War II, mostly civilian casualities,” explained Dimitris Karantanis, a teacher at the Saturday schools who also works in the McGill Language Department secretariat. “You had kids starving even in Athens.”

Over the course of the past century, the Greek community has left its mark on the fabric of Montreal – and for a time the Socrates elementary schools were Quebec-government funded, starting in the late seventies when they adopted the Quebec curriculum.This arrangement ended last year, and they’re now in the process of going private.

Greek migration to Canada has slowed since the fall of the Greece’s military dictatorship in 1974. But though the numbers are slowly decreasing at the Saturday schools as migration ebbs, Karantanis feels this kind of education is important.

“I think allowing [students] to have the option of feeling Greek as well, on the part of the Quebec government, kind of makes it easier for them to be here, you know?”

“It’s beneficial for the children to keep the language and the culture,” Komborozos also explained, citing higher parent involvement than at other schools. Being able to preserve their culture, both indicated, has helped the Greek community integrate into Quebec society.

“Greeks are very proud, they kind of feel that the whole Western civilization started based on their culture…. If you’re an immigrant, that’s something you hold onto,” Karantanis explained. “And their parents, they just grabbed onto this and didn’t let go when they came here. Yes I might be poor, I might be an immigrant, I might be washing dishes, but I come from the land of Socrates and Aristotle.”

In the Community Centre, murals representing immigration grace the walls outside of community halls. Gesturing to the murals, Komborozos tells us about the progress of the generations of immigrants, how members of the first generation in the sixties worked largely in factories and public works, while the second and third generations went on to professions like medicine and law. Artifacts of the relationship of Greece and Quebec line the walls – a picture of Trudeau on a visit to Greece, and a memorial to members of the community who gave their lives in WWI.

As attendance at the Saturday schools decreases due to demographic shifts and the strain of doing another day of school in addition to a regular five days of class, Karantanis remains unconcerned. “It doesn’t affect how you teach; it doesn’t affect what you do,” he said. “I think what they’ve offered all these years that they’ve been there is amazing.”