The Macedonians in Toronto

How a community came to “Upper America”. Written by Krystyna Cap and originally posted May 14, 2009.

“A city of unmatched diversity,” wrote Toronto Star staff reporters Francine Kopun and Nicholas Keung after the release of the 2006 Canadian census. The community profile revealed that 45.7% of GTA residents were foreign born and almost half counted a language other than French or English as their mother tongue.[1] The results were not surprising as annual immigration targets hover around the 250,000 mark, with the GTA alone attracting in excess of 100,000 immigrants per year.[2]

Toronto’s status as an immigrant-receiving centre is hardly recent. For well over a century, vigorous immigration policies pursued by previous cabinets have been instrumental in attracting multitudinous ethnic groups to its largest cities and thriving suburbs. A mere listing of the nationalities represented by Toronto’s population today would undoubtedly resemble roll call at the United Nations, and for concrete evidence of our city’s diversity we need only turn to the ethnic enclaves that dot the urban landscape.

Toronto is also home to the largest concentration of Macedonians outside of the Balkans, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 Macedonian-Canadians.[3] An active diaspora community with a rich history in Canada, the city’s earliest migrants crossed the Atlantic as temporary economic sojourners, political refugees, and later, as permanent settlers.

The First Wave

The Annual Gotse Delchev Night (February 7, 2008) at St. Clement of Ohrid Macedonian Orthodox Cathedral. Pictured are members of the dance groups St. Ilia and Makedonka of St. Clement Church, Father Traiko Boseovski, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, Dragi Stojkovski, President of the United Macedonians Organization of Canada, and the Right Honourable Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism. (Photo courtesy of Dragi Stojkovski)

Foto Tomev recalls the first Macedonian migrants who left the villages of Zhelevo and Bouf bound for Toronto. “Emigration especially to the New World, increased greatly after the heroic Elinden [Illinden] Uprising in 1903,” he wrote. “The unfortunate ending of the uprising and the reprisals that followed, forced all those of intelligence and courage to leave Macedonia…quite a large group of our people came to Toronto.”[4]

Among the primary push factors for immediate migration were the aftereffects of the abortive revolt aimed at throwing off the Ottoman yoke. Led by members of the International Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), the uprising failed to secure Macedonian autonomy, and many of the participants fled amid mounting casualties and escalating violence.[5] Although European reform measures were thrust upon the Empire to pacify as much as to ameliorate the plight of the Macedonians, in the years that followed material circumstances failed to improve. Land scarcity and labour shortages encouraged seasonal migration to parts of present-day Serbia, Greece, Turkey, and Romania. Skilled and unskilled labourers assumed such diverse jobs as stone masons, vegetable hawkers, dairymen, market gardeners, carpenters, and sawyers.[6] Even three years after the initial uprising, “conditions were still so poor that in just one day in March 1906, 600 migrants from Macedonia left for the United States.”[7]

To Macedonians arriving in North America, the differences between Canada and the United States were barely discernible. Colloquial nomenclature for the two countries became “Upper America” (Canada) and “Lower America” (the U.S.), and preexisting employment networks reflected the fluidity of these boundaries. Railroad navvies from the village of Bouf, residing both in the United States and Canada, received financial assistance “to tide them over” while they searched for employment and “men were kept informed by their co-villagers about the seasonal and permanent jobs available in Columbus and Mansfield, Ohio; Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Toronto.”[8]

“The earliest Macedonian immigrants had a developed sense of national ethnic identity,” says Dragi Stojkovski, President of the United Macedonians, whose organization is based in Toronto. “Many came [to Canada] with Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek passports. Many of these Macedonian immigrants were counted in the Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian [and] Serbian numbers.” This phenomenon was not an unusual one for ethnic minorities living within the boundaries of a heterogeneous continental European empire, like the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, or Russian states. For the Macedonians, the evolution of a concretely identifiable sense of ethnicity was a protracted historical process, cultivated by cultural elites and non-elites alike, and shaped by such variegated forces as politics, migration, social change, and competing cultural renaissances.[9]

In Toronto, the Macedonians assumed residence in the city’s overcrowded boarding houses, in close proximity to the factories and plants where they worked. Niagara Street, Wellington Street, King Street, Front Street, Parliament Street, Queen Street – all became home to the predominantly male migrants who were attracted by the possibility that “in Canada one could earn more than in any other country” before returning home.[10]

It is difficult to determine how many Macedonian immigrants arrived in Canada prior to World War I as census records identified immigrants on the basis of country of origin and not nationality. Partitioned between Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia, the migrants arriving in the years immediately prior to the First World War were likely absorbed in their figures. However, it has been estimated that in 1910, 1,090 Macedonians resided in Toronto, 8 had children with them, 340 were bachelors, and 377 were married, but their wives and family remained in the Balkans. By 1915, however, there were 43 families with 49 children residing permanently in the city.[11]

Life in “Upper America”

Toronto’s earliest Macedonian immigrants often assumed the most dangerous, dirty, and low-paying jobs in the city’s factories, tanneries, and abattoirs. Maceondians worked in Toronto’s east-end silk mills and knitting factories as spinners and yarn separators; at the Consumer’s Gas Cokeyards at Parliament and King; and at the Harris slaughterhouse, the Gunn Slaughterhouse, Canada Packers, the National Casket Company, Toronto Ironworks Limited, Atlas Engineering and Machinery Company, the Massey-Harris Company, and Kemp’s Manufacturing Company.[12] Michael Ondaatje’s 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, offers a fictional account of the Macedonian community – their construction work on the Bloor Street Viaduct and their experiences in Toronto’s abattoirs.

Like most immigrants, the Macedonians relied on their various mutual aid organizations and associations for the provision of goods and services. In Toronto, on Eastern Avenue, a “Macedonian Bank” was opened within years of the arrival of the first wave of immigrants; by 1907, the first mutual aid society was founded; and in 1911, the Saints Cyril and Methody Church was consecrated on Trinity Street. In the 1920s, the Benevolent Brotherhood Zhelevo was established to provide financial assistance to members of the community requiring it, to engage in charitable activities, and to provide support to recent immigrants from the Zhelovo village.[13]

With the end of World War I, Macedonia was partitioned again by the Versailles Treaty, eliciting protest from the diaspora community. The mobilization of Macedonian leaders in North America led to the formation of such groups as the Macedonian Political Organization (MPO), which sought to promote cultural events, heritage, and national awareness. For some groups, lobbying for an independent Macedonia was an integral part of their program; for others, the cultivation and preservation of Macedonian culture in Canada was of equal importance. In this vein, a robust social and associational life developed amongst Toronto’s Macedonians, led, quite often, by ladies’ auxiliaries. The organizational efforts of Macedonian women were important in uniting the community through folk dances, picnics, and other events.[14]

With the proliferation of cultural activities, the extension of temporary “economic sojourns,” and the improved quality of life available in Toronto, many Macedonians began settling permanently in the city. A combination of apprenticeship, hard work, and opportunity led many to undertake entrepreneurial ventures. Macedonians began restaurants, grocery stores, butcher shops, shoe shine parlours, barbershops, and haberdasheries, and by the 1950s and 1960s, they had distinguished themselves in Toronto’s food service industry.[15]

Successive Waves

Aggressive cultural assimilationist policies, forcible expulsions, population transfers, civil war, and other turbulent social and political upheavals both before and after the Second World War encouraged the continuing stream of Macedonian refugees and immigrants. The late 1940s and 1950s saw the arrival of some 20,000-30,000 immigrants to Canada, including child refugees from Aegean Macedonia (now northern Greece).[16] The character of post-war Macedonian migrants differed considerably from previous waves: most were permanent settlers, many were sponsored by established family members, vast numbers were well-educated professionals from urban centres, and the majority possessed a more developed sense of national identity.[17]

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of Macedonia within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1944, an ethnolinguistic and cultural project aimed at fortifying a uniquely Macedonian national identity was undertaken. By 1950, a literary language had been standardized and by 1967, an autonomous Macedonian church was established. In the 1960s, the Matica na Iselenicite na Makedonija (Queen Bee of the Macedonian Immigrants) was founded to promote Macedonian culture and facilitate communications between the Yugoslav Republic and the various diaspora communities around the world.[18] Through the Matica, Toronto’s Macedonians were able to communicate with their compatriots in the Balkans and even coordinate activities, such as relief efforts for victims of the 1963 earthquake in Skopje.

Toronto’s Macedonian Community, Yesterday and Today

In the years after the Second World War, Toronto quickly became the “locus of Macedonian nationalism in North America.”[19] Since the 1950s, the associational and cultural life of Macedonians in Canada has flourished. Individual communities have inspired local newspaper, radio, and television programs, sporting groups, literary societies, historical associations, folk-dance troupes, and genealogical societies.[20]

Festivities at the Annual Ilinden Picnic held at Ilinden Park in August 2008. (Photo courtesy of Dragi Stojkovski)

On April 28, 1959, the United Macedonians (UM) was founded in Toronto with the aim of unifying, strengthening, and maintaining Macedonian culture and heritage. According to Dragi Stojkovski, its current president, UM was originally established as a kind of federation of the various village benevolent societies that had established themselves in the city. “If [the benevolent societies] came together, they could have a greater voice,” said Stojkovski.

“We are a nonpolitical organization,” he stated. “We don’t get involved in political things. Our faith and culture are very important to us.” The centrality of religion to Macedonian culture is evinced in UM’s numerous initiatives. In the early 1960s, UM played an integral role in building St. Clement of Ohrid Macedonian Orthodox Church on Overlea Boulevard, named after a medieval scholar, writer, and archbishop. Through UM’s efforts, funds were raised for the building, and its members continue to participate in the church executive.

According to Stojkovski, a number of Toronto’s Macedonian organizations first began as subcommittees under the auspices of UM. With the growing need for specialization owing to their unique services and mandate, many eventually broke away to establish their own associations, such as the Association of Refugee Children from the Aegean, and the Macedonian Human Rights Movement International, now the largest human rights advocate for Macedonians in the world.

United Macedonians is headquartered in Toronto, with chapters in Windsor, Hamilton, and Montreal. One of the organization’s most vibrant and exciting events remains its Ilinden Holiday picnic, held annually in honour of St. Ilya. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the picnic drew up to 25,000 enthusiasts; now the annual event, held at the 40-acre park Ilinden Park owned by the United Macedonians in Scugog, Ontario, draws about a fifth of that number, but still retains its energy and significance as the Macedonians’ most important national and religious holiday.

Since the 1960s, myriad businesses and professional organizations, youth and student groups, veterans associations, and cultural institutions have also been established, including the Canadian Macedonian Restaurant Co-op (est. 1979), the Canadian Macedonian Business and Professional Association (est. 1992), the Macedonian Association of Canadian Youth (est. 1992), the Canadian Macedonian Historical Society (est., 1991), and the Association of Veterans from Macedonia-Toronto (est. 1982), among others.

Although the Macedonian community in Toronto, like Macedonia proper, has undergone tremendous change since the time of the earliest immigrants, the community remains a vibrant part of our city’s multiethnic heritage.

Special thanks to Mr. Dragi Stojkovski who consented and supplied the photographs for the article. For more information about the United Macedonians, visit www.unitedmacedonians.org.

Notes
[1]. Francine Kopun and Nicholas Keung, “A City of Unmatched Diversity,” Toronto Star, December 5 2007, http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2007/12/05/a_city_of_unmatched_diversity.html# (accessed January 29, 2015)
[2].” Diversity,” City of Toronto website,http://www.toronto.ca/quality_of_life/diveristy.htm (accessed April 22, 2009).
[3]. Gregory Michaelidis, “Salvation Abroad: Macedonian Migration to North America and the Making of Modern Macedonia, 1870-1970” (Ph.D. diss., University of Marlyand, College Park, 2005),15.
[4]. Foto Tomev, Short History of the Zhelevo Village Macedonia (Toronto: Zhelevo Brotherhood in the City of Toronto, 1971), 75.
[5]. Michaelidis, 70.
[6]. Lillian Petroff, Sojourners and Settlers: The Macedonian Community in Toronto to 1940 (TorontoL: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1995), 3-5.
[7]. Michaelidis, 72.
[8]. Lillian Petroff, “Macedonians in Toronto: Industry and Enterprise, 1903-1940,”Polyphony 6, no.1 (1984): 38.
[9]. Michaelidis, 34.
[10]. Petroff, Sojourners, 10.
[11]. 50th Anniversary Jubilee Almanac, Sts. Cyril and Methody Macedono-Orthodox Cathedral, 1910-1960,” Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario, 35, in Michaelidis, 97; Petroff, Sojourners, 10.
[12]. Petroff, “Macedonians,” 38.
[13]. Tomev, 89ff.
[14]. Michaelidis, 156.
[15]. Canada Heirloom Series: “Canada at the Millennium: A Transcultural Society,”Canada’s Digital Collections archived at Library and Archives Canada, http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/heirloom_series/volume7/volu… (accessed April 24, 2009); see also Harry V. Herman, Men in White Aprons: A Study of Ethnicity and Occupation (Toronto: P. Martin Associates, 1978).
[16]. Michaelidis, 248.
[17]. Neda Trajkovska, “Change of Social Identity and Language Learning: A Study of the Macedonian Immigrants in Toronto, Canada” (Ph.D. diss., York University, 2004), 5.
[18]. Michaelidis, 212-3.
[19]. Ibid., 227.
[20]. Lillian Petroff, “Macedonians,” in Encyclopedia of Canada’s People, ed. Paul Robert Magocsi (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, c1999), 944.

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