Canada’s Hellenic Heritage Comes Alive:
A Foundation for the Future—An Interview with Sandra Gionas

Sandra Gionas chairs the History Committee of the Hellenic Heritage Foundation (Toronto, Canada), where she is also a Board Member. She is the co-host and executive producer of the podcast series HHF Presents. She’s an award-winning journalist, having spent most of her career at the public broadcaster TVOntario.

Sandra Gionas speaking to media at the 1918 Anti-Greek Riot Commemoration.

Interview (Questions by Yiorgos Anagnostou)

Dear Sandra, welcome to Ergon! You have a long history of involvement with The Hellenic Heritage Foundation (HHF), currently serving in its Board of Directors. HHF is an organization “committed to supporting Hellenic education, culture and heritage initiatives across Canada.” When was it established and what was the rationale for kickstarting this project?

The HHF was established in 1996, by a group of Greek Canadian professionals and businesspeople, with the general aim of raising funds so that it could promote Hellenism in Canada.

HHF Board, 2021.

The initial goal was to promote education and the first major project the HHF focused on was to raise funds to endow a Chair in Modern Greek History at York University. Once that was accomplished, the HHF branched out. It brought back the defunct Hellenic Studies program at the University of Toronto and endowed it to ensure that Greek language, ancient and modern history and politics courses remained at Canada’s largest university.

Working to build the endowed HHF Chair at York University.

The HHF then funded community arts projects such as photography exhibits, Greek-language plays, and other cultural events. In its second decade, the HHF turned its focus to Greek language learning with a teacher certification program taught at York University. It’s currently funding a study by Dr. Themis Aravossitas on second-language learning. Also in this area, the HHF has teamed with Heritage Greece to provide scholarships to Canadian university students to participate in this program.

The HHF then turned to heritage programming in 2017 with the establishment of the History Committee. The founders were focused on succession planning by then and this was seen as a way of making the HHF relevant to a new generation of Canadian-born Greeks.

HHF History Committee wins the Heritage Toronto Community History Award, 2019.

With a small group of volunteers at the time, the History Committee set out to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Anti-Greek Riots in Toronto in 1918. A year-long campaign of historical walks, documentary screenings, talks, curriculum writing for the Toronto District School Board’s Grade 10 Canadian history course, and a photo exhibit at City Hall. This was topped off with a public commemoration of the event at Toronto City Hall on August 2, 2018, with the then-Mayor John Tory addressing the public on this event, and with the full mainstream media and ethnic press in attendance. This effort won the Heritage Toronto Community History Award the following year.

It also convinced the Board that the HHF could do more than just fundraise and so, the History Committee became a permanent part of the foundation, with volunteers working on public history projects. The committee has grown since, with up to 25 members.

You can regularly find HHF History Committee volunteers at various events. On November 17, 2023 at the HHF Greek Canadian Archives Commemoration of the Athens Polytechnic Uprising.

We have also expanded the HHF by establishing a Next Generation Committee of young Greek Canadians aged 19 to 40. It’s a way to bring new members to the Foundation by exposing them to our work and our mission. This committee works on networking and social events, and fundraising initiatives via Giving Tuesday. We also have an active Public Relations Committee, made up of a very creative group of volunteers, focused on outreach and promoting our brand. In fact, we have a part-time social media manager who has really upped our game in terms of how we engage the public.

Aside from that, we have one full-time staffer, our Program Director George Keroglidis, who facilitates all our work and charitable giving. We’ve raised about $16 million over the years to fund our work and endowments. I think for a foundation of our size, we punch above our weight.

You are leading HHF’s History Committee. How did your personal interest in history come about? What was the motivation to join the Foundation?

Honestly speaking, I wasn’t the type of Greek Canadian who joined Greek initiatives or went to Greek events. Though I would attend the HHF’s annual Fundraising Gala from time to time, through a friend, this same friend recruited me in 2016, when the HHF was looking to bring in new people with particular skills. I am a journalist and a storyteller. I joined the Public Relations Committee and found a wonderful group of creative and enthusiastic people. I supported the goals of promoting education. I had, in fact, booked the HHF Chair in Modern Greek History on the public affairs broadcaster I worked at, and saw the value of endowing such academic programs. I guess in the end, you attract volunteers through shared values and building community. This is what kept me going in this organization.

At a “Blue Sky” meeting in 2017, we were looking at how to engage a new generation of potential members. I brought up the 1918 Anti-Greek Riots, a little-known event in Toronto’s history, which I thought had the potential to tell an even bigger story about Toronto and would appeal to the entire city, not just our community. With the full support of the Board, I recruited Professor Sakis Gekas, the current HHF chair at York University, along with other people who had either a history background, or experience in media or in education and thus, the History Committee was born.

I would like to focus on the partnership between HHF and the HHF Chair in the Hellenic Studies Program at York University. What was HHF’s rationale for this partnership?

As mentioned earlier, Professor Gekas was brought in to work on the 1918 Anti-Greek Riots initiative. As the year progressed, we saw the value in working together on public history projects. This work promotes our chair and his research work. Our public history works, enhance our relationship with York University overall and led to a further endowment of the HHF Greek-Canadian Archives. It’s a wonderful outlet for Professor Gekas’s graduate students. Some of them have either worked on, or hosted our podcasts—or used the HHF as a vehicle to connect to research sources in the community. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It also raises the profile of the HHF Greek Canadian Archives at this critical time. Many of the post-war immigrants who built the Greek community in Toronto are aging. We are using our networks to help the Archives reach out for interviews and material before we lose these stories.

In the end, the work the History Committee does with the York Hellenic Studies Program & HHF GCA, is the public-facing part of the HHF and a reminder to our benefactors and supporters of our activity, our accomplishments and our potential.

What kind of material support has the HHF extended to the Program, and what initiatives were established as a result? Were there external sources of financial support?

HHF History Committee’s podcast series HHF Presents.

We put together a budget every fall and the HHF Board approves and funds it. Yet the vast amount of our work is done by our hardworking volunteers. We get some sponsorship from Agape Greek Radio for the use of its facilities to record our podcasts, but the foundation funds the costs associated with shooting, editing and some of the creative costs of podcasting. We have a partnership with Heritage Toronto, which helps bring our historical walking tours to an even larger audience. We sponsor high school students who participate in the AHEPA history contest. Oh! Did I mention one of our HHF teams won the North American AHEPA History Competition in 2019? They were coached by our History Committee volunteers.

What narrative did the HHF employ to enlist the support of Greek Canadians for the establishment of the HHF Chair? What kind of response did you receive? If applicable, how did you try to convince dissenters or reluctant individuals?

This was before my tenure, but from talking to our founders, I don’t think there was any pushback from the community. If anything, from what I was told, when we approached York University to ask, “What would it take to create an endowed chair in Greek History?” the response was, for one, you’re the first group to actually ask what it takes, rather than assume you can do it. Our founders were very strategic about their goals and the making sure the endowments and the foundation are protected into the future.

HHF funded the establishment of the HHF Greek Canadian Archives (HHG GCA) “to help York University preserve, catalogue, digitize and teach Greek Canadian history.”

In your view, what is the value of this kind of archive? Why should diaspora communities care to invest in professionally curated archives such as your project?

Its value is priceless. It’s our history. Greek Canadians have left their mark on Toronto and future generations should know what their ancestors went through when they were new to Canada. They should understand what daily life was like for them. By knowing our past, we can be better citizens in the present. Migration is part of the human condition, be it for economic or political reasons, or as a result of war. This remains as true today as it did for our ancestors in 1922, during the 1950s and 60s, in 1967 and in 1974, as it has for many ethnic groups for millennia.

We go to Greek-language schools to learn our mother-tongue, our ancestral culture, the history of “the Patrida.” But we have our own history, and it should be preserved. Our stories will be more meaningful to our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, than those of “the old country.” We know, by watching other ethnic groups who predated our own arrival, what the trajectory is for diaspora communities. We eventually mature and become “more Canadian,” than Greek. We intermarry and the “Greekness” of the community starts to fade. So how do take our ethnicity and our stories and preserve them in a meaningful way to future generations?

Aside from that, York University is striving to become a centre for immigration studies. Our goals overlap. Helping the archives to preserve our history AND become an important academic centre in Greek and Diaspora studies is a win-win situation for the university, the Hellenic Studies program there, and our community.

In your view, how HHF’s public history initiatives matter for Greek Canadians, other diaspora communities, and, more broadly, the Canadian public?

The only thing I can add that I haven’t mentioned already is that Toronto has a narrative that our diversity is our strength. Former mayor John Tory talked about the Anti-Greek Riots at our public commemoration and how these experiences were hard-fought examples of why we had to overcome our differences. If our public history projects help people to better understand community and overcome their differences or prejudices, then we have provided a greater public service than just education.

The narrative about the HHF's Greek Canadian Archives opens with the motto, “Memory Becoming Legacy.” Help us understand this perspective. The professional curation of archives requires multiple resources. What were some of the HHF’s major priorities about this project?

The HHF Greek Canadian Archives grew out of the Greek Canadian History Project at York. A little over a decade ago, Chris Grafos, a former member of our History Committee who was integral to our efforts to tell the 1918 Anti-Greek Riot story, was a graduate student at York. He very much wanted to do a thesis on the history of the Greek Canadian community in Toronto, but was constantly dissuaded by members of the History Faculty, simply because he wouldn’t find the academic resources to carry out such a study.

Chris, being the indefatigable person that he is, set out with the help of Prof. Gekas to build an archive himself, reaching out to the community and to whatever resources he could find, to preserve the legacy of the community here.

But for this project to grow into the future, it needed proper funding and organization. With an appeal to the HHF, we raised the funds needed to carry out this project and turn it into a proper, professional archive with a budget to hire an Archives Director—Bill Molos fills this role nicely—and a trained archivist, Maria Parascos, who is doing the heavy lifting, archiving all the donated material. And that’s the true success here – that there is so much incoming material that the staff of two, together with the support of the Clara Thomas Archives and the Hellenic Studies department, are busy at work preserving all the material that has been coming in lately.

One of Bill’s tasks is make the archives accessible to scholars and to the public and to create initiatives that are public-facing. That’s where our synergistic relationship comes in. Both Bill and Maria became members of the History Committee. They, along with Prof. Gekas, ensure our work meets historical accuracy and rigor. The History and PR Committees help the Archives with any public projects and events. It benefits both our organizations. And for the HHF, as a fundraising organization, we are there to continually support our endowment and investment at York. And by being a part of the work done there, it is a meaningful association for our members and donors. When the need arose to fund the Archives, the money was raised relatively quickly.

HHF’s Greek Canadian Archives.

In synergies between communities and academic units, stakeholders strive for mutual respect. It is often the case though that scholars produce knowledge that may complicate conventional assumptions and beliefs among sectors of the community. Sometimes scholars may express cultural critique, which could create discomfort or even opposition. What are your thoughts about this dynamic? What do you expect from the scholarship which is produced in the context of HHF’s initiatives?

We have come across this. We are very aware that in that past, the Foundation was initially uncomfortable with promoting some of the darker parts of our history in Canada, such as the Anti-Greek Riots. Like many immigrant communities, and understandably so, the hope was that we focus on success stories as a source of pride and inspiration to future generations.

The HHF Talks series.

But because from the start, the History Committee was made up of historians, journalists, film makers and educators, we quickly overcame this common obstacle. It was my role, with the support of other members, to communicate with the Board, why we should take an honest, an accurate approach with our projects. We constantly face this issue in our podcast and historical walking tour work. We strive to avoid any nationalistic and conventional narratives which may have been taught in Greek School or back in Greece. This isn’t an issue, of course, with newer Greek immigrants, in that the educational system in Greece has greatly evolved. But it can be an issue with older members of our community. We try to be circumspective when an issue may be sensitive, but also try to offer views that many older Greeks may not be used to hearing, to provide balance and greater understanding.

I would like to bring into the conversation the Greek diaspora’s contemporary cultural production (literature, poetry, autobiography, documentaries, film, standup comedy, the next generation). This production largely remains underexplored in North America and elsewhere. Do you see a potential for HHF supporting the study of contemporary Greek Canada?

Are you pitching us? The answer is, if a study is presented to us, we explore it and its value. There is magnificent work being done by a new generation of artists, writers, filmmakers. There is so much talent in our diaspora community. This should be pursued!

Is there an aspect of HHF activities, prospects, or challenges that you would like to share with our readers?

We recently won the Canadian Ethnic Media Association’s Best Podcast Series award for Exodus: The Stories of 1922. We are currently working on our next podcast series, Cyprus: An Island Divided.

We’re developing a new walking tour of the western part of Toronto (away from the Danforth) which will focus on the labour history of Greek immigrants.

There is so much more, I haven’t even mentioned her. And, I know, I sound like a cheerleader, but I’m immensely proud of the work this Committee takes on––we just launched a series called The HHF Recommends, where at the start of every month, we wish our supporters a Kalo Mina, along with recommendations of Greek resources or entertainment we think the community would enjoy. Our group is made up of many talented and engaged Greek Canadians and I thought it was time we share this wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm.

Thank you!!