Immigration Pre-WWII

Written by: Angeline Antonakos Boswell, KGHP Researcher

LOCATION ON THE WALKING TOUR: 360 Princess Street, the location of Zakos Bros Ltd, an early business owned by the Zakos family.


Immigration to our Greek community was experienced in two waves. Very few Greeks had immigrated to Canada before World War II. There was no official Greek community established here at the time, and there wouldn’t be for many years, but the existing Greek families remained close-knit. As the “Greeks of Kingston” section in the 1992 Kingston Folklore Pamphlet, written by an active long-time member of our Greek community (Murva Nikas), states:

“The first recorded Greek immigrant to arrive in Kingston was a man by the name of Agiorgitis who came here shortly after the turn of the century. Until the Second World War, there were only a few Greeks who followed his arrival. They were the Sakell, Karis, and Playanokos brothers along with James D. Zakos and James Callas, followed by Nicholas Speal, George Palavos and George Athanos, Peter Karis and Paul Pezoulas.” 

For this project, we had a chance to speak with members of the Zakos, Karis, and Sakell families. In many instances, the early Greek families in Kingston became related through marriage. The photo below shows a family gathering of the Sakells and Zakos’s, since Crysanthy (née Zakos) married Andrew Sakell. The Sakell and Karis families were also cousins.

Zakos Group Photo 1

The second, and largest, wave of immigration to Kingston occurred after World War II. There were little to no opportunities for immigration to Canada between the beginning of WWI and the end of WWII. This post-WWII wave was significant, and prompted the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Church in Kingston as well as other cultural institutions, such as Greek School, Folklore, and more. Before WWII, it was AHEPA and the Daughters of Penelope, rather than an official Greek Community, that provided Greek-Kingstonians with a connection to their Hellenic roots. The early Greeks in Kingston would have attended St. George’s Cathedral for their church services.

One can only imagine the disorienting effects and psychological stress being among the first immigrants from your home country to a new, foreign land would have entailed. There was no Greek community established in Kingston at the time – something later Greek immigrants could have used as a cultural safety net, even branching out into the broader society through connections within the Community. Kingston’s first Greeks arrived without knowing the language and without having any cultural or religious connections here. When looking at immigration patterns, we can see that Greeks tended to immigrate to where there were already Greek communities established. Thus, it is the early Greeks in Kingston who paved the way for others to come overseas – often times directly sponsoring the immigration of friends and family. It is to their strength, resilience, and often their entrepreneurial spirit, that we owe the establishment of our Greek community.

About Greek Immigration to Canada

“The 20th century was not kind to the country of Greece. Marred by civil wars, world wars and economic depression, many Greeks, tired of economic instability and political fighting, left the land of their birth to find better promises in other countries. In Canada, the numbers tell the story. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 39 persons in Canada claimed to be Greek. By the end of the century, 203, 345 Greek Canadians were living in Canada. The vast majority of these people arrived in Canada between 1911-1929 and between 1946-1981.” (Century Man: The Father Salamis Story)

Greek emigration began with those fleeing Greece during the “revolution against the Ottoman Turks in 1828” (Kaketsis 2000, 27). After the War of Independence, when Greece was liberated from Ottoman rule, very few emigrated. It was not until the turn of the century that Greeks began emigrating again – largely to North America – due to “the poor living conditions and crop failures in their homeland” (27). The situation for Greeks trying to immigrate to Canada was difficult at first: Canadian immigration policies did not prefer Greeks, nor immigrants from Southern Europe in general (28). Thus, in order to fit in, early Greek immigrants often “denounced their Greekness”, by hiding their cultures or anglicizing their names (ibid).

The United States saw Greek immigration reach its borders much earlier than Canada did. In the 1880s, cheap manual labor was needed in the US and “convenient immigration legislation encouraged that migration” (Alexiou 2013). The Greeks contributed to what was called the Great Migration to the US, albeit only at the tail end of it (ibid.), whereas we see no significant numbers of Greeks immigrating to Canada until the turn of the century.

Below is the passenger description of Andrew Sakell, an early Greek in Kingston who first traveled to Chicago by ship, through Elis Island, before ending up in Kingston in the early 20th century.


In the 1911 census, there were 3650 Greeks in Canada. Most were living in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Halifax, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. Many were successful businessmen, “running their own stores, hotels, bakeries and restaurants” (Libraries and Archives Canada). By 1931 there were around 9400 Greeks settled in Canada (Kaketsis 2000, 28). Greeks have always held onto their identity strongly; and most immigrants to Canada did not intend to stay here, but rather intended to work and save money, intent on eventually moving back to Greece. Often Greek immigrants would send money back home to their families in Greece. As Kaketsis puts it: “with this attachment to the motherland, their Hellenic identity was strengthened by immigration, rather than abandoned” (2000, 28).

Over the years, Greek immigration to Canada steadily increased. Pier 21 Records show that Greece was #20 in “country of immigrant origin” in 1928-1939, with 2492 people immigrating to Canada from Greece during those years. Between 1940-1949, Greece became #18, with 2226 new immigrants.

By 1951, there were nearly 14 000 Greek immigrants in Canada. Around this time, Canada’s immigration policies became less strict (Kaketsis 2000, 30). At the same time, we see the end of World War II and the end of Greece’s Civil War, significantly increasing the opportunities for Greeks to emigrate. The greatest influx of Greek immigration to Canada occurred after World War II. Since 1971, the rate of Greek immigration has been declining (Kaketsis 2000, 31).

Greek Immigration to Canada Pre-WWII

Greek immigration to Canada was not encouraged during the first half of the 20th century (Century Man: The Father Salamis Story). Unfortunately, immigration policies categorized between “desirable” and “undesirable” groups of immigrants, of which Greeks formed part of the latter. The majority of Greek immigrants during the first half of the 20th century were neither “skilled” nor “educated”, and often spoke neither official language. These Greeks who had, for the most part, been farmers back home sought new opportunities in urban spaces, gravitating towards Montreal, Toronto, and (to a lesser degree) Vancouver (ibid).

“Within these cities, Greek communities formed, usually in older parts of the city where rents were cheaper. Often, several families would live together in one house, sharing expenses until they became established and could afford their own homes” (Century Man: The Father Salamis Story).

The following documents show George Karis (an early Greek in Kingston)’s naturalization papers, migration papers from Greece, and his Canadian Citizenship certificate.

In looking at the history of Canadian immigration policies, we can see how difficult the situation for Greek immigrants must have been due to discrimination and immigration regulations. To give a backdrop of immigration policies in Canada at the time, it is important to situate the Greek immigrant experience within a timeline, with the following  facts taken from the Canadian Council for Refugees’s A Hundred Years of Immigration to Canada timeline (

  • In 1901, only 12.7% of the Canadian population was comprised of immigrants. Immigration to cities was heavily restricted, as an emphasis was placed on populating the Western prairies.
  • In 1906, an immigration act was passed, which “enable[d] the department of immigration to deal with undesirable immigrants”.
  • This took form in 1910’s prohibitions to “any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation, or character”.
  • In 1911, 22% of Canada’s population was comprised of immigrants, but immigration became very limited during the first World War.
  • The Great Depression brought a severe limit to Canadian immigration as well. In the 1930s, immigration was restricted to American citizens and British subjects, and “agriculturalists with economic means”. There was also a widespread “deportation of the unemployed”.
  • In 1934, 94% of naturalization applications were denied.
  • The drop in immigration during this time was so severe that in 1941, only 17.5% of the population was comprised of immigrants (a big drop from 22%); and in 1942 immigration had reached its lowest point of the century.

The following immigration document is from the Zakos family. It depicts the Canadian government’s approval of James Zakos (who had already immigrated to Kingston in 1914)’s attempt to bring his wife and children over to Canada with him. It is stamped with the date April 18, 1925. It was common for Greek immigrant men to first establish themselves in the new country before sponsoring their family to join them. James was successful in bringing his family over as this was right before the cut-off of immigration in the 1930s.

Zakos Immigration letter 1924

“With the passage of order-in-council PC 695 on 21 March 1931, the government of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett implemented the tightest immigration admissions policy in Canadian history. Further restrictions were deemed necessary after the onset of the Great Depression in order to combat soaring unemployment and further economic decline. With the measures introduced in 1931, Canada effectively closed its doors to the rest of the world. Throughout the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the racial oppression of the Second World War, Canada remained committed to this policy of exclusion.” (Pier 21 Records,

Greek communities saw virtually no new immigrants between the beginning of the Great Depression and the end of World War Two. In Kingston, as in many Greek Canadian communities, we see two waves of immigration: one at the very start of the 20th century, and one beginning around the 1950s, continuing into the 1970s. This second wave of immigration, titled “Post-WWII immigration” in this walking tour, was by far the largest.

For Greeks immigrating to Canada during the first half of the 20th century, it was not “a completely happy event” (Chimbos 1980, 24).  Prejudice and discrimination was abundant, and the immigration to a new land with new customs and a new language was disorienting. Since these early Greek immigrants arrived to Canada without any already-existing Greek communities – often being the ones to pave the way for future community establishments – they were largely isolated, far from their families, church, peers, and cultural institutions. Greek immigrants in the early 20th century were almost always young, single men seeking a better life for themselves and for their future families. Often they would sponsor others, including wives they would return to Greece to find and marry. With the growth of GreekCanadian families in the early 20th century, as opposed to only single working men, we see families becoming “the center of social activities for Greek Canadians” (Chimbos 1980, 26).

In the process of chain migration, Greeks tended to gravitate towards where Greeks had already established themselves, and eventually we see the resulting clusters of Greeks in urban spaces. In our own example of Kingston, the larger wave of immigration after the 1950s led to an increase in the population of Greeks. We see a transition around this time of Greeks wanting to supplement these informal, family-bound methods of socialization with organized, formal community organization.

The Early Greeks in Kingston

One of the earliest Greek families to immigrate to Canada was the Zakos family. James Zakos came to Kingston in 1914; before then, he had lived in Chicago from 1887 to 1895. He then returned to Greece and married Helen. James and Helen’s grandchildren, Margaret Zakos and Peggy Geracimo, tell the story of their grandparents.

In 1914, when James moved to Kingston, he opened the Olympia Fruit and Vegetable Market. He brought his older children to Canada shortly after that, and later he brought his entire family over from Greece, including his wife, in 1925. James and Helen Zakos opened a series of other successful businesses afterwards.

The first photo below depicts the children of James and Helen in 1910. The second photo depicts James (left) and Helen (right) in Kingston during their senior years.

The village James came from was called Stadion. Peggy found his house in Greece the first time she went, and her grandfather’s initials were signed in the marble of the house. Her cousin was living in the house at the time, and he told her to go visit the church and see what her grandfather had done for the church over the years. Peggy saw all the donations that James had given to the church in Stadion. People in their village still remember the Zakos family. They called Margaret and Peggy the “Zakitsas” when they arrived there, and Margaret couldn’t believe they still remembered them. They were a well-known family.

Zakos House in Stadion 3
The Zakos house in Stadion, Greece

James had been a merchant in Greece. He had also been working on a farm to make food for the family. His passport described him as a merchant, and Margaret and Peggy are not sure if he could have immigrated at the time if he did not have experience as a merchant. At the time, immigration laws in Canada were more strict and favored those who could show they would contribute financially to Canadian society.

James’s sister, Nikolitsa, lived in Chicago. They assumed James lived with her for the 8 years he lived in America. James had worked in Chicago until he raised enough money, then he moved back to Greece. In Greece, he had 10 children; they eventually all went to school in Canada. Margaret’s father went to Central Public School, even though he was older. It was difficult for him to be in that situation, as he said he was 10 years old and in kindergarten. They did this in order to learn the English language, since education was important to James and Helen. James wanted his children to speak English fluently.

James and Helen lived at 297 Division street. When the Zakos children grew older, the ones remaining in Kingston “all lived within blocks of each other”. Kingston was small back then, and “Palace Road was the end of Kingston”. The Zakos family remained very close. The Sakells, another early Greek family in Kingston and a family connected to the Zakos’s through marriage, would often join them. The Zakos’s were a big group, and “all the cousins were together all the time”; Margaret and Peggy recall that it felt like they were all one big family.

Zakos Bros ltd Fruit and Vegetable Store 3
The Zakos’s fruit and vegetable market

James and Helen were very close to their grandchildren, and they all had a great respect
for their grandparents. James and Helen would babysit them when there was a need, and the roles reversed as they got older: eventually, “the grandchildren took care of the grandparents.” Peggy lived in the same house as James and Helen for a while. Peggy’s father was the youngest and the last to get married, so he lived with his parents and brought his wife into his home. Later, when his parents grew old, the family took care of them. Peggy felt this was a unique situation for Canadian families, but not for Greek families. “That’s just the way it was”, she says, and she felt it was a richer environment to grow up in, having the extended family all under one roof.

The Sakell family was another one of the earliest Greek families to Kingston. Spiro Sakell, a narrator for this project, was born in Kingston to Greek parents named Andrew and Crysanthy. Andrew Sakell had immigrated from Greece when he was 16 years old, first going through Ellis Island, and ending up in Chicago. He had brothers already living in Kingston who eventually convinced Andrew to come join them. Once Andrew made the trek through the United States to Kingston, he never went back. Eventually he returned to Greece to marry, and brought Crysanthy with him to Kingston after two years. We will hear much more about the Sakell family during the section of this walking tour focused on Work and Businesses, since Andrew and his brothers had many entrepreneurial pursuits, operating restaurants and ice cream parlors along Princess Street.

Standing L to R Andrew Sakell, George Sakell, seated L to R Greg Sakell, Tom Sakell
Andrew Sakell (Standing, Left) with his brothers George Sakell (standing right), Greg (seated left) and Tom Sakell (seated right).

The Karis family was another one of the earliest Greek families in Kingston. The Karis family and the Sakell family were first cousins with each other, and the Sakells were related to the Zakos’s through marriage. These early Greek families were close-knit. Maria Karis Brousalis, a narrator for this project, remembers that the children from these families “grew up like siblings”. When Maria was growing up, she remembered the four Greek families at the time: the Sakells, the Georgious, the Karis’s, and the Zakos’s.

Peter Karis
A photograph of Peter Karis

Peter Karis, Maria’s great-uncle, born in 1885, immigrated to Canada in 1906. He was the first of the Karis family to do so.

Peter’s brother, Konstantinos, had seven children; a number of them eventually immigrated to Kingston to join their uncle Peter while others remained in Greece. Bill (Vasilios) Karis was the first out of Kostantinos’s children to immigrate. He came to Canada in 1912, followed by Frank Karis (Maria’s father, born in 1901) in 1914, being only 13 years old at the time. World War 1 broke out as he was passing England on his way to Canada! Eventually, Thomas Karis immigrated to Kingston in 1917 as well.

Kostantinos also eventually immigrated to Kingston, with his wife remaining in Greece. He left Greece to work in Canada and sent money to the family that remained in his village of Xylokastro. He intended that they would all move to Canada eventually, but his wife did not want to. His son, and two daughters, stayed in Greece with their mother. Kostantinos went back to Xylokastro and visited once, but otherwise was “always living alone”.

The Karis brothers, together with their uncle Peter, became involved in the ice cream business. They owned restaurants, ice cream parlors, and an ice cream manufacturing facility. Because the Karis family was cousins with the Sakell Family, when the families first came to Canada, they lived together. According to 1911 Canada census, Peter Karis and the Sakell brothers (Andrew, George, John, Thomas) lived at 208 Princess St. Later the families were also connected through business partnerships in the ice cream parlor business.

Spiro (Frank Karis)
Frank Karis, who always loved music.

Frank Karis married Anastasia (Tessie) Kontogiorgos-Karis, a Greek-Canadian from Ingersoll. Together they had Dennis, Diane, and Maria (the narrator in our project). Frank’s education was at a Grade 6 level when he left Greece. He taught himself English. Maria remembers that he loved music. He used to play music all the time, and he loved reading; she doesn’t remember him without a book. There is a photo of him with a mandolin. He was also passionate about education. Her mother, Tessie, was born in Canada of Greek parents. Tessie was raised “very Greek”, and never heard a word of English until she started school.

Tessie is described by her granddaughter (Maria’s daughter, Kristina) in the following quote:

“Her full first name was Anastasia, but she was known as Tessie.  She was born in Brantford, Ontario in 1916 but was sent to school without speaking any English.  This must have been hard for her, especially in small-town Ontario… She actually wanted more than anything to become a teacher, but in her time and day she was not allowed to go to teachers’ college by her parents.  So, she got married instead… and raised three children who all became teachers… Also, as a married woman, she became a leader in the Greek Community in Kingston, Ontario – not only did she help the women in her Greek-Canadian community, but many of the Greek-Canadians currently in Kingston were allowed to stay in her house, rent free, for a few months until they got on their feet.  She and her husband helped them find jobs and places in the community.”

Tessie and Frank Karis’s wedding photo

Maria did not feel that Greeks encountered a lot of “ethnic conflict”. Of course, there was still the difficulty of feeling different that the early Greek immigrants endured. Most Greeks at the time changed their names to be more anglicized and to fit in with the broader society. Her brother, Kostandinos, for example, became Dennis. She feels that the situation for those who are “ethnically different in Canada” has changed for the better. When Maria was young she felt that she couldn’t speak Greek when she was out of the home. Nowadays, however, “there are many ethnic groups and everyone feels proud.” The situation got even better when the Greek community was established. Beforehand, Maria felt that most people were not necessarily proud nor not proud to be Greek. Their Greekhood “was just there”. Now, she finds that people “embrace it more”.

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