Croatians in Toronto

By: Vinko Grubisic

From: Polyphony Vol.6, 1984 pp. 88-91
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Today some 40,000 Croatians live in Toronto. How much history do the Toronto Croatians have behind them? What have been their political, cultural and athletic achievements?

Research on Croatians in Ontario, and in Canada generally, is difficult because of the fact that Canadian statistics did not have a separate entry for Croatians until 1921. We do not know what kind of administrative difficulties were faced by the very first Croatians in Canada, but those who arrived by the end of the last century have had to identify themselves as "Austrians," ''Hungarians,'' ''Yugoslavic group," ''Serbo-Croats," etc. It was difficult and humiliating for them to accept the nationality of their oppressors, who most often were the cause of their leaving their native soil. "The census for the city of Toronto, for example, yields many Germans, Poles, Italians, Jews, and even Swedes, Norwegians, and Portuguese in the 1860's and 1870's but few Croats are easily identified."

In the nineteenth century a few Croatians were farming in southern Ontario. At the beginning of the current century, several hundred Croatians were working in various industries in Toronto. Before World War One, the economic crisis forced several thousand Croatians from their homeland towards the New World. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which all Croatian lands were incorporated at that time, did not discourage the young and productive people from emigrating. However, the monarchy changed its attitude once it was at war.

With the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, the Croatians hoped to achieve their long cherished dream of national liberty. Instead they were faced with far greater national and economic oppression than ever before. As a result, new waves of emigrants left Croatia and a large number of them came to southern Ontario, in particular to Toronto and Hamilton, many of them settling in Canada between 1923-29.

During the depression, very few Croatian labourers entered Canada. The majority of Croatian immigrants at that time were women, either wives of earlier settlers or unmarried women. "This decade (1931-41) was indeed the only period in which the number of male Croatian immigrants was surpassed by the number of female immigrants.''

After World War Two, the majority of Croatian immigrants to Canada settled in Toronto. They found jobs mainly in heavy industries and construction, so that after the Italians, the Croatians are probably the largest ethnic group in the construction industry in Toronto.

Many educational and social activities of the Toronto Croatians were achieved within the framework of the Croatian parish-Our Lady Queen of Croatia. From 1939-41, Rev. R. Grskovic was the first Catholic priest to work with Croatians in Toronto. During World War Two the Croatians were left without their own priest, but by 1947 Rev. R. Hrascanec became their spiritual leader. He remained in Toronto until 1950. Then, for a brief time, the Croatian Catholic pastor was Rev. A. Rab, succeeded by Rev. Jure Vrdoljak, who had been in Sudbury from 1955-61. In the first year of his pastoral work in Toronto, the Croatian Catholic parish was officially established and a church was purchased and restored. Soon it became the gathering place for Croatians. The church burned down in 1962, and Vrdoljak's successor, Rev. Charles D. Kamber, built a new church in 1965 on the very same grounds. Rev. Kamber was assisted by Rev. Bozidar Vidov, Rev. M. Grgas and, from time to time the Slovene Roman Catholic priest Rev. France Skumavc.

"Reverend Kamber's active parish work among the Croatians in Toronto in the sixties resulted in further purchases of land for a park and a parish graveyard and he earned universal praise for his efforts after his death in 1969. Kamber's successor, Rev. Josip Gjuran, introduced many new activities to Metro Croatians. He was assisted in his parish work by Rev. Aleksandar Boras (1971-75), by Rev. Ivan Golec (1975-80) and by Rev. lvica Kecerin, who is now head of a new parish centre in Mississauga.

Currently there are three priests in the Toronto parish: Rev. Josip Gjuran, Rev. Jurica Jezerinac and Rev. Valent Bogadi. They are assisted in their work by nuns belonging to the order of Servants to the Child Jesus: Sister Eduarda Maric, Sister Marinka Vrnoga and Sister Mariangela Majic. On Sundays about 2,000 parish bulletins are distributed in this parish. Rev. Gjuran also speaks on the radio each Sunday (1:30-3:00 p.m.) so that his pastoral words can reach all Croatians of southern Ontario.

The Association of Croatian Women is very active in the life of the Toronto Croatian parish. The Caravan Croatian pavilion is held each year in the spacious parish hall. The Croatian Catholic Youth is involved in the many Croatian charitable actions. They often organise theatre presentations, visit the sick and the elderly. There is also a Croatian Charitable Youth group that organises diverse activities in the Croatian Hall (Hrvatski Dom) on Dupont Street, with all profits going to charitable needs within the community.

Ten years ago, Croatians of Islamic faith built a Croatian mosque in Toronto, headed by Mr. Kerim Reis. Many Croatians of Christians faith helped their Islamic brothers in building the Croatian Islamic spiritual and cultural centre. It is open to all Islamic people for their spiritual needs. It is here that the children are taught the Croatian and Arabic languages, where you can find Croatian Islamic newspapers, books, brochures, etc.

The Croatian Fraternal Union (CFU), an insurance company which is still very active among Croatians, already had, before World War Two, some 1,000 members. Today there are several lodges which are united to form the Federation of CFU for southern Ontario. It is also noteworthy to mention the existence of the Croatian Credit Union of Toronto (Hrvatska Kreditna Zadruga) in which thousands of Croatians deposit and save their money.

Although Croatian language teaching took place in the interwar period, it was not until 1961 that the first Croatian school was organised in Metro Toronto by Rev. Bozidar Vidov, also its first teacher. Rev. Vidov published the school's first textbooks, including a Croatian grammar manual, in the English language. The Saturday school has been steadily growing so that today it has 650 students and is one of the largest Croatian schools in Ontario. It has been named Croatian School Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. Croatian language and literature has also been taught at the high school level in Toronto as a credit or interest course.

The Croatian Cultural and Educational Society of Canada (Hrvatsko Kulturno Prosvjetno Drustvo u Kanadi) was also formed here in 1969. Unfortunately, its newspaper "Napredak" (Progress) was only short-lived. In 1972 several intellectuals established a Toronto chapter of the Croatian Academy of America, "an American organization whose broad purpose was to educate the members and to publish information generally concerning Croatian literature, culture and history." Last year the Toronto chapter of CAA, together with the Pontifical Institute, organised a symposium on the five centuries of the first Croatian printed book. In 1978 the Croatian Students' Federation was founded and its branch at York University, in cooperation with the staff from the university and Croatian businessmen, prepared the largest symposium on Croatian culture ever held in Canada-Croatian Nationalism and Culture in the Nineteen and Twentieth Centuries. Some twenty scholars from Canada, the United States and Europe took part in it.

ManyTambouritza groups were formed before World War Two, but the real renaissance of folk music and dance developed in the 1960s. One of the best-known dance groups in Toronto is the Zrinski Frankopan Croatian Folk Ensemble, directed these past fourteen years by Nikola Vrdoljak. "The Ensemble has not only presented authentic Croatian folklore in song, dance and music, but also taken a very active role in presenting displays of Croatian arts and craft associated with various traditional, national and religious celebrations.'' Another excellent folklore ensemble is Croatia, which has existed since 1971, under the direction of Professor Eli Vranesic. Toronto has also twice been the host city for the Canadian-Croatian Folklore Festival, the largest annual folklore manifestation among the Croatians in Canada.

Among the early Croatian immigrants to Canada and, consequently, to Toronto, there were relatively few people who could read and write. However, already in the first decade of the century, there were several subscribers to the Catholic weekly "Danica" (Morning Star), published in Chicago. The first Croatian paper published in Canada was the "Kanadski Glas" (Canadian Voice), which later became the "Hrvatski Glas" (Croatian Voice). Since 1929 it has had quite a large number of Toronto subscribers. Being the official organ of the Croatian Peasant Party in Canada, its first editor was Petar Stankovic. Adherents to the party, which was founded in Toronto in 1930, named their branch Stjepan Radic, thus honouring the founder and leader of the Croatian Peasant Party and, one can say, of the Croatian nation. Radic was killed in the Belgrade Parliament in 1928. His death provoked feelings of repugnance for the Belgrade government. The Croatian Peasant Party built its Toronto hall in 1930, where practically all their meetings and cultural activities were held. The hall was since purchased by an Irish group in 1981. Some Croatian workers in Toronto also began to publish their left-oriented paper "Borba" (Fight). Its editor, Tomo Cacic, was obliged to move from Toronto to Montreal. He changed the name of his paper to "Slobodna Misao" (Free Thought) in 1931.

From the beginning the Yugoslav Monarchy has tried to control and direct political activities among Croatian immigrants. In 1927 the Yugoslav Club was founded in Toronto. "The Croatian immigrants were in no way attracted to such organisations because they were conscious of the events in their native country, and they were aware of the problems which faced their nation." The proclamation of the Croatian Educational Federation, at its meeting of April 10, 1939, deserves mention because it can be considered very typical of its time:

Croatian Educational Federation of Canada:

-organises and brings together working people regardless of their political opinion, with the objective of educating them about democracy through the newspapers, schools, libraries, and by presenting lectures; -brings the Croatian people closer to Canadians and familiarizes them with the Canadian democratic organisations and institutions;
-develops Croatian culture by organising various cultural activities such as establishing choirs and tambouritza orchestras, and organising various sports;
-helps newcomers from Croatia solve their problems and gives moral support and material help to those working towards the liberation of the Croatian people in the old country.

After World War Two, thousands of Croatians escaped Yugoslav communism and found refuge in Toronto. Some of them became members of the Croatian Liberation Movement (Hrvatski Oslobodilacki Pokret), which has been publishing "Nezavisna DrZaVa Hrvatska" (Croatian Independent State) since 1960. Another political party in Toronto with his own publishing voice is the Hrvatska Republikanska Stranka (Croatian Republican Party). Its paper is "Hrvatski Put" (Croatian Way), formerly "Nas Put" (Our Way). The Croatian political party which owns a hall on Dupont Street is Hrvatski Narodni Otpor (Croatian National Resistance). The Croatian National Congress (Hrvatsko Narodno Vijece) was founded in Toronto in 1974. It is an umbrella organisation which counts several thousand members all over the world. Recently the first meeting of the Croatian Committee for Human Rights was held in Toronto. Some 550 people attended its first banquet. This committee has awakened significant enthusiasm among Croatians and their friends.

In this short survey, we have not mentioned the most important Croatian contribution to Toronto. Thousands of people who came here, either looking for human and political freedom or for a better life, took part in the spiritual and material growth of Toronto. Many ordinary, anonymous people who were and still are working in the construction industry, in factories and hospitals, in public services, or in their own businesses have participated in the flourishing of one of the largest and most beautiful cities in North America. In 1981 Croatians gathered to celebrate the name change of Awde Avenue to Croatia Street. This remarkable event for the Croatian community was noted in many Croatian papers abroad.

Croatians are proud of their tradition and culture, but at the same time they are very open-minded people. Their spiritual, political and cultural leaders often cite a line from the work of the poet Drago Ivanisevic: "Being a Croatian, I am a brother of mankind. "

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