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Community Life and Culture

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Serbs/Paul Pavlovich

As Serb immigrants became numerous, they formalized their social life. As in the homeland, Orthodox priests became leaders of religious life as well as guardians of ethnic identity; fraternal societies and benevolent associations emerged to help those in need; and communities established meeting places and church auxiliary groups, such as choirs, Serbian Sisters’ Circles, and Sunday schools. Later they formed patriotic clubs, political organizations, sports clubs, folklore-dance groups, veterans’ groups, and the like.

World War I exemplified the need for Serbs to organize themselves. Immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria were treated as “enemy aliens” and detained in camps. Serbs from those countries, even though Serbia and Montenegro were otherwise fighting with the Allies, were detained as well. In 1914 in New York, the Srpska Narodna Odbrana (Serbian National Shield Society, or SNSS) was organized, with Michael Pupin, professor of physics at Columbia University, as president. This organization, and Pupin himself, intervened to prevent further detention of Serbs in Canada and to seek the speedy release of those already detained. Using the SNSS as a model, Ontario’s Serbs organized their own chapter in 1916 at a founding meeting in Welland and chose the Reverend Janicije Kukuljevich of Hamilton as president. The Kanadski Glasnik/Canadian Herald (Welland, Ont., 1916–18), under the editorship of Micun Pavicevich, was the voice of the SNSS. In July 1916, at the Belgrade restaurant in Toronto, a chapter of the SNSS was formed, with Boza Markovich as president; further chapters were formed in Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Port Colborne, Calgary, and Vancouver.

In Toronto Petar Borojevich, a Serb from Bosnia, organized evening English-language instruction by 1914, while a chapter of the Serb Red Cross (SRC) was busily collecting donations for the needy in Serbia. Chapters of the SRC were soon set up in Hamilton and Welland, Ontario. Eventually, the SRC committees and the SNSS chapters merged, but their activities declined rapidly after 1918.

In the inter-war period Serbs organized benevolent societies for a settler community. The Serb National Federation (SNF) formed in 1901 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the largest on this continent. Hamilton’s St Ilija chapter was formed in 1915. The benevolent society Sloga (Unity) was founded by the Serbs of Edmonton in 1915, only to be disbanded two years later when many left as volunteers to join the Serb military; a revival in 1927 lasted only until 1929. The benevolent society Jugoslovenska Kruna (Yugoslav Crown) was set up in Windsor, Ontario, in 1926 and associated with the SNF, and in 1943 a faction separated to form the Srpska Kruna (Serbian Crown). The Jugoslovenski Prosvetni Klub Jedinstvo (Yugoslav Educational Club Unity) was active in Windsor in 1927, while the Jugoslovenski Sokol (Yugoslav Falcon) started in 1929, spearheaded by Pero Bulat. Its meetings were held in rented halls. There were sessions for physical fitness, English classes, concerts and programs of a patriotic nature, and a Tamburitsa orchestra was formed. Nevertheless, it folded in 1933, though by 1935 a Windsor chapter of the Jugoslovensko Kanadsko Udruženjo (Yugoslav Canadian Association, or YCA) was opened. In Noranda, Quebec, in 1927, the benevolent group Gavrilo Princip operated, while by the late 1930s there was a music band, youth group, and a library with 200 Serb books. In March 1930 in Vancouver the benevolent group Sokol (Falcon) was formed and became associated with the SNF. In Hamilton in 1930 the Sokolsko Društvo (Falcon Society) was organized. On 10 April 1927 some thirty Serbs founded a Serb benevolent club/society, Plavi Jadran (Blue Adriatic), in Toronto. Later this society organized a singing group, Kosovo, and after 1930 it held Serb functions and observances, dances, music, and theatre nights.

In the post-1945 period, thousands of Serbs arrived in Canada, and many joined existing organizations or set up new ones. The newcomers included military personnel, professionals, intellectuals, and former Chetnik fighters. Youth groups made up of Canadian-born youngsters fostered Serb identity through church choirs, sports tournaments, folklore dancing, singing festivals, and religious, social, or cultural celebrations, gatherings, and dances. Windsor’s youths organized their Srbadia Youth Club; Hamilton’s, St Nikola; Toronto’s, Shumadia; Sudbury’s, Voyvodina; and Niagara Falls and Montreal’s, Ravna Gora. Under the sponsorship of the SNSS all these clubs met in 1947 to coordinate their efforts. By the 1950s the youth clubs were transformed into singing societies or church choirs – Steven Mokranjac in Hamilton, Grachanitsa in Windsor, St George in Niagara Falls, and St Sava in Toronto – all eventually joining the U.S.-based Serb Singing Federation (SSF). A concert by Serb youths was held in 1952 in Hamilton, while SSF festivals occurred in Niagara Falls (1956), Hamilton (1957), Windsor (1958), and Toronto (1961). After the church schism, Metropolia church choirs formed the Serbian Orthodox Choral Association (SOCA), and since 1965 they have met annually at choir festivals.

Other cultural activities flourished. In 1954 the Serb Youth Club in Toronto was formed, and its folk-dance group Strazilovo became one of the first highly successful dance groups in Canada, remembered for dancing at Toronto’s Massey Hall and as part of the Grandstand Show at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1960. In 1954 the SNSS established the Avala publishing house, which by 1982 had produced some dozen titles of Serb history, memoirs, and short stories, primarily in Serbian. A Serb theatre group, Kosovo, was formed in Hamilton in 1960 under the direction of Milisav Markovich. It is still active and has sponsored a TV cable program and the folklore group Srbijanka. In the 1980s in Toronto, Branislav Mrdja put on the play Karageorge in Serbian at a church hall and received a grant from the Ontario Multicultural Theatre Association and Wintario to form the Serbian Canadian Classical Theatre. Mrdja presented the same play in English in 1981 at the St Lawrence Centre in Toronto, but Serbs did not support his efforts in sufficient numbers.

Every Serb community supports a lively folk-dance group – most notably, Toronto’s Hajduk Veljko (founded 1964), which danced at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, and Toronto’s Oplenac (1973), which participated in the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations at Lewiston Art Park, New York. The well-known Hamilton group Kolo (1969) performed for Canada Week ’75 in Ottawa and at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. Many sports clubs were active; for instance, the White Eagles Serb Soccer Team from Toronto won the Canadian championship in 1974.

New kinds of professional and cultural associations have emerged since the 1950s. In 1961 the Windsor Serbian Canadian Business and Professional Association began its activity, as well as the Serbian Heritage Women’s Society, a cultural and charitable organization. From the early 1950s to 1984 the Serbian Cultural Club St Sava was active in Toronto, publishing eight volumes in Serbian dealing with Serb history. Since 1957 the Serb Historical-Cultural Society Njegos has also made its mark, while in 1972 the Serbs of Toronto began participating in that city’s annual Caravan festival. Since 1973, the Serbs have been represented on the Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism.

The Serbian Heritage Academy (SHA), formed in Toronto in 1981, has organized academic conferences, exhibits, and lectures. It has brought to Toronto numerous Serb writers, poets, and academics to lecture and has organized anniversaries and conferences – a notable one being in 1981, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Serbian Radical Party. In 1984 it installed a bronze plaque at the University of Toronto’s Medical Sciences Building honouring Canadian doctors and nurses who had worked as volunteers in Serbia during World War I. In 1993 the SHA received an Ontario government grant to buy a building in Toronto and opened the Serbian Centre for Newcomers in Ontario.

In 1987 the Windsor Serbs opened their (third) Serbian Community Centre – they had built earlier ones in 1939 and in 1966 – which included a Serbian Heritage Museum (1987), financed in part by the Ontario government, which preserves “artifacts and archival material related to the cultural heritage of the Serbian people.” In 1990 the Grachanitsa Library was also established there, and in 1992 a senior citizens’ centre. The first Serb bookstore, Srbica Books, was opened in Toronto in 1990 by Zivko Apic.

The Canadian Serbian Council was set up in 1988 to organize conferences and demonstrations on behalf of the Serb community. In 1991 Singidunum (the Association of Belgrade University Graduates) appeared, and in 1993 the Association of Serbian Women, in Toronto.

Numerous individuals have helped preserve Serb identity in Canada. As an example, Alija Konjhodzich published the monthly journal Bratstvo/Fraternity (Toronto, 1954– ), with Milenko Djurovich succeeding him in 1983. For four decades, two Toronto brothers, professional engineers Dusan and Milan Lazarevich, spoke and wrote about Serb causes, editing and publishing pamphlets, church bulletins, and newspaper and magazine articles. Dan Mrkich of Ottawa has published articles, translations of Serbian poetry, and his own poetry and prose. The prose writer Negovan Rajic of TroisRivières, Quebec, has published several works in Serbian and written stories and novels in French, receiving in 1978 the Esso prize of the Cercle du Livre de France.