Πορτραιτα Ομογενων

Antonis Artemakis: President elect for the Greek Community of Toronto The president to end all (anti-Community) battles?

A proud Cretan, having fought some of the toughest battles an expatriate can take on, overcoming challenges and obstacles, Mr Artemakis has many successes under his belt to feel proud. The toughest battle and a historic one – still being fought- in his present position as President – elect of the Greek Community of Toronto is an ages-old “putting things in order” with organized church leaders. It is as though Kazantzakis’ rebellious and independent seed has set roots in the spirit and soul of all Cretans and particularly in the coarse precious stone of Mr. Artemakis’ character. Just read through the list of accomplishments that he inspired with his leadership skills- albeit him reserving the right to make mistakes and apologize- Brought down the huge inherited debt of the GCT to 1/3 of the initial figure, gave the go-ahead for an innovative Education Program which has revolutionized Greek as a Second Language in Canada, established a successful, transparent and accountable fund-raising ladies auxiliary with eye-popping results compared to previous fund-raising initiatives organized by the Church leadership in Canada, created a more flexible and effi­cient Board of Directors, partnered with a commercial Funeral Services Provider for better servicing the Greek community within the Greek Heritage Customs, and on, and on. Apart from being a successful leader and visionary, Mr. Artemakis has managed the impossible: Has started negotiations with the church leadership on a plan that may ensure the Greek Community will survive in the years to come from financial challenges and other hardships.

Notice the sharpness of his words «these are the years of ME against WE» and the stark prognosis of what might happen should Hellenes not stand united. Finally, it seems that it doesn’t take much for history to be written, it only needs leadership, vision and decisiveness for a person to put his mark through historical changes for the benefit of the people. But, vision is nothing if there are not people to support the Big causes. The Greek Community of Toronto is too valuable in its unity, structures and functions to be lost due to lack of visionaries to fight for its cause. The President has shown the way, but the potential rests with the membership. Volunteers, future Directors, Benefactors, Supporters. Everybody needs to pich in if the Community is to succeed.

All these, of course, spiced up with the «kouzoulada» of a Cretan unchained soul, a «craziness» that, if challenged, will light up the torch for freedom and blow up what’s remaining in pieces….

Tassos Theodoridis, June 2017


The Interview

 

T.T. It is not easy to profile a person of authority who has a record of fighting the hardest battles and getting out in one piece to talk about them. Please describe your early years, where did you grow up, education, professional qualifications and how all that shaped you into the decisive,  successful personality you are today

A.A. I was born in the Island of Crete in the Village of Sklavopoula, Territory of Selino, Province of Chania. I attended and graduated from Elementary school in Sklavopoula, and then moved to Piraeus with my sister and brother in law to attend high school and Technological School there, and in order to complement my highschool years, at Keratsini. Then my brother and I moved to Canada in the mid-sixties. I was 16 then. Then I went to school to learn the language, which was followed by a variety of jobs trying to find out my niche, and ended up working as a machine shop operator. It was mid-seventies when I became the co-owner of “Cronos Travel Inc.” a retail Travel Agency Operation with Offices in Toronto, Mississauga and Kitchener. Continuing on with successful expansions I ended up in 1995 selling my share in the Travel Business completely. The next four years were the phase of exloring various projects in the Import- Export, ATM Machine Operations and in 1998 I established a Management Company, the “Resources Renewal Group” which is still in operation. In my sector, we operate or manage projects or co-own industrial building operations, fi nancial services, etc.

If I were to talk about myself, my experience is who I am. Being honest with others and myself all the time, I have strong ties to my homeland, Crete; Crete has a special place in my heart and mind, as well as my Hellenic culture. If Hellenism is safe, then the world is safe, I believe. I love all humankind regardless of color, religion, or other dichotomies. I believe I am a man of the world. I believe I was blessed with a very strong family background, my parents and my siblings 7 of us were my Heroes.

While growing up, Cretan traditions and customs were deeply engraved in my life all along. My village back home has been the best experience in my life and will always inspire and motivate me. I remember my village as a young person: Human exchanges, family and social networkig and getting things done – those days, we were part of an extended family, shared work, joys but sorrows, too. It may have been a hard life, but it was full of lessons learned. Living among flowers, fruit, grapes, crops, the animals growing up and dying, my mother and people doing everything by hand (no technology- then it had to be manual technology or using your creativity), listening to stories from elders in the Summer night of “Aposperides”. All these as a 12 year-old growning up formulated my fi rst and most important experiences which then shaped my personality and made me the person I am today. It was then when I went to Piraeus to attend high school which was closer by boat from Crete compared to going to a Cretan high-shool hours away. My father would put me on the bus for Chania and after 75 km ride, my aunt would take me from the bus and put me on the boat for Piraeus.

The first time my father put me on the bus to send me to Chania, just before he left, he told me with wet eyes: “My son, you must embark on this trip on your own, it’s the beginning of you your journey. I want you know that we don’t want you to go, but this your first reality in life and you have to take it alone. Never forget where you came from. Remember our family, our love, all the good examples and experience that you got so far as a foundation. Follow these, you will have to make a lot of decisions, so try to make the best of it by remembering back and looking ahead positive. Difficulties are part of life, learn from them”. After a warm hug, a kiss and goodbye I got on the bus. It was hard, but I also felt that my father trusted me and this simple experience gave me confidence that follows me for the rest of my life. My readings, especially Kazantzakis and others helped me understand and learn from others, whether it is in social life or special activities of Hellenic interest. My appreciation of Hellenism comes from sharing social and community issues with my Community. I believe that in society you need to give time, love, effort, money, ideas, and whatever else you can, but all you give comes back to you. The rewards are mental or material, different for each one of us and it certainly is a huge issue for discussion, a subject of its own.

T.T. Talk to us about the major challenges in your life. Have these challenges helped you in your personal and professional life? Do you consider your presidency term in the GCT a challenge? If yes, what makes it so challenging?

A.A. All my life is a challenge; I don’t know why, but it’s like the easy stuff doesn’t like me! I have served in the past in a variety of positions, Greek Community 1983-91, Greek Town 1991-2000, Board of Directors Toronto East General Hospital 2000-2002. These positions were all challenging under the circumstances I took over, and regardless the position, I never took a position for fun, I took the positions for a reason: to try and make it better for people. I remember with Cretans in 1980-1982 regardless the challenges at the time, organized the Association around the concept of “family”. But I believe the outcome was good with good results, so it’s not about the position, it’s what you do with the position for the common good. These last few years I was elected as the President of Greek Community of Toronto. I would say that indeed, this is my biggest challenge. Let me say it in Cretan dialect: “Eda tha do possa apidia vazi o sakkos sou”, meaning if I can live to the challenges with a good outcome!

Unlike other organizations, the GCT is a large Organization with history of 100 plus years. Some of the challenges are due to the complexity of the Organization, the serious financial situation that we inherited, the sensitivity of members on Cultural and Religious issues, generation gap and fading volunteerism. You see, the continuously evolving world is moving away from the US towards the ME culture. It has become very hard to find volunteers and encourage participation. In addition to these, there is the debate of what is best in offering a variety of services to members, the financial challenges ahead, the day to day operations, the technology changes that take away the human values.

Also, achieving to keep a functional and accountable board, give credit to the whole Board and not just to the President, and the list goes on and on. The main obstacle is the establishment that has deeper roots through hundreds of years: The Power struggle between the State and Church that comes with it. The inflexibility of a problematic Church system that refuses to coexist and work with a community, versus their habit, their tradition to claim that “everything belongs to them, they are God in Heaven and Earth and we the people are their subjects”. This is a system negative to both Faith and Hellenism.

What are the challenges of the GCT today? With all the above in mind, what would be GCT’s successful vision in moving to the future? I believe it should be taking action and deciding on how to accomplish a financially independent and healthy Organization by providing services for accessibility and participation, an Organization that will make members feel proud. My particular challenge as a President: Until the end of my Presidency we need to win the bet: Get more people involved, try to preserve and grow our existing multitude of valuable services for the community and enrich our programs even more to represent our members in the best possible manner. Being the President, I live to the challenge through hard work and taking the required risks. I make mistakes, I say that I am sorry, and then go on. It’s like a numbers game, I want to win not for ME, but for US. The saying goes: “When you are in a battle, you don’t ask if you win or lose, you keep fighting”. That is the goal of a fighter: For me and the rest of the Board, what we want to leave behind us at the end of our term is a successful Community overall, which will be looking up to the future. These last two years we are working on a succession plan to see new faces in our Board, people who are successful, smart individuals with good intentions, trustworthy people to continue our workahead.

Will we be successful? Given all the above reasons and challenges, this is a big question, but not up to me or my Board. It is up to the existing and new members out there. Help your community and it will help you. It certainly is a big challenge, and for this question I don’t have the answer. I am a soldier in duty, only time will tell. And as much as I take it personally, I am not looking to be thanked or for compliments,”Yia tin Ellada Re Gamoto” It Is US, it should matter to all of US!

Kazatzakis wrote it: “Kathenas krata ston omo tou tin efthini olokliris tis ratsas tou”. So after us, it is up to you to upkeep the valuable asset of the Greek Community.

T.T. It only takes a visionary to turn around the bad tide, they say. We have seen the unprecedented progress in the Greek Community in its financial turnarround (you inherited a $12+ million debt and brougth it down to $4million, you revitalized Education and Cultural departments, while with your smart move to create an accountable and transparent fundraising “Pronoia” you marked the ultimate check mate in the eternal chess game with the Metropolitan). How can you and your Board of Directors provide the warranty that the Greek Community will not fall into mismanagement again?

A.A. Any President will tell you and certainly in my case, that the accomplishments are due to a group effort. A major point here: A President can and should act by example, ignite fires, bring along ideas and dialog. The reality is before us, that this and the past Presidents and the people around us have been working as a team, something that was not necessarily the case in the past.

Our Accomplishments:

– We have brought down the debt from over $12 mil., to $4 mil. In order to do that, we had to make some hard choices.

1. Sell property.

2. Reduce payroll down to below 50% and

3. Cut on Property Maintenance to minimum.

– Our Education program “PAIDEIA” for Second Language Education. We have moved away from negativity leaving behind a methodology of teaching which was established for more than a few decades. We can see the light in the tunnel: The program “PAIDEIA” gives us a new innovative reasoning, a state of the art 4-5 year long cooperative project with the University of Macedonia and a group of their 7 professors who develop Hellenic as a Second Language. The Program “PAIDEIA” not only is based on the Common European Frame language program, but the Canadian Ministry of Education has approved its curriculum. For us it is a major breakthrough for a program to be based on our “Ellinomathia” framework and at the same time provide our students with books along with teacher manuals for every level. The program’s estimated cost of $500,000 was covered in part with the kind pledge of “Krinos Foods” ($300,000) and Greektown on the Danforth ($100,000). In 2017, this program is almost 80% complete and in 2018 we will see the end of phase one. In phase two we will develop electronic ways of teaching so that the program will be more accessible to other small communities across Canada. It was only three years ago when we started the program and GCT had 600 students. Today we have close to 900 students, a couple more Communities have joined the program to around 1,200 students overall in the “PAIDEIA” project.

– The Fundraising ladies of “PRONOIA”, in less than two years of its existence have brought over $450,000 of funds to the GCT, money that in transparent ways are given proportionally to poor families (in kind or money), partially repair churches and support Education initiatives. The previous “Filoptohos” ladies under the Metropolis lacked transparency and cooperation and talks with the Metropolitan on this issue for more than one an half a year were going nowhere. Thus as per the 2010 Charities Ontario Bylaw, we established our GCT “PRONOIA” Project.

– Our New Department of Professional Funeral Services was established a year ago to form an exclusive partnership with one of Canada’s best Funeral Services Porvider “Basic Funeral Services” and has proven a success and very popular for people of Hellenic Descent. The partnership enables GCT to provide full Funeral Services to its members, and other persons of Hellenic Descent in the full Hellenic tradition (since viewing is provided in the Church) while generating enough revenues for other GCT programs. Hopefully this service will maintain financial stability in the future in an area where it is much needed. Do I consider this particular “chess game” between the Church leadership -Sotirios and GCT over yet? I don’t think it is over yet. As I mentioned above, it is in the tradition of the Church System to exploit the human faith and intelligence and not allow people to learn «par example» from a system that only preaches the “God’s Word”. Church should lead not by preaching but by acting by Example and Humbleness. I wonder in the name of religions over thousands of years until now, how many wars have been fought for the siege of power and in the interests of High Priests and Politicians?

My answer is simple but hard to achieve! If we as a Community manage to have a Heathy and Vibrant Community, His Eminence Sotirios will not have other choice but to cooperate. History has shown otherwise, that he is betting on a weak horse, which he repeats saying how much he loves it, but his actions and his history teach otherwise, that he wants this Greek Community horse to die. If that were to happen, just imagine in his limited church circle that he would pose as “the absolute leader” in Religion, Ethics, Politics, and MOST importantly Finances.

I hope and I pray to God and the Hellenic Spirit inside me so that he will compromise and help us find a solution in order to avoid dividing Hellenism. As I usually say, Hellenism and Orthodoxy deserve better. And I hope that more than a few out there believe the same. This is like the song goes: “Eimaste dyo, eimaste treis, eimaste xilioi dekatreis” kai prohorame.

– Secure a future for the GCT by not falling to mismanagement: We have changed a number of bylaws in the GCT Constitution. For example the Board cannot extend debt without calling for General Meeting and the AGM’s approval. Recently also, the Board in its past and present numbers is staggering. Efficient Organizations require an effective Board of Directors, but we cannot change all at once.

– Membership: We have introduced a variety of membership classes, for example “associate”, “corporate” and so on members. We have secured equality for mixed marriages so the spouses and children have equal rights as the basic member. Church officers will participate on the Church committee regardless of the Orthodox faith, and other details….

How Secure may the future be for GCT? There is no warranty on that. People are people, they come and go, people who run the Community will always experiment and attempt for what they think best, according to their personality. In that case, will that be beneficial? Not always, the BAD and GOOD will always fight. WRONG and CORRECT will always be debated. Human Nature more often than not works in mysterious ways. But Hellenism has survived all along. I guarantee that since Hellenism has survived for over 100 years, it will most likely continue so. As long as we don’t take it for granted, that is and we pitch in to volunteer and help! And don’t forget to always question the GCT’s Board and their actions!

T.T. These last years, there is a steady wave of new immigrants from Greece who fled to Canada as economic migrants, like the previous generation. What is your advise to them in order to adjust and progress in Canada, and how would you respond when they are reluctant to volunteer to Associations and the Community?

A.A. The Greek Community of Toronto has a provision for newcomers, we have given the new immigrants within two years from their arrival discount on our language programs for the 1st year 80%, the 2nd year 50% and after that the regular prices like everybody else. I remember when I first came to Canada and felt like the newcomers feel in many occasions. Even within our Hellenic society, I felt like a stranger whether that was a generation gap, or adjustment to the broader Hellenic /Canadian society; or luck of establishing to a job; or the dilemma with whom to associate; or how to behave in work, with language, Canadian habits etc…That being said, and thinking on how newcomers feel and behave, I can’t say that I necessarily know them in detail, not meaning this in a negative way. I just wish I had the time to fi nd out and understand them better, before I expressed my opinion. My advice: They should think that they are in a new country and must become good citizens of Canada. They should love and respect Hellenic values from back home, but they have to think and act to become successful. The rest will come easy whether they serve as humble Hellenic Leaders or plain soldiers or Benefactors. Also they must always respect and learn the history of the First Peoples of Canada, the Natives of Canada.

T.T Would you consider that the “eternal” battle between the Metropolitan and the GCT has started to fade out or do you think the “pact” is a temporary one? How has the Greek Community been affected by the previously agreed “collaboration” with the Metropolitan?

A.A. Collaboration with Sotirios? There has been none in the past. But we wish and have a will to find a solution, and although history has shown otherwise, I am open to positive collaboration for the benefit of both of us. But he needs to clear the climate in the room. In the past it has always been a battle of “His way or No way”. Presidents have come and have gone and he bets this will continue. Will the Battle go on? I don’t know at this time, I would better say as less as I can, we are in serious negotiations and hopefully this will result in some fair compromise. We are not looking to win and celebrate our triumph. In these situations, there is no winner. We are looking to a compromise where he will look good, and we will continue to have a Community that can look up to a better bright future. My hopes are not high, I wish and hope for good surprises.

T.T. What do you think should be the priorities of organized Hellenism in the near future? Do you think that the wide geographic area in Toronto deters Greeks from participating in Community events? Is distance an obstacle for collaboration and volunteering in the Community?

With Internet and social media, with the variety of ways of transportation collaboration and volunteering should not be that difficult. What is difficult though, is juggling family responsibilities, work and financial capability. That should be the priorities of organized Hellenism. One way is tocreate pocket Communities and prioritize some COMMON goals, i.e., an exchange cooperation like the one we already have with a lot of Organizations. The obstacles I see are the many confusing and overlapping social gatherings and community activities which people cannot necessarily attend. When communities fragment into many pieces through their activities, then their goals will overlap and they may not succeed in the end.

T.T. We have seen the recent discrediting of Hellenic Canadian Congress by major Greek Communities and Provincial Congresses due to the fact that the current HCC has not legal status but hangs on to their “elected” positions and in addition requests membership dues from Organizations and Communities. What do you intend to do about that, as a Community and along with other Communities in Canada?

A.A. We are trying to fi nd a compromise, an attempt which so far has not been fruitful. I would rather wish we found a compromise. We have lost too much a valuable time being inactive and as Hellenes of Canada I am not proud of that, we all have a responsibility on this. However, having said that, those in Provincial and Federal leadership level that are trying to represent Hellenes may and hopefully can do more to achieve the so much needed common understanding and cooperation.

T.T. As a Proud Cretan, your generation has helped the world realize that they should take nothing for granted (it was the Cretans in May 1941 who fought the last bastion of freedon in occupied Europe with the Battle of Crete). Do you believe that the new Cretans, and in connection to them, young Hellenes in Greece and here are able to carry on the torch of freedom, independence and pride that their forefathers left for them?

A.A. You are trying to challenge my Cretan spirit and pride, It’s there up and high as always. When I first came to Canada I always supported and was a member of the Association of Cretans no matter who was in the Board of Directors. Soon after my term is over at the GCT, I will always support and be a member of the GCT, no matter who will be in the Board of Directors. That will continue as long as I live and control my senses. The Cretans always had and will continue to have a sense of self dependence being far from the motherland and having always to fight for freedom, That I am sure and believe will continue. Those “Mantinades” were made and are still composed on the spot for thelongest that Crete exists, and they deal on issues of life, love, war, satire, humor, you name it. This“kouzoulada” will continue, whether is Kornaros-Erotokritos or Erofi li, or Theotokopolos (El Greco) challenging the whole church system of his time, or Daskalogiannis in Sfakia, The revolts, battles, fighting that took place across Crete from time to time, is part of a living culture and will continue to be mentioned in the Mantinades. My Cretan spirit will be with you! Even if I am not around I will be visiting from up there to make sure others follow on my lead and keep the volunteerism alive. And the spirit of “katalave ta routhounia mou gemata Barouti, kai tinazoume sto aera ama xriasti”, the spirit of “Freedom Fighters” like in the old times, will be on the side of the righteous, those who defended their land from occupying forces and those who will not hesitate to blow up the whole universe in order to stay free.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *