In 2016, the Hellenic Heritage Foundation (HHF) committed $2 million for the Munk School’s Hellenic studies curriculum, a set of courses aimed at building an understanding of Hellenism in Canada. We spoke with HHF’s president, Tony Lourakis, about the importance of spreading and preserving Greek culture.

Tell us about the Hellenic Heritage Foundation.

The Hellenic Heritage Foundation has been around for over 21 years. It was founded by a group of successful Greek Canadian entrepreneurs who wanted to come together and create a foundation to direct funding into supporting Hellenic studies and culture across Canada. We have had Greek Canadians in Canada for over a hundred years now, many of whom came to Canada in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Since then, there’s been a number of Greek communities across the country: the Greek Orthodox Church, Greek language schools, Greek theatres, Greek dancing clubs and classes. All of these programs need funding. And prior to HHF, there was no national fundraising organization raising money for these causes. So HHF came together to help.

I’ve been on the board for over five years now, and this past summer I became the Foundation’s president. The people that have been running the organization for the last 21 years have done a phenomenal job, and there’s a lot to be proud of. Now, the Foundation is going through a rejuvenation of its board and its leadership so that we have a long-term, sustainable future.

What is the importance of the Hellenic Studies curriculum and why house it at the Munk School?

One of the first major projects HHF took on when we started 21 years ago was to fund a Chair of Hellenic Studies at York University, which has been a great success. A lot of students have gone through that program and it’s something we’re really proud of. But a number of years ago, we decided we needed another Hellenic Studies program in the GTA and that we needed to house it at U of T. This wasn’t just our idea – students of Hellenic descent who were studying at U of T also shared this view. There was desire and a need from the student community, so we started meeting with great people at the Munk School about the concept. Our Board, along with Munk School leadership, put a framework together to fund the program in perpetuity, with an endowment-style approach.

We were so inspired and humbled by how quickly we raised the money to fund this program in perpetuity – it was very clear that everyone really wanted this initiative to happen. We’re really proud that the Hellenic studies curriculum exists at U of T and that it will be there for many generations to enjoy!

Describe your big “a-ha” moment.

For me, the a-ha moment has been becoming an adult and realizing how important culture and heritage are. Growing up as a child of Greek immigrants, my parents tried to impress that on me – they took me to Greek school, but I resisted it. I resisted learning the language and didn’t really embrace the culture as a kid because I didn’t appreciate its importance. But now in my adulthood, I understand the importance and the beauty.

What impact do you want to make in the world or your local community?

The dream is to support all the various institutions across the country that teach the Greek language, modern history and culture so that we can continue to preserve the culture in Canada, for everyone.

One of the things we’re most proud of at HHF is the number of students taking Hellenic Studies classes who aren’t of Greek descent. There was a student, for instance, that we featured at our last gala in June who is in part, of Asian descent. She migrated to Canada from China at a very young age, but before coming to Canada she and her family spent a few years in Greece. She always had an affinity for Greek culture, so when she got to U of T and realized there was an opportunity for her to learn the Greek language she took it and she became fluent. We had her speak at our gala in Greek. She delivered a beautiful speech; it got a standing ovation! I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about Canada – we are multicultural, we celebrate diversity and different cultures. So, I’m a believer that every ethnicity in Canada needs to do its part to preserve its culture in this country so that generations from now, we still have different cultures that continue to thrive here.

What is your personal philosophy?

Love above all else!

March 26, 2018