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Old 09-10-2021, 09:17 PM   #6707
Momce Makedonce
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“Macedonians in Canada prepare to celebrate ancestral nation’s 30th Independence Day

In the years after Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, Toronto lawyer Chris Paliare spent time travelling around the GTA trying to get local governments to recognize the country by raising its flag at city halls to celebrate its Independence Day.

It didn’t go well.

Paliare, a Macedonian whose family has been in Canada more than 100 years, said most cities refused to fly the flag on the grounds Canada had not yet recognized what is now officially called North Macedonia as a country. It was disheartening, he said.

“It was stunning to me that a country that values freedom of association, that values all of the items we have ingrained in the charter, that somehow this group, unlike any other ethnic groups, was not going to be allowed to celebrate the birth of its new nation,” he said. “It was inconceivable to me.”

Now, decades after the breakup of Yugoslavia led to Macedonia’s nonviolent independence, Toronto’s large Macedonian community is preparing to celebrate the 30th independence day for the nation on Wednesday.

Things are different from the early ’90s. The challenges Paliare once had seeking recognition of the country in the city are no more. Wednesday, the CN Tower and Niagara Falls will be lit up with the colours of the North Macedonian flag, as part of celebrations that are otherwise toned down due to COVID-19.

The country borders five other nations, including Greece and Serbia, and is home to about 2 million people. The Macedonian community abroad numbers about 4 million, with up to 150,000 people claiming the ancestry living in Canada, according to the Canadian Macedonian Historical Society. The largest concentration is in Toronto.

Paliare said when the country declared its independence in 1991, it gave a boost of pride to the community in Toronto. Macedonians had been spread around Europe and the world with no country to call their own for more than 100 years.

“It didn’t take away from our love of being Macedonian, or our love of the culture or our hopes and aspirations that someday we would have our country back,” he said.

There was a time when he didn’t think he would see it actually happen, but the dissolution of Yugoslavia brought the change quickly.

“I never expected it in my lifetime,” Paliare said. “It was not something we ever anticipated.”

While Macedonians work toward building the country, the diaspora around the world has helped efforts.

But the Macedonian community in Toronto on its own has a history of helping develop the country. One of the key people from the city was Toronto businessman John Bitove, who helped organize efforts to have the country recognized internationally.

His son, Toronto Star publisher and honorary consul to the Republic of North Macedonia, Jordan Bitove, said his father was a tireless advocate for the nation.

“My dad and all Macedonians longed for a day that they could have a place that they could actually call Macedonia,” Bitove said. “So, with me, there’s a lot of emotion around the date.”

Paliare said no Canadian worked harder to have the country recognized than John Bitove.

The two worked together with politicians there and with the community in Toronto to work toward international recognition.

“No one really led the charge like John,” Paliare said. “Both in terms of time and money. And boundless energy.”

But it hasn’t been all smooth since the 1991 declaration. The country joined NATO and aims to join the European Union. But a step toward realizing these goals was agreeing to officially call itself the Republic of North Macedonia in order to gain Greece’s support in 2019.

Greece contended the use of simply Macedonia suggests territorial claims in Greece’s northern Macedonia province and objected to the country claiming the name.

Recently, relations between the two countries have warmed with both countries’ foreign ministers last week confirming ties have deepened since 2019.

But the name change remains unpopular in Macedonia, according to Meto Koloski, president of the United Macedonian Diaspora, who spoke to the Star from the country where he is attending celebrations this week.

“Everybody that I’ve spoken to is against it,” Koloski said, “but we understand it is a necessary evil in a way.”

As the country grows its IT sector, tourism and natural resources are playing a part in its economic development, he said.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the presence of the community remains palpable across the city.

Once bound tightly by community churches, Bitove said, the original immigrants came to Canada and worked low-paying jobs in factories or restaurants with subsequent generations going into other fields, like medicine.

After the country declared its independence, he said, some people he knew over time began to claim the heritage who did not previously. At the same time, it became less of a struggle to explain to people he was Macedonian.

“When I went to school, and I would identify as a Macedonian, nobody knew what that meant,” Bitove said. “When independence happened, it was actually the first time you could say you’re Macedonian and people understood.”
"The moral revolution - the revolution of the mind, heart and soul of an enslaved people, is our greatest task." Goce Delcev
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