2012 UMD Canada Gala: a Night to Remember

On October 27th, UMD Canada held its annual Gala at St. Clement of Ohrid Macedonian Orthodox Cathedral in Toronto. More than 250 guests enjoyed an evening of engaging speakers, great music by Rumba Band, and dancing, and a chance for the Canadian Macedonian community to honor those who have made a difference for the Macedonian Cause, and those who continue to make a difference today. Click HERE for pictures from the Gala.

The 2012 Recipient of the UMD Lifetime Achievement Award was James Saunders, a long-time pillar of the Canadian Macedonian community, whose activism in support of Macedonia has spanned an amazing seven decades. Saunders was born in Zhelevo, Aegean Macedonia, in 1925, and immigrated to Canada with his family at a young age. He was instrumental in founding the United Macedonians Organization of Canada, as well as helping to establish the first Macedonian Orthodox congregation in Canada. The UMD Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes outstanding individuals who have made a vital impact on society at large in advancing the Macedonian Cause.

When presenting the Award to Saunders, UMD President Metodija A. Koloski said: “James Saunders’ dedication and passion has been inspirational, and he has been a true role-model for Macedonian Diaspora activism. He gave a voice to our people during an era when our people could only dream of one day having a state of our own. His pioneering efforts for Macedonian human rights will long be cherished and remembered.”

“This is a great honor, and it is great to see our (modern-day human rights activists) from the old country. When I was I young boy in our village, our Macedonian language was forbidden by law. And, sadly even today, in 2012, we’re still having these same problems in Greece,” said Saunders during his speech.

Macedonian activist and philanthropist John L. N. Bitove noted during his remarks that “James Saunders is a gentleman I am proud to have known all of my life. I would like to thank the UMD for holding this event in honor of a great Macedonian, and an entire family that has been involved in Macedonian activism all of their lives.”

UMD Greece’s Representative, based out of Aegean Macedonia, Eugenia Natsoulidou, shared anecdotes about the current fight for human rights that Macedonians face in Greece. She detailed the projects of her organization, the Educative and Cultural Movement of Edessa (Voden), which include Zadruga magazine, an internet radio station, and the translation and distribution of important books, such as The Message of the Local, a book about the 100 year anniversary of Greece’s forced annexation of Macedonian territory in 1913. She spoke about her struggle to assist the Deca Begalci refugee children of the Civil War (1946-1948) to obtain their Greek birth certificates, and the ECME’s recent membership in the NPLD, an important advocacy network for the promotion of linguistic diversity in Europe.

Natsoulidou also detailed the Greek State’s intimidation tactics to effectively shut down the organization’s Macedonian language classes in Edessa (Voden), and discussed her future plans to re-open these classes, saying: “We have to always challenge the Greek State, and we cannot just wait for them to recognize us. We must fight for our rights, which are already guaranteed in law…Every time that you, in Canada, stand up against the Greek government propaganda, you are helping us. And, you are free to do that, while we are not. We are silenced, we have no voice in Greece… But, I am leaving the United States and Canada full of hope that the future will be much better for all Macedonians, not only in the Aegean, but also in Bulgaria and in Albania.”

UMD Board Chairman Stojan Nikolov added: “Expanding our human rights operations into countries outside of the Republic of Macedonia with significant Macedonian populations has always been the goal of UMD. These places are where many of our UMD members originate, and where the Macedonian identity and heritage is under its greatest threat and attack.”

Archimandrite Nikodim Tsarknias spoke about his 19 years of activism on behalf of religious freedom in Aegean Macedonia, and his recent meetings in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa sponsored by UMD. He said: “In truth, there is no real democracy in Greece. The Americans ask us, ‘why don’t you go to the European Union?’ But all they say is that ‘Greece is an EU member, and out of solidarity, so we cannot admit to the things that they are doing to you.’ We only want to protect our language and our culture. We have that right. But, sadly, the Greek government is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. Samaras, like Papandreaou before him, are lying to the world that they respect human rights and democracy… I have fought this fight for 19 years, and I will continue forward, in God’s name, and with your strength to support me. The Church Sveta Zlata Meglenska will finally be completed, and it is functioning right now, but our people are still scared. However, we mustn’t carry fear in our hearts. The more we fear the Greek State, the more they gather their strength against us.”

Archimandrite Tsarknias thanked Macedonian Prime Minister Gruevski for his frank discussions with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, about how the problem between Macedonia and Greece is not about the name, but it is about denying human rights to the Macedonians in Greece. Tsarknias added: “This kind of action (by the Macedonian government, on behalf of the Macedonians in Greece) is not meddling in Greek internal affairs. This is a moral obligation.”

Koloski gave a detailed update about recent UMD activities. He announced that 4th UMD Conference will be held in Macedonia, during the period of July 25th to August 3rd, 2013, to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Treaty of Bucharest, which divided the Macedonian people. Koloski said: “UMD encourages Macedonians today to look to the future, while never forgetting the injustices committed against our people during this tragic period of our past. It is time we put an end to the double standard inherent in many historical accounts. UMD strongly believes that the current governments of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia must come to terms with the atrocities committed against the Macedonian people during the Balkan Wars period and following. Such recognition would serve the interest of peaceful reconciliation in the region.”

One of the highlights of the evening was the presentation of the UMD John L. N. Bitove, C.M. Macedonian Heritage Scholarships to two aspiring Macedonian students Helen Jankovski and Stefan Nicoloff by Vonna Bitove, and her father John L. N. Bitove, C.M. UMD puts great emphasis on helping our future generations and strongly believes they will be the future leaders of our community.

At the end of his remarks, John L. N. Bitove, C.M. added: “I have been involved in many Macedonian organizations all of my life. But the one that stands out, the one that accomplishes more for the Cause throughout the entire world, is these young people who are involved in the United Macedonian Diaspora. They are so devoted, they are so committed. They are accomplishing more today than ever before.”

Nikolov added: “I would like to thank Jim Daikos and the team of UMD Canada, who organized this wonderful event, and to thank you all in attendance for their support of United Macedonian Diaspora. UMD’s goal is to foster unity among the Macedonian people and to advance our Macedonian Cause, and it would not be possible without your guidance and generous support.”

The Gala emcee Elizabeth Naumovski concluded the program with the following: “As a member of the Advisory Council, I see firsthand what these extraordinary individuals who serve on the UMD Board and our staff at our offices in Washington, D.C. and Toronto are doing and are capable of doing. I never membered in any Macedonian organization before and joining UMD and serving on the Board of the Macedonian Film Festival, which held its 7th annual festival last weekend, have given me great hope for our community and pride in my heritage. UMD is leading our communities worldwide to a new level of advocacy and professionalism. I am forever grateful for their hard work.” She encouraged all Macedonians present to actively get involved and support the UMD.