UMD Tribute to James Saunders – A Canadian Macedonian Community Pioneer

With profound sadness, the United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD) mourns the passing of our 2012 UMD Lifetime Achievement Awardee James Saunders – a pioneer in the Canadian Macedonian community, a human rights champion, and an inspiration for future Macedonian activists. Saunders’ work for Macedonia and the Macedonian people spanned nearly eight decades.

Saunders, who passed away at age 98, was born in Zhelevo, Aegean Macedonia, and immigrated to Canada at age 13. He was the founding father of the United Macedonians Organization of Canada in 1959. He played a leading role in bringing the Macedonian Orthodox Church to Canada by establishing St. Clement of Ohrid Macedonian Orthodox Cathedral in Toronto.

James Saunders’ lifetime of community and public service was always buoyed through his devoted partnership with his beloved wife of 75 years, Dorothy, who passed away this past December 2020. Together, they worked tirelessly in the pursuit of international human rights for Macedonia and Macedonians. They instilled the same drive and passion in their children and grandchildren.

When presenting Saunders with the 2012 UMD Lifetime Achievement Award at a Gala at St. Clement’s, UMD President Metodija A. Koloski said:

“James Saunders’ dedication and passion have 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.”

Saunders, appealing to the future generation of Macedonian activists, once said:

“Macedonians around the world must avoid division and discord because our people have always been divided, and our country has always been divided. Conflict does not help solve problems, it creates them.”  

UMD and Macedonians throughout the world extend their heartfelt condolences to Carol, Paul, Sophie, and the entire Saunders family.

Biography of James Saunders

In 1923, James Saunders was born in the village of Zhelevo, Aegean Macedonia, only 12 years after Greece annexed the territory for the first time in history from the Ottoman Empire. His father Spero immigrated to Canada and worked diligently to send money back to the ‘old country.’ In April of 1938, at the age of 13, James immigrated to Canada, along with his mother Sophia, brother Chris and sister Sally.

James Saunders is perhaps best known as a founding father of the United Macedonians of Canada, a vital organization to the development of the Canadian-Macedonian community today, and an influential pioneer in promoting and protecting Macedonian culture, and human rights. He was elected as the first president of the United Macedonians of Canada and served two terms, first from 1959 to 1966 and then from 1974 to 1975.

Saunders was also instrumental in bringing the Macedonian Orthodox Church to Canada. As President of United Macedonians, he invited the Holy Synod to come to Toronto and attend Toronto’s famous United Macedonians Ilinden Picnic, which is still held every year on August 2nd. As usual, the picnic was a huge success, with thousands in attendance. It gave the Macedonian community in Toronto a chance to demonstrate their support for a new church, with the Bishop and other dignitaries in attendance. 

This initiative sent a clear signal, and it would become the first step towards the dream of building a Macedonian Orthodox Cathedral in Canada. In October of 1962, the provincial government of Ontario granted a church charter, and St. Clement’s of Ohrid Cathedral was built two years later. James’ father, Spero, was the first elected president.

James Saunders was known as a passionate, devoted, and trusted patriarch of the Canadian Macedonian Community. In 2008, he wrote an autobiography, “Times of My Life,” which also serves as a poignant and revealing history of Toronto’s Macedonian community from 1938 to the present day. In this book, Saunders appeals to the future generation of Macedonian activists: “Macedonians around the world must avoid division and discord because our people have always been divided and our country has always been divided. Conflict does not help solve problems, it creates them.”  

James Saunders and his wife Dorothy, married for 75 years, are survived by three children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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