Croatians pack Hamilton hall to see Croatian president with Trudeau
'We all live and breathe Hamilton, but we can never forget our roots'
For Justin Trudeau and the president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, it was a whistle stop, a chance to shake hands and give speeches to a friendly audience full of cheers and iPhones. But for Hamiltonians of Croatian descent, it was the night of a lifetime.
The two leaders attended an event at the Croatian Sports and Community Centre on Green Mountain Road East, part of the first Croatian state visit to Canada. About 600 Croatian-Canadians packed the hall for the invite-only gala.
"We're so proud of our heritage," said Debbie Bago, who volunteers at the community centre. "We all live and breathe Hamilton, but we can never forget our roots. And seeing our prime minister this evening, as well as our Croatian president, has been an extremely powerful event for all of us."
People around the room echoed the sentiment. On Twitter, the centre called it "one of the most historical evenings in the history of our organization, and for all Croats in Southern Ontario." Mila Sestan, a retired hairdresser who moved to Hamilton from Croatia when she was 21, said it was "awesome."
"This is maybe once in a lifetime to see the prime minister and the Croatian president."
Grabar-Kitarović, a member of the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, got military honours when she arrived Monday. She's visited Canada before, but it's the first time she's visited Hamilton with Trudeau.
The Canadian Croatian community, she said in her speech, "has waited almost 28 years for this state visit to happen. I think they themselves will tell you how much this means to them."
Bob Bratina, a Hamilton East-Stoney Creek Liberal MP of Croatian descent, called it "one of the greatest nights of our lives."
'A joyous celebration'
"It's the culture that knitted us together through all the hard times and all the worries we've had," he said. "Now we have a joyous celebration tonight."
Trudeau said the Croatian pride is part of the Canadian identity.
"We keep our pride in our roots even as we celebrate every day in the country we contribute to and build all the time," he said. "But that connection to where we were born, and where our parents were born, and where our grandparents were born, remains part of our identity."
There was some awkwardness at the end of Trudeau's speech when he seemed to introduce Grabar-Kitarović. The president took the stage. "Do I get announced?" she said.
A nod to Darko Vranich
Bratina interjected. "I'm going to introduce you."
Trudeau gave a polite smile. "You need to be introduced," he told her.
Bratina said afterward him introducing the president was part of the agenda.
In that introduction, he talked up Darko Vranich, a Hamilton developer who's built several high-profile condo and hotel projects in Hamilton. He's also received millions in city loans over the years.
"I partnered, when I was the mayor, with a developer named Darko Vranich, and Darko is building hundreds of millions of dollars of buildings in our city right now," he said. "So, there's two Croatians who have done pretty good.
"Now that CETA has dropped the tariffs, Darko is getting a lot of his cabinetry made in Croatia. I believe he has 30 people working there right now, and another 10 working here to reassemble all the things. So this is a real vibrant, lively relationship between Hamilton and Canada and Croatia."