The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          



by Habeeb Salloum



            The Syrians began to immigrate to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century, but unlike most other immigrants, those who identified themselves as Syrians have decreased - from 12,301 in 1951[1] to 7,080 in 1992.[2]  This is not due to the lack of new arrivals or the natural increase of the established immigrants but rather to a fluke in history.  It goes back to almost 120 years of events in the Middle East.

            When, in 1882, Abraham Bounadere (Ibrahim Abu Nadir, d. 1954) the first known Syrian Arab to arrive in Montreal, came from the town of Zahlah, his birthplace was located in what is now known as Lebanon.  However, when he set foot in Canada, the town from which he came was in the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire.  Syria had been under Ottoman rule since the sixteenth century and all Syrian immigrants arrived with Turkish papers.  There was much confusion during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at Canadian Immigration in classifying the new arrivals.  All people who came from the Middle East like Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Syrians and other Arabs were lumped together as Turks and it is almost impossible to definitely tell how many of these were Syrians.  In 1911, the Canadian authorities began to classify the immigrants from the Ottoman province of Syria as Syrians and

after 1955, under separate categories as Lebanese and Syrians.  In the minds of many of the descendants of the early Syrian immigrants this division is not clear in spite of the fact that in the last few decades there has been a ongoing effort by the post-Second World War immigrants from Lebanon to avoid being mistaken for Syrians. 

      The inhabitants of the greater Syria area, like most other Arabs, are a racially and culturally mixed group who can claim as their ancestors such ancient peoples as the Akkadians, Amorites, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites/Phoenicians, Eblans, Nabateans, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.  Nevertheless, it was the Arabs who came out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century who had the greatest part in moulding the modern Syrian Arab.  They brought with them their dynamic religion, Islam, and laid the basis of the culture found in today's Syria.  In later centuries, Crusaders, Mongols, Turks, French and British occupied the Middle East, but they left only minuscule traces.     

      Modern Syria has an area of 187,348 sq km (72,335 sq MI) and a population of 13,500,000.[3]  It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon and Israel to the west, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east and Turkey to the north.  A meeting place of three continents, it has been the heart of the Middle East and the focus of transit and trade since time immemorial.  For centuries, the people, economically dependant upon agriculture and trade, were relatively prosperous until Ottoman rule (1516-1918 A.D.), when poverty became widespread.  However, in the last few decades, Syria has been transformed.  Industrialization, tourism and a growing oil industry are revitalizing the land.  Reforestation, dams, rebuilt villages and towns, modern highways and a newly literate population have pushed the country into the twentieth century.       Over ninety percent of the early newcomers to Canada from the Ottoman province of Syria were members of one or another of the Eastern Christian churches.[4]  Even though Islam was and is the major religion of Syria, only the odd Muslim and a few Druze were among these early immigrants and they rarely made Canada their permanent home.  Most feared that their Muslim traditions would be lost if they lived all their lives in a western society. 

            On the other hand, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Arab Christians in Syria, having received much of their eduction in American, British, French, German, Italian or Russian missionary schools, graduated believing that they, as Christians, were part of the West. In addition, the tales spread by these missionaries about the wealthy Christian New World found willing ears.  Usually, these places of learning, even though they brought education, caused divisiveness amongst the inhabitants.   

            These institutions were the initial stage of the opening of the Middle East to European colonization.  They usually concentrated their educational efforts on religious minorities.  France took the Maronites and other Catholic sects under their wing; Russia opened schools for the Orthodox even though at the turn of the century over seventy-five percent of its own people were illiterate[5]; and Britain, not to be left out, found the Druze willing clients.  The ones who went through the school systems of these colonial powers were taught and later felt that they had a great historical affinity to western culture and little attachment to their homeland.  If they had a national feeling, it was to the countries which ran their institutes.  Britain and France had for years strategically nurtured religious and political relations with the minorities in order to protect their economic interests.

            The schools were mostly concentrated in urban centres and mainly accessible to the inhabitants of the towns.  Their graduates, more sectarian than nationalistic, influenced the thinking of the majority of the Christians, living in villages, from where almost all the early immigrants came. 

            These peasant immigrants were usually illiterate or semi-literate, even in their mother Arabic tongue.  Only a few could read and write, but this does not seem to have impeded their lives in the New World.  The natural intelligence of the early Syrians, inherited through thousands of years of civilized history, was a base for their success in Canada.  On the other hand, the immigrants who arrived in the latter part of the twentieth century were, in the main, well educated.  They were fluent in Arabic and English or French or both, exceeding the Canadian average in their level of education.

            Yet, even with the influences of foreign missionary schools and the inferiority they felt vis-à-vis the West, most of the early immigrants still identified themselves as Syrians.  Others perceived themselves in terms of religious affiliation.  However, following the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman province of Syria was divided by Britain and France into Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, a good many immigrants from these newly created countries refused any identification except as Syrians.  It was to take a number of decades before the new nationalities were to take hold in the minds of the peoples of the Middle East, and acceptance of these western created nationalisms was to take much longer by the immigrants.

            After the defeat of the Ottomans during the First World War, and as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France, Jordan and Palestine were given to England and Syria became a French Mandate.  France divided their portion of Syria into two countries: Lebanon and Syria and later gave the Syrian province of Antakya to Turkey.  It occupied both Lebanon and Syria from 1920 to 1946, during which time separate nationalisms with different orientations were encouraged.  In time, the Syrians of yesteryear became two peoples.  The Lebanese with their western directed private schools looked to the West for guidance and influence; while the Syrians with their Arab national educational system tried to orient their country to the Arab way of life. 

            In 1937, an agreement between France and Turkey allowed the Syrian immigrants, including those in Canada, to opt for Lebanese or Syrian nationality.[6]  Nonetheless, it took many years before the dramatically opposite ways of thinking, developed by these schools, affected the immigrants.  It was only in the 1950s and the early 1960s that a few descendants of the early immigrants who still had some yearning for the land of their fathers changed their identity to Lebanese.  Most had already disappeared into the Canadian mosaic while others refused to change, continuing to call themselves Syrians.


            Almost all the Syrian immigrants from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War came from villages in what is now Lebanon.  The sense of discrimination by the Turkish authorities against their Christian subjects and avoidance of military service in the Turkish army led a good many to emigrate.  In addition, the Turkish policy of non-interference with the various religious groups in the country intensified religious divisions.  The result was the Druze-Christian conflict of 1860 which had additionally been fuelled by French interference.  This forced many to leave for other lands.  However, the bulk came for economic reasons, lured by the perceived wealth of the New World.  To the vast majority of the poverty-stricken peasants in the Syrian Ottoman province, any place in the Western Hemisphere was an El Dorado.  In their minds, the U.S., Canada and even Mexico were the America of their dreams - a continent whose cities had streets paved with gold.  The post-Second World War immigrants came mostly due to their political views and the favourable impression they had of the economic and educational opportunities in Canada.

            In the nineteenth century almost all the Syrians who entered Canada came through the U.S. with Montreal as their destination.  However, they were few in numbers.  By the mid 1890s, the Syrians in that city only numbered from 200 to 300.[7]  As the years went by a few, along with newer immigrants, began to move to Ontario and other cities in Quebec.  At the turn of the century, the Syrians had increased to about 2,000, concentrated mainly in Montreal, Three Rivers, Ottawa and Toronto.[8]   

            The majority of the early immigrants were males who even before the 1900s returned temporarily to Syria to find brides.  Some, however, married daughters of new immigrants who had come to Canada as families.  Women from Syria rarely emigrated by themselves.  In conformity with Arab social values they came as relatives of those already in the country or as members of newly arrived households.  For decades, Syrian males outnumbered females, but through the years there was a steady decline in the percentage of men to women.  Among Arab immigrants, in 1921 there were 161 males for every 100 females and in 1961, 127 to 100.[9]   After the Second World War, the majority of immigrants from Syria and most other Arab countries came as families and this tended to equalize the percentage of men and women immigrants.  Only in the last few decades has the percentage of males to females become almost equal.


            From 1900 to 1912, mining and lumbering industries were booming in Northern Ontario and many of the estimated 5,389 Syrians who immigrated to Canada in this period,[10] along with a number of the earlier immigrants made Cobalt, Cochrane, Cowganda, Elk Lake, Matheson, New Liskeard, North Bay and Sault Ste. Marie their home.  Later, communities were established in other cities like Leamington, London and Windsor and, as the years went by, some of these Syrians moved westward.              By that time the Syrians in the U.S. had spread to the four corners of that country and eventually a number of them moved into western Canada while others came directly from Quebec or Ontario.  After they had settled and made some money they brought their relatives from Syria and new communities were founded throughout western Canada - mainly in Winnipeg and Edmonton and, to a lesser degree, in Calgary, Saskatoon and Vancouver.  In addition, unlike in eastern Canada, a good number went into farming throughout the prairies, mostly settling in the southern parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.  However, the majority made their homes in the small urban centres which dot western Canada, opening general stores in countless prairie towns. 

            To the east, it was the same story.  The Syrians first established themselves in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, then moved to St. John, New Brunswick.  Later, communities came into being in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and St. John's, Newfoundland.  From these pivot points, they spread throughout the Maritime Provinces, establishing themselves in towns and like their counterparts in western Canada, peddled then opened the now long-gone corner stores.  It is estimated that at the time of the First World War from 500 to 1,000 Syrians had emigrated to Nova Scotia alone.[11]

            Throughout the vast spaces of Canada wherever the Syrians went, they settled, in the main, in the towns and cities.  In 1941, eighty-six percent of the Syrian-born immigrants were classified as urban.[12]  This trend continued with the next wave of immigrants who came after the Second World War.  The trading instinct of these newcomers drove them to the urban centres where, in the vast majority of cases, they were successful.  According to the 1991 census, out of the 7,080 who claimed Syrian origin, over ninety-four percent or 6,680, live in the large Canadian metropolitan areas.[13]

            There was much torment in the minds of the early settlers.  Almost all came with the intention of working for a half dozen years, amass a fortune, then return home to Syria in order to enjoy their wealth.  But this usually was not to be.  Few returned to their villages permanently.  Their fantasies of the world they had left were nearly always shattered when they returned to Syria for a visit due to the bureaucracy of the government and the demands of family, relatives and friends soon dashed their dreams.  After returning to Canada, they usually had little yearning left for their former homeland.

            With time, thoughts of the `old country' gradually disappeared.  There were very few new immigrants to rekindle the former longings.  The 1908 Order-in-Council, P.C. 926 which greatly restricted the immigration of Asians, applied to Syrians and this, along with the First World War and later the Depression, cut the newcomers to a trickle.  From 1911 to 1955, there were only about 1,160 Syrians who immigrated to Canada.[14]  This figure is taken from Canada Immigration and Manpower Statistics and indicates an almost total end to Syrian immigration.     

            Unlike many other ethnic groups, the majority of Syrians never settled in ghettos.  Only in Montreal and Toronto did the early immigrants tend to live within close proximity, but within a short period of time, as they prospered, they dispersed throughout these cities.  Others who moved from the Quebec and Ontario heartlands into new urban centres rarely lived together in a certain section of town.  Acculturation came early.  By the time the immigrant generations were gone, their descendants had become totally assimilated and even the family itself had, in many cases, scattered throughout the country.  The post-Second World War immigrants continued this trend.  Today, there is not one section of any city in Canada which can be identified as a Syrian area.  In general, Arab immigrants to Canada are among the least residentially segregated ethnic groups.[15]    


            The early Syrian immigrants usually did not have trades or capital and could only find work in the unskilled labour market.  Intensely independent entrepreneurs in their Syrian villages and with a mercantile tradition since the dawn of history, they gravitated to elementary commerce. 

            Disdaining factory work and other types of labour, they overwhelmingly began their lives as peddlers.  At first they hawked their simple articles around Montreal then, as they gained experience, spread further afield.  By the early twentieth century, Syrian peddlers were to be found throughout Ontario and beyond.  Geographically mobile, they went wherever opportunities for barter or sale presented themselves.  Well into the early part of this century it was common, in the isolated rural parts of Canada, to see these peddlers trudging with their wares on their backs or wandering the roads on horseback.  At other times they would take a train but usually, especially in western Canada, they travelled the countryside in horse-drawn buggies during summer and sleds in winter. 

            When a peddler would spread his wares, the room became like a baazar from the Arabian Nights.  For both the ladies of the house and the children it was a festive occasion.  The farming womenfolk who had rarely ever seen the lace, linens, shawls, religious items from the Holy Land, yard-goods, jewellery and perfumes which the hawkers carried, were their best customers.  `About the turn of the century and for some years thereafter, Syrian peddlers became something of an institution in most western settlements ... Their arrival often provided a welcome relief from the monotony of pioneer life.'[16]

            Even though peddling was the trade which the overwhelming number of Syrian immigrants practised, smaller numbers worked in factories or as labourers.  In western Canada, a good number became pioneers throughout the southern prairie regions.[17]  During the early Depression years, innumerable  Syrian farmers were to be found in many prairie municipalities, for example, Swift Current in southern Saskatchewan.[18]  Some travelled northward and settled in Lac La Biche in northern Alberta, a town which was later to have a large Lebanese Muslim population.  A few - the best known being Peter Baker who wrote the book An Arctic Arab - made the North West Territories their home.  Nonetheless, the number who worked outside the hawking trade were few.  For many years, peddlery was synonymous with Syrian. 

            Long hours of work, resourcefulness and charging inflated prices gave the peddlers a good income.  Very few ever failed.  After some capital had been raised, a good number rapidly became successful entrepreneurs - the most enterprising became importers and wholesalers in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, recruiting newcomers to the hawking trade and usually supplying goods on credit to their customers.  Others established small businesses in large and small urban centres from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  By the 1930s, countless towns in Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes and western Canada had at least one or more stores run by Syrian immigrants.

            Besides their arduous household chores, the women worked alongside their husbands in building a new life in Canada.  They kept the family together, cared for the sick and passed on their traditions to the young.  In the cities they often sold goods from door to door and crocheted, knitted and sewed lace and other articles for their husbands to sell.  Some kept boarders and a good number were often busy in behind-the-scenes assistance in advancing the family's fortunes.  When, in the ensuing years a store was opened, most worked with their husbands and children, helping the family to accumulate wealth while at the same time preparing home-cooked meals and maintaining the household.

            The peddlers' customers usually looked upon the Syrians in a positive light, but some other Canadians held them in disdain.  Unlike most other early immigrant groups who, in the main, began their lives as labourers or factory workers, the Syrians' tendency to go into the commercial section of  society, aroused the ire of some other Canadians.  Even though there were hardly any unemployment or welfare cases among the Syrian newcomers, they were often viewed in a negative and uncomplimentary fashion.  Syrians were generally considered to be `of a most undesirable class, having a low intellectual level compounded with a prevalence of contagious and loathsome diseases among them.'[19]  Propagation of this degraded status continued to appear in print.  We find statements such as `the mental processes of these people have an Oriental subtlety.  Centuries of subjection, where existence was only possible through intrigue, deceit, and servility, have left their mark, and, through force of habit, they lie most naturally, and by preference, and only tell the truth when it will serve their purposes best.'[20]  W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration Ottawa, wrote in 1913 that the Syrians were undesirable immigrants, prone to disease and generally a nuisance.[21] 

            The Syrians' success in the commercial world earned them more jealousy than praise.  This negative stereotyping did not cause a ripple in the Syrian community of that time.  Few could read and write, even in Arabic.  In 1904 about fifty-five percent of the Syrian immigrants entering the U.S. through the Port of New York, many of whom were later to come to Canada, were illiterate and the others had low educational standards.[22]  There was no one at that time who could challenge the degradation of the Syrians.

            With the passing of the years, many of the immigrants who had established themselves in the smaller urban centres, early in the 1930s began to move to the large cities like Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.  Business opportunities were much easier to be found in these cosmopolitan centres.  Ontario towns like Cobalt, Cochrane, Cowganda, Elk Lake, Matheson and New Liskeard lost almost all their Syrians who relocated in mass usually to Ottawa or Toronto.  This movement of a large number of Syrians to central spots played a pivotal role in the establishment of their ethnic and religious institutions.


             The vast majority of the early Syrian immigrants belonged to a half  dozen eastern Christian churches.  In the early years, each one of these sects related themselves more to their brother Canadian Christian communities rather than to each other.  Hence, they gravitated to the established Canadian churches and institutions.  Members of the Maronite and Melkite sects joined the Catholic Church and sent their children to Catholic schools.  The Orthodox joined the Russian Orthodox or Anglican Churches and, in Quebec, sent their children to Protestant or public schools.  Later, following in the footsteps of the much larger communities in the U.S., the Syrians established their own communal religious institutions, but these were, and continue to be, linked to those in America.      

            In addition to religious organizations, the early Syrians integrated into the economic, educational and political fields.  They were, in comparison to newcomers from other parts of the world, few in number and spread thinly across the country.  The majority's ambition was to disappear into the Canadian populace and the idea of ethnic institutions was far from their minds.  Any organization they developed was connected with the church, like, for example, Sunday schools and women's auxiliary associations.  In addition, the church was the place where young men and women met, perpetuating the sect's life in Canada.  Even the Arabic newspapers which the Syrians read revolved around religious groups and these, with a few exceptions, were published in the U.S.  At one time, there were over two dozen of these journals which, to a great degree, abetted in the fragmentation of the Syrian community.              Secular associations only came into being after a time when a generation was born in Canada.  Some Syrian-born Canadians felt that sectarian institutions had splintered the community and therefore this problem had to be addressed as a whole.  The Syrian Men's Association and Syrian National Society of Canada were founded in Montreal in 1919 as part of the solution.  These were followed by numerous others, but in 1933 most of the organizations were merged under the Syrian Canadian Association, later renamed the Lebanese Syrian Canadian Association.  In 1947, a large centre was opened in Montreal under its auspices - the only large non-religious Lebanese-Syrian structure in operation today.  The mostly educated and secularly inclined Arab immigrants who came after the Second World War were never able to establish another equally impressive ethnic structure.  

            By the late 1930's, besides two Lebanese organizations, there were in Toronto the Syrian Canadian Association, the Syrian Young Men's Club, the Syrian Girls' Club and the Syrian-Lebanese Ratepayers' Association.  As a rule, their functions were social and recreational.  Unlike in Montreal, they were never able to unite.  Other organizations were established wherever there were sizable Syrian settlements, but they were insignificant when compared to those in Montreal and Toronto.  All were involved in charitable, social and cultural affairs - rarely taking part in politics.  For a few generations, they were able to maintain a sense of ethnic pride in some of the Canadian- born.

            The Syrians had much to be proud of.  They were a healthy and hard working group, having virtually no problems with alcoholism or drugs.  Their peasant-based foods such as stews of lentils and chickpeas, taboula, hummus, kubbah, kishk and yogurt dishes, almost all well known health foods today, kept their medical problems to a minimum.  The one vice which seems to have afflicted the men was poker - a game in which they often indulged. 

            Most had a decided taste for ostentation and eventually moved to middle class areas dispersed throughout the cities.  Wealth and material goods became the bases of status and respect and everyone tried to climb the social ladder. A few joined the upper middle class while others tried to emulate the well-off members of the larger Canadian community.  Rarely did a Syrian need outside assistance.  Among the first generation immigrants, there were very few poor Syrians.

            The post-Second World War immigrants were evenly divided between Christians and Muslims and were, in the main, educated, much less sectarian and had a strong affinity with their Arab origin.  They read newspapers which stressed the politics and culture of the Arab world and, as a rule, they did not try to form their own institutions.  Rather, they joined with other Arabs in developing numerous organizations, mostly political.  Even though these associations often combined cultural, social and charitable goals, the West's support of the injustice against the Palestinians and the stereotyping of the Arabs in a degrading manner by the Western media pushed these organizations into the political field.  Politically aware to a much greater degree than the early immigrants, the modern Syrians, very Arab in their outlook, want to preserve their heritage before they assimilate into Canadian society.  However, they have had little influence in the larger Arab community due to their small number of 7,080, being overwhelmed by the Lebanese who, according to the 1991 census, numbered 74,250 and the Egyptians who numbered 18,950.[23]          

            These figures of Arabs in Canada published by Statistics Canada are disputed by many Arab-Canadians.  Where Statistic Canada's 1991 census cites a total of 144,050 ethnic Arabs (including Somalias 151,124) in Canada,[24] a recent study indicates there are 250,000 Canadian Arabs[25] and a Toronto Arabic newspaper has quoted a figure of 500,000 - 100,000 in Metro Toronto alone.[26]  According to the federal Employment and Immigration Commission, between 1981 and 1993 alone, 8348 immigrants came from Syria to Canada while the 1991 Statistic Canada census lists 11,005 as born in Syria.[27]  This appears to be in conflict with the total of 7,080 listed as ethnic Syrians in Canada.


            The family, followed by the village, was the focal point of newly arrived Syrian immigrants.  Much more than in Western societies, the father was the voice of authority.  Generally, sons were given freedom to do what they wanted but girls were raised to be submissive and protected by the male members of the family.  Women were regarded as weak and naive and venerable to sexual exploitation and parents were concerned about their daughters' reputations - a girl's honour was her family's honour.  Hence, the early Syrian immigrants did not accept dating for their daughters.  In the large urban centres, it was common for the early Syrian immigrants to arrange the marriages of their offspring.  Divorce was very rare since a split between a husband and wife meant a split between families.  In the case of the elderly and handicapped, the responsibility of their care rested upon the immediate family and, sometimes, extended family.  No individual was or ever could be left alone.  However, this pattern began to break down a few years after settlement.  Interaction with the host society, long hours of work and wives helping their husbands in peddling or assisting in family stores gave the women much more say in their evolvement into the larger community and shattered, to some extent, the old patriarchal family order.

            The desire for acceptance by general Canadian society at large led to frequent exogamy.  In the outlying districts, by the time of the second or third generations, almost every Canadian-born had married outside their ethnic group.  Among the Christians, these marriages were commonplace, but the few Muslim immigrants preserved their ethnicity for a much longer period of time - holding dearly on to their traditions by practising endogamy.  Nonetheless, eventually they too Canadianized themselves out of existence.

            The newer arrivals who now emigrate mainly as families, still attempt to follow the traditional Syrian method of family life, especially in marriage.  However, after their arrival in Canada, the social and economic way of living in Western society has caused stress and strains.  Children often want the freedom they see around them.  Girls refuse the mates selected by their family and, in a good number of cases, elope with the ones they love.  As in the past, Christians tend to be open-minded to exogamous marriages while, on the other hand, a good number of Muslims regard it as a menace to their faith.[28] CULTURE

            Most of the early Syrians immigrants were unaware of the true history of the Middle East.  Turkish misrule, poverty and the missionary schools in their homeland, all influenced their thinking.  Bitter memories of conditions in Ottoman Syria were passed on from generation to generation and this drove a good many to reject Arab culture.  Affiliation with their churches was more important to them than any old country traditions.         

            Nevertheless, almost all the early newcomers tried to preserve Arabic, their mother tongue.  Even the illiterate immigrants had a fascination for the language.  The Muslims consider Arabic to be a holy tongue and both Muslims and Christians regard it as a unique and superb language.  In Montreal and Toronto, children were taught at home or haphazardly in Arabic schools, mostly opened by churches.  These had very limited success.  Arabic was preserved, in the main, by the Arabic newspapers published in the U.S.  They divided the community along sectarian lines, but contributed to keeping the language alive.  In Canada, Al-Shehab, the first Arabic-language newspaper, was established in Montreal in 1908.  Later, its successor, Al-`Alamein, appeared in the same city, but both closed within a few years.[29]  They had virtually no influence in the preservation of the immigrants' tongue.  The Syrian-Lebanese Mercury appearing in Toronto in the 1930s and, later, The Canadian Arab coming out in Montreal in the 1940s and the Middle East Digest and Newsletter published in Toronto in the 1960s, reflected the loss of Arabic by the Canadian-born.                 

            Arabic was not to last beyond the early newcomers' lifetime.  When the parents passed away so did the Arabic language.  Little pride in ethnic origin, children going through Canadian schools and the half-hearted attempt to teach Arabic, all had a hand in the fading away of the language amongst the Syrian communities.  Even though a good number of first and second generation Canadian-born Syrians in Montreal and Toronto spoke some Arabic, it was very rare that they could write a sentence in their ancestors' tongue.  A good example is the case of the Syrians and Lebanese in eastern Canada where linguistic acculturation in the Maritimes was pretty much complete after three generations.[30]   

            On the other hand, in the fields of dancing, singing, music and food, there was a greater degree of preservation.  In the larger urban centres, social gatherings in churches, with their banquets, mahrajan (picnics or festivals) and haflah (Arabic entertainment nights), were responsible for the continuation of some aspects of Syrian culture.  A survey carried out by Abu-Laban indicates that about eighty-five percent of Canadian born Arabs eat Arabic food at home and seventy-seven percent listen to Arabic music and song.[31]  In a later survey, covering the province of Ontario, it was found that ninety-five percent of Canadian born Arabs considered it important to retain Arabic culture and language.[32]  Yet, in fact, these cultural links, bit by bit, faded away.  Eventually, being Syrian had little or no importance in their daily lives.  By the third or fourth generations, usually the only connection the Canadian-born have with the land of their forefathers are a vague retention of Arab hospitality and a few names of Arabic foods like, kubbah, falafel, hummus and taboula - now all words adopted by English.    

            The Syrian immigrants who came after the Second World War were much better educated in Arabic than their predecessors and had considerably more pride in their culture.  These newcomers re-enforced a self-respect in a few descendants of the early immigrants who still preserved elements of their cultural origin.  Even though many of the new immigrants met with a great deal of resistance from some of the pre-established Syrians-Canadians, they taught them about the new Syrian-Arab nationalism which included both Christians and Muslims.  This led to some cohesion and together they took part in ethnic, political and cultural affairs, but as part of the larger Arab community.  In a recent survey, it was found that eighty percent of the Syrians in Canada indentified themselves as Arab or Arab-Canadian.[33]              This is best reflected in al-`Alam al-`Arabi/La Revue du Monde Arabe/The Arab World Review, an Arabic-French-English newspaper/magazine which appeared in Montreal in 1969 and is still in publication.  Numerous other periodicals and newspapers have appeared in both Arabic, French and English but this publication best reflects the combined views of the old and new immigrants, giving them pride in their Arab origin and educating its readers about the Arab world and its problems.


            The varied educational experiences of the early Syrian immigrants in their country of origin divided them from each other.  Loyalty in one's religious sect became more important to them than ethnic origin.  Yet, despite this sectarian belief, there was agreement on family values, codes of behaviour and social life.  With few exceptions, almost all immigrants wanted their sons and, later, their daughters educated.  They took full advantage of the fine school system which Canada offered.  Usually, the eldest took over the family business and the others went on to professional careers.  By the time the first generation had passed away, the Syrian graduates of schools and universities moved into prestigious occupations like teaching, medicine, law and the arts.    

            Unlike the first wave of immigrants, from the 1960s to the present, many of the Syrians who came to Canada were professionals.  Others, especially from the upper classes, came to escape the political turmoil in their homeland, bringing with them much of their wealth.  They were highly educated and it was simple for them to fit into Canadian society.  Their womenfolk were also schooled and they put their children in the best of institutions.  The days of peddling and the harsh life of the pioneers were, to these late twentieth century arrivals, only unbelievable tales from the past.


            The early Syrian immigrants belonged overwhelmingly to the Antiochian Orthodox (formerly Syrian Orthodox), Melkite or Maronite churches.  At first, their spiritual needs were met to a great extent by the Canadian churches.  Later, Syrian priests began to arrive in Montreal by way of New York.  However, these religious leaders did not come with a united message.  Carrying on the centuries old tradition in the Middle East, the priests and the congregations of the various sects continually bickered.  Nonetheless, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the germ of the Eastern Christian churches had begun to spread in eastern Canada.           

            The Antiochian Orthodox were the first to build their own church - St. Nicholas Church was founded in Montreal in 1905, followed by St. Sauver Melkite Church in 1924.  The Maronites usually assimilated into the local Roman Catholic churches.  The only exception was the Maronite church in Toronto which was established in the early 1920s.  It was to be late in the 1960s that their first house of worship, St. Maron Church, would be built in Montreal.   

            The first clergy were poorly educated, but very fervent in their belief. Hence, they spread religious sectarianism and division among the immigrants.  Cross-marriage among the sects was discouraged - each church became like a nation.  In the early years of Syrian immigration, other ethnic groups talked about their countries of origin while the Syrians boasted about their churches.

            The few Muslims in Canada - there were only 645[34] in 1931 - built their first house of worship, Al-Rashid Mosque, in Edmonton in 1938.  In later years both churches and mosques multiplied, but they do not now cater only to Syrians.  The Christian churches include among their membership, members from all the Arab Middle Eastern and other lands and the Muslim mosques' congregations are, in the main, non-Arab.

            The churches and mosques through the years have attempted to assist their members to integrate into Canadian society while, at the same time, maintaining a religious link with their eastern heritage.  Soon after their establishment, these institutions expanded their religious role to include social elements such as aiding immigrants to assimilate into their new homeland.  In the case of the Syrian churches, evolving with their congregations, as Arabic died off they shifted the liturgy to English or French, then as the post-Second World War waves of immigrants came, there was a partial reintroduction of Arabic.  These adaptive practices have, without doubt, ensured the Eastern churches' survival in the Canadian religious mosaic.


            The early Syrian immigrants were not politically active.  They had come in search of a better social and economic life.  One of the few exceptions was Muhammad Said Massoud (1893-1977) who in 1943 formed, in Montreal, the Canadian Arab Friendship League.  For years he tried to expose before the Canadian public the Arab side of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, but he had very little success

            For most of the early Syrians, having no history of being involved in the politics of their Ottoman homeland, they hardly knew about elections nor the process of voting politicians in or out of power.  In later years when some became aware of elections, they generally held conservative middle-class views and opted for parties with free-enterprise ideologies - the majority supporting the Liberal Party of Canada.  On the other hand, as the Canadian-born grew up, like the descendants of other immigrants, they took part in all facets of political life and even though most supported Conservative or Liberal politicians, there were a good number who favoured the left.  Yet, if any of the Syrian-born or Canadian-born Syrians ran for office, at any level of government, not one sought to be elected by emphasizing his/her ethnicity.  They had an overwhelming desire to be considered totally Canadian.

            It was much different with the immigrants who came in the last half-century.  Many were highly politicized before arriving in Canada and had strong views about both Arab and Canadian politics.  They joined, besides non-sectarian Arab associations and societies of cultural and social nature,  politically conscious organizations like the Canadian Arab Federation and the Toronto based culturally oriented Canadian Arab Friendship Society, in addition to numerous others.  Along with a good number of the descendants of the earlier immigrants, some joined Canadian political parties.  The perceived unfairness of Canada and the West towards the Arabs spurred them to try and change the views of Canadians and their politicians.

            A sprinkling of politicians, descendants of the first waves of Syrian immigrants, who today would identify themselves as of Lebanese ancestry, have been elected to municipal, provincial and federal offices.  Among the most important of these are Joe Ghiz, who became premier of Prince Edward Island; the Honourable Pierre De Bane from Quebec, who became Minister of Fisheries; and the late Senator Michael Basha (1896-1976) from Newfoundland.


            Until the new waves of Syrians began to arrive after the Second World War, the Syrian immigrants in general had an inferiority complex towards the West.  Some even wrote about this lack of self-pride.  William Peter Blatty, a Syrian-American and author of The Exorcist, describes this feeling well: `As for my own dreams, the only one I really harboured was the dream of waking up some morning and finding myself an Irishman ... I had daydreams in which my name was Miles O'Malley or Fairfax McLaughlin, and I had blond hair and was the champion boxer of Ireland.'[35]

       The early immigrants kept away from the other ethnic groups, especially if these communities were non-European.  If the early Syrian immigrants wanted to relate to anyone outside their own community, it was to the English or French.  This identification was later to affect their offspring.  In some cases, if the children were light brown or blond, they would claim their forefathers were from one or another of the western European countries.  

            For years, after P.C. 926, the Syrians fought to be re-classified as white.  They strongly rejected the label, Asian, arguing that they were Caucasians and should be classified as Europeans.[36]  Yet, in spite of the fact that this argument had strong support in the Syrian community, it was only in the mid 1930s that they were accepted as white and it was only in the 1950s that relatives could sponsor their kin on the same basis as Europeans.[37]

            Those who emigrated from the 1960s were educated in the national Arab school system of Syria and had pride in their Arab heritage.  Even the Christians, many relatives of the earlier immigrants, identified much less with the West who they saw as always supporting the enemies of the Arabs.  In a study made by Abu-Laban, it was found that fifty percent of the Arab immigrants in Canada perceived the media as unfair to the Arabs.[38]  In school books and in the North American media, the stereotyping of the Arabs as cruel, fanatical and terrorists drove the Syrians to join Arab organizations and other ethnic and Canadian associations which tried to rectify this bias.  Gone were the days when the Syrian immigrant would try to hide his/her ethnicity.

            The post-60s newcomers had a great influence on the Canadian-born Syrians.  Mostly secular in their thinking, besides taking part in the affairs of their churches and mosques, many joined Canadian institutions like political parties.  The womenfolk, as a whole, were educated and helped their husbands when they opened businesses or worked mainly in offices.  Having been educated almost entirely in Arabic, many of the women of these late immigrants joined Arab organizations.  Proud of their Arab traditions, they imbued in their offspring the feeling that they were as good as anyone else.


            Peddling, early on, played a leading role in the integration of the Syrian immigrants into Canadian society.  The village youth, turned peddler overnight, soon learned the language and ways of the host society.  Both Christians and Muslims living outside the large urban centres gradually lost their mother tongue.  A good number married non-Syrians and changed their names to become more Canadian - so they thought.  Peter Baker, author of  The Arctic Arab, was really Bedouin Ferran, Najib became Jim, Muhammad - Mike, Ibrahim - Al, Dawud - David - the list is endless.  The Arab-American poet, Sam Hamod, explains: `These men died with the wrong names, Na`aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam, ... even my own father lost his, went from Hussein Hamode Subh' to Sam Hamod.'[39]                    

            Those who settled or moved from the outlying towns and villages to the cities like Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, retained Arabic for a longer period of time.  The churches played a leading role in preserving the Syrian heritage or, at least, perpetuating the eastern religious sects by acting as marriage brokers between their members.  Since all their social affairs were church related, and the early Syrians had only minimal knowledge of English or French, Arabic was usually used by the initial immigrants.  However, in a few generations, their descendants assimilated into the host English or French societies.  Any feeling for the land of their fathers had by this time totally disappeared.

            The post-Second World War immigrants, due to their nationalistic education, in general did not change their names.  Often, even when they married outside their ethnic group, they tried to Arabize their spouses and imbue their sons and daughters with a sense of pride in Arab culture.  Mobility and modern communication - many came to Canada through western Europe - made them world-wise.  Arabic publications, video tapes, films, visits to the mother country, kept the immigrants abreast of the news from their homeland.  Above all, like other ethnic groups, Canadian multiculturalism has given them self-esteem in their ethnicity and is helping to keep their Arab legacy alive.  Unlike their earlier brethren, when they melt into the host society, it will be with dignity.


Baha Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on the Family Tree - The Arabs in Canada (Toronto, 1985), is a work which has the most comprehensive study ever made about Arab-Canadians.  It covers the period from when they began to emigrate to Canada in the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the 1980s and provides much data not found elsewhere.  Joseph G. Jabbra and Nancy W. Jabbra's, Voyageurs to a Rocky Shore - The Lebanese and Syrians in Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1984) is a detailed study, to be found no place else, of the Syrians and Lebanese in Nova Scotia.  Peter Baker's book, An Arctic Arab (Saskatoon, 1976), is an autobiograhy of the author's life in Arctic Canada and provides an interesting personal account of his life in the north.  Sheikh Muhammad Said Massoud in his book, I Fought As I Believed (Montreal, 1976), includes a massive amount of material in connection with his own years of work, trying to inform the Canadian public of the Arab side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

            Gilbert Johnson's article, "The Syrians in Western Canada," Saskatchewan History, Vol. XII, (Saskatoon, 1959), is the first piece to appear about the Syrians who settled on the prairies.  Habeeb Salloum's articles "Reminiscence of an Arab Family Homesteading in Southern Saskatchewan," Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. XV, No. 2 (Calgary, 1983) and "The Urbanization of an Arab Homesteading Family," Saskatchewan History, Vol. XLII, No. 2 (Saskatoon, 1989) detail the evolvement of the author's family from prairie pioneers to city dwellers.  Farid E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani in their study, The Arabs in Ontario: A Misunderstood Community (Toronto, 1993) survey the perceptions of Arab-Canadians in relation to their lives in Ontario and their views about fellow Canadians.

            Other works, parts of which relate to the early Syrians, are listed in Baha Abu-Laban's An Olive Branch on the Family Tree - The Arabs in Canada


Books and Journals:

Baha Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on the Family Tree - The Arabs in Canada (Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart Limited 1985).

Peter Baker, An Arctic Arab (Saskatoon:  Yellowknife Publishing Co. Ltd. 1976).

William Peter Blatty, Which Way to Mecca, Jack? (New York:  Curtis Publishing Co. 1958).

David Butter, "The Public Sector Problem in Syria"  Meed - Middle East Business Weekly, Vol. 3, No. 22, (London: Meed Publictions, Meed House, 4 June 1993), 2-4.

John Irwin Cooper, Montreal - A Brief History (Montreal:  McGill-Queen's University Press 1969).

Sam Hamod, Dying with The Wrong Name (New York:  Anthé Publications 1980).

Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power - The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (tr. P.B. Carlos) (New York:  Summit Books 1986).

Joseph G. Jabbra and Nancy W. Jabbra, Voyageurs to a Rocky Shore - The Lebanese and Syrians in Nova Scotia (Halifax: Institute of Public Affairs, Dalhousie University 1984).

Gilbert Johnson, "The Syrians in Western Canada," Saskatchewan History, Vol. XII, (Saskatoon:  The Saskatchewan Archives Board 1959), 31-2.

Jim Kidd, "Arabs in Canada," The Archivist, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Ottawa: National Archives of Canada, July-September 1991), 16-17.

Sheikh Muhammad Said Massoud, I Fought As I Believed (Montreal:  Ateliers des Sourds (MTL) Inc. 1976).

Farid E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, The Arabs in Ontario: A Misunderstood Community (Toronto: The Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada 1993).

Habeeb Salloum, "Reminiscence of an Arab Family Homesteading in Southern Saskatchewan," Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. XV, No. 2 (Calgary:  Canadian Ethnic Studies Association 1983), 130-8 

Habeeb Salloum, "The Urbanization of an Arab Homesteading Family," Saskatchewan History, Vol. XLII, No. 2 (Saskatoon:  The Saskatchewan Archives Board 1989), 79-84.

James Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates, (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press 1972).

Statistics/Surveys, Newspapers and Pamphlets:

Syrians - Ontario Ethnocultural Profiles (Toronto:  Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation, Citizenship Division 1979).

Statistics Canada.  Ethnic origin. Ottawa: Industry, Science and Technology Canada, 1992.  1991 Census of Canada.  Catalogue number 93-315.

Statistics Canada. Immigration and citizenship. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1992.  1991 Census of Canada.  Catalogue number 93-316.

Al-Mersal (newspaper) (Toronto:  Canadian Arab Network, April 1993).


"Lebanese" (Theophile Atalla), Encyclopedia Canadiana, Vol. 6 (Toronto: Grolier of Canada 1977), 108-9.

"Arabs" (Baha Abu-Laban), The Canadian Encyclopedia, Vol. I, Second Edition (Edmonton:  Hurtig Publishers 1988), 90

[1]  Baha Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on the Family Tree (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited 1985), 57.

[2]  Statistics Canada. Ethnic origin (Ottawa: Industry, Science and Technology Canada 1992). 1991 Census of Canada. Catalogue Number 93-315, 18.

[3]  David Butter, "The Public Sector Problem in Syria", Meed - Middle East Business Weekly, Vol. 3, No. 22 (June 1993), 4.

[4]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 30.

[5]  Mikhail Heller and Alksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power - The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (New York: Summit Books 1986) 174.

[6]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 87.

[7]  John Irwin Cooper, Montreal - A brief History (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press 1969), 95.

[8]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 54.

[9]  Abu-Laban, ibid., 70.

[10]  Abu-Laban, ibid., 54.

[11]  Joseph G. Jabbra and Nancy W. Jabbra, Voyageurs to a Rocky Shore - The Lebanese and Syrians in Nova Scotia (Halifax: Dalhousie University, Institute of Public Affairs 1984) 12.

[12]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 61.

[13]  Statistics Canada.  Ethnic origin (Ottawa: Industry, Science and Technology Canada 1992). Catalogue Number 93-315, 34, 35, 50, 51.

[14]  Jabbra, op.cit., 8

[15]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 63.

[16]  Gilbert Johnson, "The Syrians in Western Canada", Saskatchewan History 12 (1959), 31.

[17]  Habeeb Salloum, "Reminiscences: The Urbanization of an Arab Homesteading Family", Saskatchewan History XLII, No. 2 (Spring 1989), 79-80.

[18]  Habeeb Salloum, "Reminiscence of an Arab Family Homesteading in Southern Saskatchewan," Canadian Ethnic Studies XV, No. 2 (1983), 138.

[19]  James D. Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1972), 138.

[20]  ibid., 139.

[21]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 84.

[22]  ibid., 85.

[23]  Statistics Canada, Ethnic origin, op.cit.,  18.

[24]  ibid., 18.

[25]  Farid E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, The Arabs in Ontario: A Misunderstood Community (Toronto: Near East Cultural and Eductional Foundation of Canada 1993), 1.

[26]  Al-Mersal (Toronto: Canadian Arab Network, April 1993), 1.

[27]  Statistics Canada, Immigration and citizenship, op.cit., 30.

[28]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 163.

[29]  ibid., 151.

[30]  Jabbra, op.cit., 160.

[31]  Abu-Laban, op.cit., 214.

[32]  Farid E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, op.cit., 124.

[33]  ibid., 120.

[34]  ibid., 72.

[35]  William Peter Blatty, Which Way to Mecca Jack? (New York: Curtis Publishing Co. 1958) 29.

[36]  Abu-Laban, op.cit. 85-6.

[37]  ibid., 86-7.

[38]  ibid., 93.

[39]  Sam Hamod, Dying With the Wrong Name (New York: Anthé Publications 1980) 19.

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