SYRIANS IN CANADA
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
to 7,080 in 1992.
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.
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
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
Syria has an area of 187,348 sq km (72,335 sq MI) and a population
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
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.
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.
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.
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;
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
1937, an agreement between France and Turkey allowed the Syrian
immigrants, including those in Canada, to opt for Lebanese or Syrian
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
figure is taken from Canada Immigration and Manpower Statistics and
indicates an almost total end to Syrian immigration.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
During the early Depression years, innumerable
Syrian farmers were to be found in many prairie
municipalities, for example, Swift Current in southern Saskatchewan.
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.
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
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.
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.'
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.'
W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration Ottawa, wrote in
1913 that the Syrians were undesirable immigrants, prone to disease
and generally a nuisance.
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
There was no one at that time who could challenge the
degradation of the Syrians.
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
LIFE: NETWORKS AND RELATIONSHIPS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
a recent study indicates there are 250,000 Canadian Arabs
and a Toronto Arabic newspaper has quoted a figure of 500,000 -
100,000 in Metro Toronto alone.
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.
This appears to be in conflict with the total of 7,080 listed
as ethnic Syrians in Canada.
AND KINSHIP PATTERNS
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
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
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.
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
newer arrivals who now emigrate mainly as families, still attempt to
follow the traditional Syrian method of family life, especially in
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.
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
with their churches was more important to them than any old country
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
first clergy were poorly educated, but very fervent in their belief.
Hence, they spread religious sectarianism and division among the
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.
few Muslims in Canada - there were only 645
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
MAINTENANCE AND ETHNIC COMMITMENT
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.'
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
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.
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
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
Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on the Family Tree - The Arabs in
Canada (Toronto: McClelland
and Stewart Limited 1985).
Baker, An Arctic Arab (Saskatoon: Yellowknife Publishing Co. Ltd. 1976).
Peter Blatty, Which Way to Mecca, Jack? (New York:
Curtis Publishing Co. 1958).
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.
Irwin Cooper, Montreal - A Brief History (Montreal:
McGill-Queen's University Press 1969).
Hamod, Dying with The Wrong Name (New York:
Anthé Publications 1980).
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
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).
Johnson, "The Syrians in Western Canada," Saskatchewan
History, Vol. XII, (Saskatoon:
The Saskatchewan Archives Board 1959), 31-2.
Kidd, "Arabs in Canada," The Archivist, Vol. 18,
No. 2 (Ottawa: National Archives of Canada, July-September 1991),
Muhammad Said Massoud, I Fought As I Believed (Montreal:
Ateliers des Sourds (MTL) Inc. 1976).
E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, The Arabs in Ontario: A Misunderstood
Community (Toronto: The Near East Cultural and Educational
Foundation of Canada 1993).
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
Salloum, "The Urbanization of an Arab Homesteading
Family," Saskatchewan History, Vol. XLII, No. 2
Saskatchewan Archives Board 1989), 79-84.
Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates, (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press 1972).
Newspapers and Pamphlets:
- Ontario Ethnocultural Profiles
Ministry of Culture and Recreation, Citizenship Division 1979).
origin. Ottawa: Industry, Science and Technology Canada, 1992.
1991 Census of Canada. Catalogue
Canada. Immigration and citizenship. Ottawa: Supply and
Services Canada, 1992. 1991
Census of Canada. Catalogue
(newspaper) (Toronto: Canadian
Arab Network, April 1993).
(Theophile Atalla), Encyclopedia Canadiana, Vol. 6 (Toronto:
Grolier of Canada 1977), 108-9.
(Baha Abu-Laban), The Canadian Encyclopedia, Vol. I, Second
Edition (Edmonton: Hurtig
Publishers 1988), 90
Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on the Family Tree (Toronto:
McClelland and Stewart Limited 1985), 57.
Canada. Ethnic origin (Ottawa: Industry, Science and
Technology Canada 1992). 1991 Census of Canada. Catalogue Number
Butter, "The Public Sector Problem in Syria", Meed
- Middle East Business Weekly, Vol. 3, No. 22 (June 1993),
Heller and Alksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power - The History of
the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (New York: Summit
Books 1986) 174.
Irwin Cooper, Montreal - A brief History (Montreal:
McGill-Queen's Press 1969), 95.
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.
origin (Ottawa: Industry, Science and Technology Canada
1992). Catalogue Number 93-315, 34, 35, 50, 51.
Johnson, "The Syrians in Western Canada", Saskatchewan
History 12 (1959), 31.
Salloum, "Reminiscences: The Urbanization of an Arab
Homesteading Family", Saskatchewan History XLII, No.
2 (Spring 1989), 79-80.
Salloum, "Reminiscence of an Arab Family Homesteading in
Southern Saskatchewan," Canadian Ethnic Studies XV,
No. 2 (1983), 138.
D. Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press 1972), 138.
Canada, Ethnic origin, op.cit.,
E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, The Arabs in Ontario: A
Misunderstood Community (Toronto: Near East Cultural and
Eductional Foundation of Canada 1993), 1.
(Toronto: Canadian Arab Network, April 1993), 1.
Canada, Immigration and citizenship, op.cit., 30.
E. Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, op.cit., 124.
Peter Blatty, Which Way to Mecca Jack? (New York: Curtis
Publishing Co. 1958) 29.
Hamod, Dying With the Wrong Name (New York: Anthé
Publications 1980) 19.