Arab Canadians

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Arab Canadians

ETHNONYMS Lebanese Canadian, Syrian Canadian, Egyptian Canadian, Iraqi Canadian


Identification and Location. Arab Canadians are first-generation Christian or Muslim Arabic-speaking immigrants and their descendants who originally came from the Arab world and have roots in the 1,400-year-old Arabic culture. The Arab world includes all the members of the League of Arab States: Algeria, Bahrain, Democratic Yemen, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libyan Arab Republic, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. There is no single common feature that distinguishes and identifies Arab Canadians. These people have different national origins, religions, and even languages, since second- and third-generation Arab Canadians may not speak Arabic. However, Arab Canadians share similar myths, folklore, music, art forms, food, customs, and ethos. Arab Canadians can be found throughout Canada, although the largest communities exist in major cities such as Montreal and Toronto. For historical, religious, and political reasons, some immigrants may identify themselves by their country of origin, such as Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, or Iraqi Canadians. However, to avoid confusion, the general term "Arab Canadian" is used here to refer to all Canadians of Arabic origin.

Demography. By 1901 approximately 2,000 people from Greater Syria had made Canada their home. By 1911 the Arab-Canadian population had grown to 7,000 people. Between 1921 and 1931, only 74 persons from the Arab world were allowed to immigrate. In 1951 the Arab Canadian population had grown to only 12,201. With subsequent changes in Canada's immigration policies, the Arab Canadian population increased by more than half to 19,374 in 1961. By 1975 there were an estimated total of 70,000 to 80,000 people of Arabic origin living in Canada. According to the 1996 census, there were 188,430 people of Arabic origin in Canada.

Linguistic Affiliation. Arab Canadians speak the various Arabic dialects of their home countries and regions. In Canada they have had to learn one of the country's official languages, either French or English. Second- and third-generation Arab Canadians may not speak Arabic, but only English or French.

History and Cultural Relations.

Arab immigration to Canada has been marked by two waves of migration: an early wave beginning in the 1880s of largely Lebanese and Syrian Christians and a second wave in the 1960s and 1970s from all over the Arab world, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Iraq. In the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline and numerous religious and civil wars forced some people to seek a safe haven abroad. Also, a general economic decline forced individuals to seek a better life elsewhere. Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the first stop on ship routes to North America and a point of departure for many immigrants. Familiarity with Western culture through Christian missionaries and missionary schools in Lebanon and Syria influenced Arab emigrants' choice to come to Canada. Quebec attracted the French-speaking Syrian and Lebanese. The Canadian government's land grant program provided another reason for immigrants to come.

The first Arab immigrant settled in Montreal in 1882. Others followed directly or indirectly, arriving via Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. These immigrants were mostly young men who found work as laborers, shopkeepers, and peddlers. Venturesome peddlers traveled to remote parts of northern Ontario and Quebec such as Three Rivers, Sault Sainte Marie, North Bay, Cobalt, Cochrane, and Elk Lake, wherever their goods were in demand. Their success prompted relatives to join them. New brides were brought back from the homeland, and the itinerant peddlers began to settle down. In the first decade of the twentieth century communities were established in the western and maritime provinces. Arab immigration to Canada was highest between 1900 and 1914. After 1920, immigration was restricted, and the growth in the Arab-Canadian population up to 1951 was due mainly to natural increase. The 1950s saw a series of changes in Canada's immigration laws and regulations that again opened the door to Arab immigrants. In 1967 quotas based on country of origin were dropped entirely from the immigration code. The largest number of new immigrants came from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, and Tunisia. Other Arab countries represented were Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Mauritania, Yemen, and Oman. These newer immigrants tend to be Muslim, professional, and educated, quite different from the first-wave immigrants. Whereas the descendants of the earlier group have assimilated fully into Canadian society, newer Arab immigrants remain involved with their families and the politics of the home country; this is facilitated by the ease of communication between the home country and Canada and the significance of the Arab world in today's global political economy.


Although people of Arabic origin can be found in towns and cities throughout Canada, the major cities, such as Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, and Edmonton, have the largest and oldest communities. Ninety percent of Arab Canadians live in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, followed by Alberta and Nova Scotia. Although Arab Canadians may not live in close physical proximity, they keep in close contact with each other through churches, mosques, and secular institutions.


Economic opportunity was the lure for many of Canada's early Arab immigrants. Their original objective was to make money and return to their homelands with enough savings to buy land and a house. Destitute upon their arrival, the earliest immigrants found work wherever they could in trading and the unskilled industrial labor market. Some went to Saskatchewan to farm. Others sold their wares in Quebec and Ontario's northern mining communities. By the turn of the century the early immigrants were making a mark as shopkeepers and peddlers. Within a few years of arriving, Arab Canadians were remitting money home, and this had the effect of luring others to the New World to seek their fortunes. Peddlers became shopkeepers and wholesalers, basing their operations in major cities such as Montreal and Toronto and provisioning traders and small shops throughout the region. The success of their businesses helped underwrite the second generation's entrance into professional careers. Latergeneration Arab Canadians have entered into all spheres of Canada's economic life, including business, industry, real estate, insurance, the professions, the judiciary, politics, teaching, the ministry, government service, entertainment and media, fashion and design, and management. The postwar immigrants also have entered into all levels of the occupational hierarchy. Thirty percent of second-wave immigrants entered Canada with at least postsecondary degrees, 36 percent entered lower white-collar or service-sector occupations, and 29 percent became blue-collar workers.


Kin Groups and Descent. In the Arab kinship system, patrilineal descent determined membership in kin groups at various levels from the extended family and surname group (bayt) up to the tribe. However, matrilateral relationships were also important in forming social ties and networks. In rural Lebanon stem and nuclear families were the basic corporate unit, although members of a common surname group were involved in joint economic activities. The political and economic structure of Canadian society presented a different environment for kin groups to form and operate in and therefore did not guarantee the replication of traditional Arabic kin groups. Chain migration was based on kinship ties and wives were brought from home villages, but kin groups larger than the family never developed in Canada. Instead, immigrants took advantage of economic opportunities, resulting in a pattern of dispersed nuclear or stem families. The same is true for Canada's postwar Arab immigrants, especially those with professional careers, who have brought only their immediate families to Canada. Nevertheless, the sentiments of kinship remain strong and continue to form the basis of business networks and political associations. The sentiments of kinship also remain strong among newer, less-educated Arab immigrants, in part as protection against their disadvantageous class position and racial discrimination.

Kinship Terminology. Arabs and Arab Canadians use Sudanese kinship terminology, which distinguishes each parent's side of the family as well as relative age. Even when there is no equivalent English or French term, latergeneration Arab Canadians may still distinguish relatives according to the Sudanese system, for example, referring to a father's brother as umy uncle on my father's side."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, Arab marriages are arranged and endogamous. The preferred match is one between parallel cousins. First-generation Arab immigrants usually followed traditional marriage customs and in many cases traveled back to their original villages to find an appropriate mate. However, as later-generation Arab Canadians became more assimilated, parents lost control of their children, who attended coeducational public schools and had more of an opportunity to meet and socialize with members of the opposite sex. Although later-generation Arab Canadian parents have less control over their children's choice of mate, they continue to exert indirect control in the choice of a spouse. Although marrying a parallel cousin from the same community is rare, if at all possible, Arab Canadians still prefer to marry within their ethnic group and religion; however, interethnic and interfaith marriages are becoming more common, especially among later-generation Arab Canadians.

Domestic Unit. Male-female roles in the traditional farming household were considered complementary: "The man brings, the woman builds," says a Lebanese proverb. Among immigrant families that started out with meager resources, wives worked alongside their husbands in the family business and did domestic work. Although traditional Arabic society is considered patriarchal, women did hold some power in the household as managers, child rearers, owners of property, and representatives of important affinal and matrilateral ties. As the economic condition of immigrant households improved, so did the opportunity for women to work outside the home, although men were reluctant to let them do so. As later-generation Arab Canadian men joined the professional ranks and became the major breadwinners, women's status and authority in the home suffered. Women who did work outside the home and earned an income were respected by their male family members.

Socialization. A great deal of socialization takes place within the family. By Canadian standards, Arab Canadian children are indulged, whereas adolescents are treated more severely. Arab-Canadian parents do not hit their children, and relatives are permitted to reprimand children for bad behavior. In the public school system children learn a different set of values that emphasize individual rights and achievement; however, they continue to show respect to parents and family elders.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In Canada, volunteer associations based on religion and ethnicity serve the same role that larger kin groups did in the Arab world. These associations organize parties (halfi) and festivals (mahrajanin), which are public expressions of a shared culture and identity as well as a forum for individuals and families to vie for prestige. Organizations such as the Canadian Lebanon Society in Halifax; the Cedars Club in Sydney, Nova Scotia; and the Syrian National Society of Canada in Montreal were established in the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1930s youth and women's organizations were formed, including the Syrian Canadian Society, the Syrian Young Men's Club, the Syrian Girl's Club, the Canadian Young Lebanese Club, and the Syrian Ladies Aid Society. The object of all these organizations was to promote the welfare of members of the immigrant community. The Canadian Arab Friendship League, founded in 1943, sought to counteract the negative publicity the Arab world received in the Canadian media. In 1967, in response to the Six Day War (Arab-Israeli War), an umbrella organization, the Canadian Arab Federation, was founded to promote Palestinian rights and interests, among other issues. More recently Arabic professional and folklore groups have been established. The Arab Community Centre of Toronto provides information for new immigrants as well as promoting Arabic culture and learning. Other associations include the Arab Canadian Association, the Canada Palestine Association, the Arab Students Association, the Lebanese Students Association, the Muslim Students Association, and the Saint Joseph Society.

Political Organization.

Some of these social clubs are also centers of political groups that are involved in Canada's political system. Leadership roles in Arab-Canadian associations are proving grounds for the development of Arab-Canadian leaders and in some cases a route to political office. Politicians cultivate the Arab-Canadian vote by attending association functions and developing relationships with the leaders. Later-generation Arab Canadians have served at various levels of government and in executive, legislative, and administrative offices. Lebanese Canadians have supported the Liberal Party rather than the Conservatives because of the Liberals' more open immigration policies and favorable stance toward Arab countries. Newer immigrants from the post-Nasar Arab world have embraced a pan-Arabic identity, which is reflected in their associations' makeup and agenda. Regardless of political allegiances, Arab Canadians are eager to become Canadian citizens and enjoy the rights and privileges that such citizenship confers.

Social Control. Arabs put family above the individual and believe that one serves one's own interests by serving one's family. Since male elders make family decisions, female and younger male members of the family must accept their authority. This respect for male elders in the family is carried over into the immigrant and even later-generation Arab-Canadian families, whose younger members still seek their parents' advice regarding major life decisions and abide by them even if they are not in personal agreement. Because family honor is considered dependent on the sexual modesty of a family's women members, the control of women in the family is more strict than that of men. Traditionally, women were cloistered in the home and were not permitted to leave until they were married. Although Arab Canadian women have considerably more freedom than did their foremothers, men are still reluctant to let their wives work outside the home or their daughters attend postsecondary institutions.

From early on Arab Canadians' desire to get ahead in their newly adopted country and feeling of vulnerability as "foreigners" influenced a law-abiding behavior, as did their later desire to present a favorable image of their ethnic group. Success in business also helped produce a conservative lawabiding population.

Conflict. Conflict between the generations is typical of immigrant families, and Arab Canadians are no exception. The emphasis on the family and parental authority is contested by a younger generation that has adopted the Canadian and Western ethos of individualism through public education, peers, and the media. Another area of conflict in the home is the expression of female sexuality. Fathers try to control the dress and public behavior of their daughters to avoid contravening the codes of sexual modesty. For example, family arguments ensue over the wearing of sleeveless dresses or bathing suits and going out on unchaperoned dates. Although sons have more leeway than daughters, they are expected to help in the father's business and eventually take it over. The relatively smaller Arab-Canadian households lack the extended kin who traditionally help adjudicate disputes.

Outside the family conflicts ensue among the different subethnic groups. Arab Canadians are not a unified ethnic group but are divided by different religious and political affiliations. Factions fight for control of ethnic associations, such as the Canadian Lebanon Society, or form their own associations. In the past, Lebanese Canadian associations debated whether to include Syrian Canadians or other Arab Canadians in their groups. Conflicts in the Middle East can affect Arab Canadians as well. For example, after Syria's intervention in the Lebanese civil war, Lebanese Canadian students left the Arab Students Association to form their own group, the Lebanese Students Association. Later-generation Arab Canadians may not go along with the political agenda of newer immigrants. The former are more assimilated and therefore are not inclined to identify with the Arab world and politics or involve themselves in local associations that attempt to influence public opinion and the Canadian government's foreign policy.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Arab Canadians belong to different religions and sects. The early immigrants were nearly all Christians; nine of ten were members of the Antiochian Orthodox, Melkite, or Maronite church. The Antiochian Orthodox Church is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which has some doctrinal disputes with the Catholic Church over the idea of immaculate conception, the primacy of the pope, and the nature of Jesus Christ. There are four Antiochian Orthodox churches in Canadatwo in Montreal, one in Toronto, and one in Ottawawith a total membership of around ten thousand people. Melkite and Maronite churches are Uniate churches and are part of the Catholic Church, although they have their own rites, liturgies, and patriarchs, who are beholden to the pope. There are Melkite churches in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. At the turn of the millennium, the Montreal church had a membership of three thousand families, of which 60 percent were of Egyptian origin. The first Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in Toronto in 1965. The Coptic Orthodox followers are Monophysites who believe in the complete divinity of Jesus Christ. Some Arab Canadians have become Protestants, Catholics, or Russian Orthodox.

In 1931, only 645 Muslims lived in Canada. This number increased substantially during the second wave of immigration in the postwar period. The first mosque was built in Edmonton in 1938. By the end of the twentieth century, mosques and Islamic organizations could be found in almost all of Canada's provinces. Canada's Muslim sects include Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Druses. The Sunnis are the largest sect in the Arab world as well as in Canada. The Shi'ites, who split with the Sunnis in a dispute over Mohammed's successor, are from mostly Iraq and Lebanon. The Druse religion is based on the cult of al-Hakim, an eleventh-century religious leader who declared himself divine.

Folk beliefs in vows, the evil eye, magic, and omens are found among first-generation Arab Canadians but tend not to persist into the following generations.

Religious Practitioners. Priests carry out the rites in the Christian churches. Syrian priests arrived in Canada as early as 1892 to establish an institutional order in the new land. The Melkites and Maronites have their own patriarchs, who accept the authority of the pope. The Antiochian Orthodox Church in Canada comes under the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of New York and All North America. There is no priestly class in Islam; instead, holy men, or iman, function as religious authorities and instructors.

Ceremonies. The Christian sects are distinguished by their different rites and liturgies. The Maronite rites are close to the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, although the liturgy is in Syrian. The Antiochian Orthodox rites and liturgy are closest to those of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Melkites are Byzantine Rite Catholics and use the Greek language in their liturgy. As Arab Canadians became more assimilated, French or English was introduced into the service and in some cases replaced the original liturgical language. English and French are used in mosques as well, and the Qu'ran is published in English. Recently there has been a return to Arabic-language services accommodate newer immigrants.

Arts. Dancing, singing, and poetry are art forms that have survived among immigrant and later-generation Arab Canadians. Although the lyrics are sung in Arabic, the music has changed, reflecting Western influences. Folk dances, including belly-dancing and group dancing called dabki, are performed by professionals at social gatherings, such as halfi, and are taught in Arabic cultural centers. Improvised folk poetry known as zajal is performed by professionals at public events.

Medicine. Folk cures are used by first-generation Arab Canadians and consist of herbal remedies, poultices, and the Aristotelian belief in the four humors. Such practices are seen as complementary to Western medicine, which Arab Canadians also use. Most Arab Canadians are integrated into the Canadian health system.

For other cultures in Canada, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


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