Lebanese Immigration to Alberta
Lebanon is located in the Middle East, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea on the west, Israel to the south, and Syria to the north and east. Its location, as a key point for travel between Europe and the Middle East, historically placed it on ancient international trade routes. Its central position on these trade routes also made it a target for invasion by different civilizations, and over the centuries, the country has fallen under the control of Alexander the Great, the Arabs, the Ottomans, and the French. Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been unable to successfully rid itself of meddling and occupation by foreigners.
Trade and conquest have created a religiously diverse nation made up of a majority Muslim population and a Christian minority. These three factors account for Lebanon’s tumultuous history, one of both prosperity and devastation. In turn, these periods have affected Lebanese immigration to Canada: in times of prosperity, immigration has declined, while during times of strife people, have left in the hope of building a better future in a new land.
The earliest immigrants began arriving in Canada in the early 1880s. Most of these immigrants were young, single, Christian men. They settled predominantly in Montreal and set up small businesses. Over time, Lebanese immigrants began moving west. They made their way across the country as peddlers, selling goods as they travelled. In Alberta, some continued this way of life or settled down with a permanent store, while other, more adventurous types ventured into the fur trade. The first Lebanese to settle in Alberta chose Calgary, Edmonton, and Lac La Biche as home.
While 5,400 Lebanese immigrated to Canada between 1902 and 1913, only 2,600 came between 1913 and 1955. The outbreak of World War I halted immigration almost completely. In the years between World War I and World War II, restrictive immigration policies prevented many potential immigrants from coming to Canada. Those Lebanese already in Canada continued to grow and survive as a community. In 1938, the Al Rashid Mosque was constructed in Edmonton, making it the first mosque in Canada.
While immigration grew slightly in the 1950s, it did not really take off until the 1970s. This was the result of two factors: one Canadian made and the other a result of Lebanese domestic strife. In 1967, Canada changed its immigration policy and adopted a new merit-based point system. The changed immigration policies also allowed for three categories of immigrants: family, independent, and refugees. This meant earlier immigrants could sponsor their family members to immigrate while professional Lebanese could arrive by themselves.
During the early 1970s, domestic factors began to drive people out of Lebanon. A resurgent economy that had boomed since the mid-1950s began to fizzle and tension with Israel was high. Palestinian guerrilla groups began using southern Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel, leading to Israeli counter-attacks on Lebanon as well as fighting between Palestinian and Lebanese militias. In 1975, the situation deteriorated into a civil war between Muslim and Christian Lebanese.
The civil war lasted 16 years, ending in 1991. During this time, immigration to Canada ebbed and flowed, rising during times of intense violence and slowing during times of relative peace. A special provision was included in Canada’s immigration policy for those Lebanese fleeing the violence who did not meet the definition of a refugee. The provision, called the Lebanese Special Program, made it easier for Lebanese to enter Canada. Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has remained unstable; there have been occupations by both Syrian and Israeli troops, but immigration to Canada has slowed.
Many early immigrants to Canada have had little problem adjusting to Canadian life. Generally they spoke one, if not both, official languages and their training and education made it easy for them to find jobs or to start their own businesses. However, those who fled the turmoil of the civil war have had a tougher time. While many are fluent in at least one of the official languages, some do not have the education or training to find professional positions and have had to take whatever work they could find.
The family unit is important to Lebanese-Canadians. Many have arrived through what is known as chain migration, where original immigrants sponsor family members, who in turn sponsor additional members. However, sponsorship has led to some difficulties in Canada as differences between Lebanese culture and Canadian culture can be prominent. One such difficulty is presented to Lebanese women who, if following traditional Lebanese roles, have less freedom than their Canadian counterparts.
Another difficulty experienced by Lebanese-Canadians is that of racism, especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since that time, many Lebanese have felt stereotyped and discriminated against for being Muslim. Many feel their religion has been negatively portrayed and that people think of them as terrorists. While most Lebanese immigrants come to think of themselves as Lebanese-Canadians, this new discrimination has made them feel like outsiders in their adopted country.
Awid, Richard Asmet. Through the Eyes of the Son: A Factual History About Canadian Arabs. Edmonton: Accent Printing, 2000.
Khouri, Raja G. Arabs in Canada: Post 9/11. Toronto: G7 Books, 2006.