The Lebanese community in Quebec – The quest for freedom and the pursuit of excellence. By Sami Aoun and Sari Madi

The Lebanese community in Quebec –
 The quest for freedom and the pursuit of excellence (part 1)


Research on the discovery of the Americas show that the Phoenicians, ancestors of the Lebanese people, went up the Saint-Laurent River long before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Archeological discoveries show that an expedition, led from the Phoenician colonies in North Africa, reached the Americas 2500 years ago. Stone engraved inscriptions were found in various places in 1975; their study confirmed that Phoenicians came to Canada. This information is interesting because it shows the adventurous and expansionist spirit of the people who inhabited the Mediterranean East Coast.

But it is only in the second half of the 19th century that the contemporary Lebanese emigration to Canada began. In a context of ongoing socio-economic difficulties, political oppression and poverty, there was little hope for improvement. Numerous successive events contributed to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and led to waves of emigration from different Middle-Eastern regions.

During the 19th century, violent conflicts between the Maronites and the Druze community took place in Mount Lebanon. Tens of thousands died in massacres between 1845 and 1860, which led to the creation of the Mutasarrifate system, declared in 1861, putting Mount Lebanon under the protection of European powers. This special administrative status deprived the country of its most fertile lands and of the port of Beirut. Moreover, the Suez Canal, opened in 1869 to ensure a connection between Europe and the silk market in the Far East, greatly harmed Mount Lebanon’s main industry: sericulture.

It is within that context that the first Lebanese immigrants decided to settle elsewhere. They learned about the huge migration movements to America from French and American missionaries, who were there for various reasons (humanitarian help, tourism, pilgrimage…). At that time, Canada was not the main destination for the citizens of Mount Lebanon thrilled by adventure. It was rather the United States, Argentina (121 076 people) and Brazil. It was only later, between 1900 and 1913, that 5858 Syrians entered Canada, 80% of whom were Lebanese.

Lebanese emigration followed a pattern of family reunification, as close relatives usually followed first immigrants. Around 1885, fifty Lebanese immigrants were in Canada. Among the very first: Ibrahim Abou Nader who arrived to Montreal in 1882 at the age of 19; Sélim Elias Achkar, Joseph Jebawy and his son arrived in 1883; Boutros Tady arrived in 1884. The Syro-Lebanese community founded its first Greek Orthodox church in Canada in 1910.

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Lebanese presence in Canada, the city of Montreal unveiled Daleth, an artistic monument, in 2010. But flows of Lebanese immigrants were not continuous, in spite of what that commemoration might lead to presume. In reality, there were three waves of Lebanese immigration into Canada.

The old immigration (1882-1936)

The first immigration phase was between 1882 and the beginning of WWI. When the first immigrant arrived to Canada, it was required to have 50$ to be admitted in the country; this amount was raised to 200$ after 1908, which limited the number of immigrants. Lebanese immigration to Canada slowed down even more after WWI, and as a result of the PC 2115 Act, adopted in 1930 to restrict Chinese immigration into Canada (Lebanese were categorized as coming from Asia, and therefore penalized by this Act).

Lebanese immigrants had the ambition of making a fortune in host countries. Disenchanted by the poor rural backgrounds they came from, they were convinced that agriculture would not help them achieve their dreams. They rather turned to trade and adopted a profession that became “their national characteristic throughout the American continent: peddling.”

Lebanese peddlers had brought back religious objects from their home country: rosaries, holly images, crosses, relics from Jerusalem. But they gradually expanded their merchandise to bath items (combs, soap, perfumes), sewing items (fabrics, pins, needles, threads, scissors, ribbons, lace) and toys (dolls, whistles). From that modest job, many Lebanese were able to open stores and climb the social ladder.

In Montreal, Syro-Lebanese businesses were concentrated in East Notre-Dame Street, where one could find fabric and haberdashery shops, garment factories, grocery stores, food importers and restaurants. East Notre-Dame Street remained the center of commercial and cultural activities for the Syro-Lebanese community throughout the 1920’s. Their presence declined later on until the last fabric and haberdashery store, C&A Anbar Company, closed in the mid 1980’s.

The second immigration (1945-1975)

The second phase of Lebanese immigration started at the end of WWII. The first wave of immigration was a community project, the second was rather based on individual initiative. The beginning of the civil war in 1975 will put an end to the individual character of this immigration.

In the beginning of the 20th century Lebanese people preferred to immigrate to South America. This tendency changed after WWII however: 7891 Syro-Lebanese entered Canada between 1900 and 1945, whereas 12 445 Lebanese came between 1946 and 1973; which represents 0,32% of the number of immigrants admitted into Canada during that period (for Quebec Lebanon ranked 14th among the main immigrants’ home countries in 1972). This increase in the number of immigrants was, in part, the consequence of the new immigration law of 1952, which classified Lebanese people as Europeans instead of Asians.

Even though Lebanon was prosperous in the 1960’s and 1970’s, many aspects of life led people to leave the country: the deteriorating administration, corruption, political sectarianism and its adverse consequences, economic hardship, personal goals (for example, education), and family invasiveness into the individual’s private life.

The third immigration: from 1975 to the present.

Even though the first two waves of immigration extended over nearly a century, the number of Lebanese Canadians was not significant. The majority of Lebanese currently living in Canada came after 1975 in two waves, the first one immigrated between 1975 and 1980, and the second between 1986 and 1991.

When the war started in 1975 new groups of the Lebanese population tried to leave the country. Refugees were the most likely to be accepted, but not all of the Lebanese people desiring to immigrate could be identified as refugees. However, under pressure from Lebanese organizations in Canada, the Canadian government established a program for those who were fleeing violence but did not comply with the requirements of the refugee program.

Lebanese immigration to Canada continued despite the end of the war, although at a slower pace. About 20 000 Lebanese-Canadians returned to Lebanon during the 1990’s, but economic and political instability did not allow this trend to grow. Currently, the majority of immigrants from Lebanon are admitted under the category of economic immigration that the Canadian government created to meet labor market needs.

By Sami Aoun and Sari Madi

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