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Arab Pioneers in South-Western Saskatchewan

posted on: Sep 27, 2022

Arab Pioneers in South-Western Saskatchewan

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

From the East they came; men searching for a better life.

Leaving their Syrian villages behind, they landed in New York – the American port of entry where millions of immigrants had once poured into the United States. From there they worked their way westward. Toiling as labourers or peddlers, they moved onward always thinking that over the horizon they would find their El Dorado. When they reached North Dakota and Montana, they heard that the government was handing out virgin prairie land in southwestern Saskatchewan within a 100-mile radius of Swift Current. A fair number of these ambitious men went on to investigate. What their eyes beheld with what they were searching for. Here in a virtually uninhabited land, they found the space and freedom to create the future of their dreams. 

At the beginning of the 1900s, Saskatchewan had just been made into a province. The government sought out immigrants to populate its empty territory. It was an ideal situation for these Arabs of peasant origin. On this land of endless space, they found they could build a life for which they yearned. Acre after acre, more than they had ever known, could be owned by one man: unbelievable to people from an overpopulated land. In this newly opened area one person could possess more acreage than all of the farms owned by perhaps a dozen villagers in their homeland. 

Almost all of these immigrants originated from the Bekaa (Biqāc) in the Ottoman province of Syria – a rich, fertile area, the French were later to detach and hand over to Lebanon, the country they had created from parts of what was then known as Greater Syria. This had been done to give birth to a Christian nation divided from the Arab hinterland which would always remain under their influence. To a large measure the French mandate government succeeded in its plan. Even the Canadian Arab immigrants were eventually affected. The vast majority of the early pioneers in their first years called themselves and were known as Syrians. After the Second World War when new immigrants from what had become Lebanon came to Canada in large numbers, they influenced the thinking of a good number of the descendants of the first migrants. In the ensuing years, these Canadian born Arabs began to propagate their origin as Lebanese. 

Ain Arab, al-Biri and Qaroun, which today still send their sons and daughters in large numbers to the Americas, were the villages where most of these pioneers had their roots. These towns were only a few miles apart – the furthest being less than a day’s walk from the other period hence, some knew each other long before they landed in America. In the succeeding years, this familiarity became, at times, an asset. Due to village affinities, the immigrants of later years tended to associate and help each other in times of crises. 

No sooner had the first settlers begun their new lives, then others from the same villages followed. Rarely did a Syrian immigrant from another town settle among them. Like their ancestors the Bedouins of the Arabian desert whose lives revolved around tribal loyalties, the early immigrants preserved, to some extent, their village connections. With homesteads scattered and many miles apart, this relationship was useful, especially in the limited social world of these early Syrian pioneers. 

Arab Pioneers in South-Western Saskatchewan

The homesteads given to the new immigrants were the bases upon which they started their new lives. Each person was granted a quarter section (160 acres) of virgin land, never before touched by a plow. The only stipulation was that it had to be lived on and cultivated. This had been what the newcomers wanted: land they could work and call their own. 

With great energy they set about cultivating their parcels of land.  By hand, oxen or horse, they began to build their lives in the New World.  Day and evening they worked, at first by themselves and later when they returned to the ‘old country’ and married, with their wives and children.  As long as there was light, they picked rocks, plowed the previously untouched soil and planted their life-subsisting gardens.  At the same time, they built their humble abodes and dug their wells.  Holidays and recreation were virtually unknow to them.  However, their many hours of toil would not be in vain.  In the years to follow their descendants became some of he most prosperous farmers in southern Saskatchewan.

Hardship was no stranger to these early Arab pioneers. Like their ancestors who had lived in the Ottoman province of Syria, they had to struggle for a bare existence. Thus, on their homesteads, the hardship of establishing themselves in a new environment was not an insurmountable task. Rather, they relished the uphill road before them. 

Following the methods used by their fathers, they set about organizing their farms. A number bought a second quarter section of land on which there was usually some shack. Others built their homes with sod, Adobe or any lumber they could afford or find. At the same time as they readied their homes, they began to cultivate the land and prepare large garden plots; The products of which were to be the mainstay of their lives.

In the dry land of southern Saskatchewan, the vegetables of the arid Middle East thrived. Dishes of broad beans, chickpeas and lentils graced the tables of these settlers. Augmenting these legumes, they consumed great quantities of burghul – a cooked, cracked wheat made by Middle Eastern farmers since antiquity. There was no problem in producing the cereal for the hard Saskatchewan wheat was ideally suited for the production of this staple. 

Every homesteader owned at least a few cows. They were, of course, very important to their diets. From the milk they made yogurt – a then unknown food to the rest of the homesteaders. With yogurt and burghul, they produced the food called kishk – the oldest cheese known to man. For meat, an old cow or steer was butchered once a year and a part preserved frozen during the winter in an outside shed. The remainder was used to prepare qawarma for the summer – a way of preserving meat, long practiced in the eastern Arab world. 

When in the Depression years of the 1930s some neighbours found it difficult to feed their families, the farmers of Arab origin had very little problem.  Today, many of the foods on which these early Arab immigrants thrived can be found in Middle Eastern markets of the large Canadian cities.  A number like burghul, chickpeas and lentils have become well-known foods in North America.  However, this was not due to the influence of the Arab pioneers.  They prefer to keep their dishes hidden away in their kitchens, well concealed should an unexpected neighbor arrive. Yet, even if they ate tasty, nourishing foods and were generally healthier than the other settlers, they believed their foods were inferior to those eaten by the farmers of European background. 

Arab Pioneers in South-Western Saskatchewan

Being imbued with this unfortunate attitude, they felt that consuming Arabic food was something to be ashamed of, especially in the midst of their non-Arab neighbours. The days of multiculturalism were yet to be implemented. In their wildest would have been able to visualize their food and ways of life as being equal to the Canadians of European ancestry. This feeling of inferiority was even transmitted to most of their descendants. Thus, rarely did they pass on to other Canadians of non-Arab descent their foods or any other aspect of their culture. 

Unlike the vast majority of Arab immigrants to other parts of North America who were Christians, the ones who settled in southern Saskatchewan were almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Having the same culture, they differed very little in their ways of life. On the other hand, when it came to assimilation, it was another story. 

The Christians, who, on the whole, were better educated than their Muslim brethren, were the products of the Christian missionary schools in Syria. They firmly believed that they were part of the Christian West and tried to assimilate as quickly as possible – not an easy task in those early days of prejudice. Pride in one’s origin did not exist for the Arab Christian pioneers who were the descendants of the first Christians of the world. However, the climate at the beginning of the 1900s was not conducive to assimilation. They found it almost impossible to become thoroughly Canadian or, more appropriately, were not accepted as equals by the society of that era. Thus, their children, having been left with no connection whatsoever to the land of origin of their fathers, had no choice but to reject their past. Even more than the immigrants from the British Isles they wanted to become true Canadians. For them there were no roots of which they could be proud. The only connection some retained was an adherence to the religious sects of their fathers. 

To a much greater extent the Muslim pioneers took pride in their Arab heritage. Even if a considerable number were illiterate or semi-literate, they nevertheless knew orally their Muslim religion and bits and pieces of Arab/Islamic history. In the same fashion as the majority of other ethnic groups, they passed on to their children what they knew of their Arab heritage and hence, imbued in them a feeling of pride in their ancestry and land of origin. The descendants of the first Arab/Muslim immigrants to Canada have tended to preserve and maintain a number of the virtues of the Arabs. Civility, generosity, and hospitality are still to be found, to some extent, among the first- and second-generation descendants of the first Muslim pioneers. There is little doubt that they have contributed in a small way to the Canadian mosaic. For example, a number of neighbours from other ethnic backgrounds who have associated for years with these Canadians of Arab ancestry have taken on some of these Arab virtues. 

As the years passed by the first- and second-generation descendants of the first Arab Christians, in the majority of cases, moved to towns or left for other parts of Canada. On the other hand, many of the Muslims down to the third and fourth generations retained their love for the land and today are prosperous farmers in the country which their fathers had helped to develop. As for their heritage, with the passing decades both Christians and Muslims have become almost totally assimilated. The only connection a few retain with the ‘Old Country’ is memories of Arabic food and residual traits of Arab hospitality and generosity. The vast majority are now intermarried and, I would guess, are not familiar with their origins. Perhaps more than any other ethnic group, they have melted into the Canadian mainstream. For them the multiculturalism of the past decade has no meaning. They have become as truly Canadian as the descendants of the United Empire Loyalists.