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Arabs in the Diaspora--Who are They? Let's Start with Arab Canadians

posted on: Mar 13, 2019

Arabs in the Diaspora--Who are They? Let's Start with Arab Canadians

Arab Canadian Women greeting Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

Arabs living in the Americas comprise a large geographic area—including both North American and South American continents. Canada has a very small, but active population of people identifying as Arabs. In Latin America, the situation is very different. In both South and Central America, Arab peoples have a surprising and significant presence in many of the countries of that continent and subcontinent. In this series, we will look at some of the special places where Arabs live and how they make a difference in the societies where they reside.

Arab-Canadians—‘Canadiens Arabes’

Canada is a binational and bilingual society. Thus English and French-language populations must be represented legally on equal grounds. That is why all public notices must be presented in both English and French. In this context, Arabs from English and French-speaking countries were drawn to their respective parts of the country. Thus, Arabs came to Quebec Province, including the city of Montreal, and other provinces with French-speaking concentrations, from countries where French is spoken, such as Lebanon, Syria and North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. English- speaking Arabs, on the other hand, came from such countries as Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, the Gulf States, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and English-speaking parts of Lebanon and Syria.

Because most Arabs come from warm-climate countries, their attraction to cold climes such as Canada has been limited. In fact, immigrants from the Arab world in Canada are less than 1 million from a total Canadian population of about 37 million. This is a rather small number, less than 1%. (That is about the same percentage as Arabs living in the U.S.) Of that number, not all are primarily Arabic speakers since some come from ethnic groupings such as the  Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, and Turkomans from the Middle East and Berbers from North Africa.

Why They Came

Early waves of Arab immigrants came from Syria and Lebanon in the early 1900s. Most were Christians and they were seeking an escape from poverty and the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Turkish colonial power. Following that wave of about 7,000 immigrants up until World War II, Canada put restrictions on immigration from “Asia.” Syria was counted as if it were part of Asia, which was a stretch of the geographic definition. 

Arabs in the Diaspora--Who are They? Let's Start with Arab Canadians

Muslim Women in Quebec protesting a potential ban on face-covering for those receiving public services

After WWII, more immigrants from the Arab World were admitted, Muslims and Christians alike. Many of them were “pushed” by poor economies and unfavorable political conditions. They were “pulled” by the opportunities of work, citizenship, and political freedom.

In the 1980s and 90s, under the ‘Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,’ also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, many refugees entered Canada from Iraq, Lebanon, and Somalia (the last of whom are Arabs by identity if not ethnicity). Another grouping of Arabs who immigrated to Canada during that same period was investors or entrepreneurs. They came from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. Many of these latter immigrants comprised families that were highly educated.  A recent census described the Arab Canadian population as 44% Muslim; 28% Catholic; 11% Christian Orthodox; 5% Protestant; and 6% as non-religious.

Their Lives

Arab Canadians have mostly settled in urban areas, though they tended not to concentrate in specific neighborhoods. In Quebec Province, they have chosen Montreal and Quebec City to live, while in Ontario Province, Toronto has been their city of choice, followed by Ottawa, the Canadian capital. Arabs living in the vast remainder of Canada’s provinces are sparsely scattered. Their third largest concentration is in Alberta Province in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary.

Since many of the early Arab immigrants were not well educated, they took jobs in labor or as itinerant sellers of small items door to door or in the streets. But like Arabs elsewhere, when opportunities avail themselves, in Canada they have taken advantage of educational and economic opportunities. In fact, Arab Canadian educational achievement is higher than the Canadian average. As a result, Arab Canadians can be found all along the occupational ladder. Some have succeeded politically, as well, noted in a subsequent section.

While Canadian Arabs do not wave their ethnic or cultural flag, they do prize their culture, music and dance, food, and language. Not all Arabs in Canada speak Arabic, but they nevertheless align with the culture. Many of these traditions are preserved in the family and the community. As a sign of their continuity with their country of origin, many often make return visits to renew their ties with the homeland.

Their Place in Canadian Society

Several Canadians of Arab background have played prominent roles in representative politics, including cabinet ministers, senators, and members of the House of Commons. These include individuals from Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Singer Paul Anka is of Syrian-Lebanese descent; rap-hip hop artist Belly, Palestinian; pop singer, Andy Kim, Lebanese; and rapper K. Maro, also Lebanese.  Celine Dion’s manager and husband, Rene Angelil (now deceased) was of Syrian descent.

Arabs in the Diaspora--Who are They? Let's Start with Arab Canadians

Singer Paul Anka is an Arab Canadian whose Parents were Lebanese and Syrian

Hockey players include Ramzi Abid, Tunisian; John Hanna, Lebanese; and Fabian Joseph, also Lebanese.

Author Habeeb Salloum, cookbook author, and travel writer are of Syrian descent. Of Egyptian descent, Mamdouh Shoukri is president of York University and Inanna Sarkis, internet personality, actress and director, is Syrian by descent.

Several associations represent Arab interests in Canada, including the Arab Students’ Association, Canadian Arab Federation, and National Council on Canada-Arab Relations. Among several associations, some are based on religious affiliations (Islamic, Christian). Various diaspora national organizations are based on countries of origin, such as Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Morocco, Iraq, and Egypt.

Wherever Arab peoples have immigrated, they have quite easily integrated into the societies of their new countries. They contribute to the life of their new countries in myriad ways, including business, religious, civic, and cultural. In short, Arab immigrants make a rich contribution to the life of the countries where they settle.


(References: Statistics Canada, “2011 National Household Survey: Data tables,” February 2014; Statistics Canada, “2016 Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity Highlight Tables: Data tables;”  Arab Canadians –The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2008; Ghina Dajani, Canadian Arab Institute, Canadian Arab Demographics in Major Cities, 2014.)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.