Far from the pyramids of Egypt, the warm waters of the Mediterranean on the shores of North Africa, the hot deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the ancient cities of the Middle East, and Yemen, the birthplace of civilization, Arab Canadians are adjusting to Toronto’s frigid winters. In January and February, many members of the city’s Arab community warm themselves with the fires of outdoor barbecues and hot Arab coffee at social gatherings called snow picnics. Others, through societies or organizations, meet once a month to discuss Arab-Canadian economic, political, and cultural issues. Involved in all facets of the cultural, political, and economic life of Toronto, Arab Canadians are making their contributions to the development of the the city’s future.
Throughout the year, social evenings of music and dance called haflahs and participation in various cultural events have become a means of preserving the heritage of Toronto’s Arab community. In addition, Arabic language schools and courses in religious studies flourish in all districts of the city.
Toronto’s Arab-speaking immigrants from 22 countries are represented by diverse coloration and a good number of the world’s religions. Immigration to Canada began with Syrian-Lebanese immigrants who arrived in 1882. Among these pioneers was Salim Shaykh, a Syrian-Lebanese immigrant who became Toronto’s first Arab settler.
An early Syrian enclave formed around St. Patrick’s Church on McCaul Street, the community’s first religious centre. At the turn of the century, St. Vincent de Paul Hall on Shuter Street became the unofficial Syrian church. In the neighbourhood surrounding the hall, Arab businesses, such as confectionery shops and grocery stores, and, later on, clothing factories, flourished and the area became known as “Little Syria.”
In 1913, the Melkites (Byzantine rite Catholics) bought a property on Jarvis Street and formed Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, while the Maronites worshipped at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. In the 1930s, youth groups, ratepayers associations, and political and cultural organizations were formed.
Immigration remained slow until the end of the Second World War, when immigrants began arriving from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. These post-war newcomers included a broader mix of religious, social, and cultural groups and included an educated and financially secure core who formed numerous organizations according to the ideology, religious sect, or nationalism of the state from which each hailed. The largest post-war group, the Egyptians, established the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1965, while Assyrian-speaking people from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon established two Eastern Apostolic churches in the city. Today, half of Arab-Canadians are of Syrian-Lebanese origin, a quarter are Egyptian and Palestinian, and the rest are from other Arab states. In the past few decades, events in the Arab world such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, civil wars in Somalia and Lebanon, and more recently the conflict in the Gulf have forced many Arabs to immigrate to Canada in ever increasing numbers. Today, Canada is home to about 400,000 Arab Canadians. Of these, nearly half reside in Ontario, with the majority living in and around Toronto.
The great majority of Arabs are Muslim, but there is also a sizable group of Christian Arabs who belong to a variety of denominations. Though there is no exclusive Arab mosque, there are 18 houses of worship which serve the Muslim community and many other churches that cater to constituents from all the Arab Middle East and other lands.
Several Arab social, cultural, and political organizations have emerged, representing various national groups of the Arab community. In 1960, the Canadian Arab Friendship Society was organized to promote social, cultural, and educational interests such as multicultural events, conferences, special lectures, and special briefs concerning educational curricula about the Arabs. The society helped raise money for the establishment of the Arab Community Centre of Toronto (ACCT) in 1972, which assists newcomers in acclimatizing to life in Canada.
The Arab influx continued in the 1980s with the arrival of Somalis in the wake of the strife in Somalia. Their numbers have increased dramatically from the early 1980s. Please note that almost all Somalis are Muslims. In the 1990s Arab immigrants, specifically Iraqis, also made their way to Canada. Others, too, came from the Arabian Gulf area as it degenerated and became a hotbed of political turmoil and strife. These immigrants again were predominantly Muslim.
The Canadian-Arab Federation, established in 1967, is a national organization which represents Arab-Canadian societies throughout Canada. In 1993, Educational Advising Services, an educational consulting service specifically created to assist visa students, primarily from the Arab world, was established. This agency serves the needs of post-secondary students from the Arab world who have made or intend to make Toronto their home.
Some members of the Arab community celebrate their former Homeland’s national day along with a series of religious holidays. Religious events include, for example for Muslims, Ramadan, a month of fasting, when Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, sex, smoking and cursing from sunrise to sunset. During Ramadan (even more than during the rest of the year), Muslims cultivate their moderation, willpower, patience and unselfishness. The month of Ramadan originates in people the real spirit of social belonging, of caring for the less fortunate, and of equality before God. Also, the month of Ramadan is a happy time for most Muslims, as family and friends gather around at sunset to break their fast together. On the first day of the lunar month after Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr (the festival of the breaking of the fast) is celebrated.
EID AL-ADHA (THE FESTIVAL OF SACRIFICE) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world over a period of three days. Each of the Eid days begins with prayers (Salat) and is spent in alms-giving, visiting friends and relatives, and exchanging greetings and gifts. Eid Al-Adha celebrates the completion of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, and represents to Muslims immense spiritual and emotional significance.
EID AL-FITR (THE FESTIVAL OF THE BREAKING). A religious celebration is observed on the day following the last day of fasting (Ramadan).
THE FEAST OF ST. MARON celebrated on February 9, honours the patron saint of Maronite Christians.
THE DAY OF THE LAND, celebrated on March 30, represents the commitment of Palestinians to hold on to their lands in Occupied Palestine. Lectures and discussions about Palestine are held on this day.
NEW YEAR’S DAY is celebrated by Assyrians in early April with a weekend of cultural and social festivities.
ST. MARK’S DAY is celebrated on May 8, with commemorative church services held in honour of the patron saint of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
THE FEAST OF ST. PETER AND ST. PAUL on June 29, is celebrated by the Antiochian Orthodox community to commemorate the two founders of the Church of Antioch. Church services are held on this date.
COPTIC NEW YEAR begins on September 11, and is celebrated with a Divine Liturgy. The colour red is found throughout the church and in homes red dates are eaten in memory of the church martyrs.
DECLARATION OF THE PALESTINIAN STATE is celebrated on November 15. Celebrations are marked by lectures and discussions about Palestine.
ARAB HERITAGE DAY, held on November 21, is a celebration of the Arab community in Canada. A reception, with speeches followed by a dance, is sponsored by the Canadian Arab Federation.
KAN YA MAKAN, CKLN Ryerson Radio (88.1 FM, Tue. 8–10 PM), (Tel. 416-595-1477), contact: Manager: Mike Philip.
ARAB NEWS INTERNATIONAL, (Tel. 416-362-0304, Fax 416-861-0238, www.arabnews.ca, 368 Queen St. E), Middle East Consultants. Publisher: Sal Allam.
ARAB NEWS OF TORONTO, (Tel. 416-362-0304, 368 Queen St. E). Publisher: Frank Ahmad.
LISAN AL-ARAB (ARAB NEWS OF TORONTO), (Tel. 416-231-7746, 555 Burnhamthorpe Rd. Suite 209), Published by the Arab Community Centre of Toronto. Contact: Laila Bondugjie.
THE NECEF REPORT (NEWSLETTER), (Tel. 416-301-5019, Fax 416-483-5732, 20 Bloor St. E. P.O. Box 73090), Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada.(106 Duplex Ave), Publisher: Jonnes Graff.
MIDDLE EAST REPORT, (Tel. 416-362-0304, 368 Queen St. E).
ARAB COMMUNITY CENTRE OF TORONTO, (Tel. 416-231-7746, 555 Burnhamthorpe Rd). Established in 1972, provides social, cultural, recreational and educational programs and publishes a newsletter in Arabic and English.
ARABESQUE ACADEMY, (Tel. 416-920-5593, 1 Gloucester St., Suite 107), teaches Middle Eastern dance and music. President: Yasmina Ramzy.
ASSYRIAN COMMUNITY OF CANADA WELFARE COMMITTEE, (Tel. 416-741-8836, 964 Albion Rd., Suite 102, Rexdale). President: M. Shmoil.
ASSYRIAN SOCIETY OF CANADA, (Tel. 905-624-0636, www.assyriansocietycanada.org, 1150 Crestlawn Dr., Mississauga). Annual events such as evenings of entertainment featuring traditional music and dance are held in the club hall. President: Nano Ganja.
CANADIAN ARAB FEDERATION, (Tel. 416-493-8635, Fax 416-493-9239, www.caf.ca, 1057 McNicoll Ave). Acts as the official voice of the community, coordinates activities of Arab organizations in Canada, and arranges annually for a national convention of members. Also publishes a weekly e-bulletin. Executive Director: Audrey Jamal.
DRUZE SOCIETY, (Tel. 416-439-3976, 898 Markham Rd).
PALESTINE HOUSE, (Tel. 905-270-3622, 3195 Erindale Station Rd., Mississauga).
EGYPTIAN CANADIAN CLUB, (Tel. 416-410-0763, 31 Snowball Cres). President: Sam Mina
NILE ASSOCIATION OF ONTARIO, (Tel. 905-842-8333, www.nileclub.org, 1293 McCraney St. E., Oakville). Contact: Mahmoud El Farnawani, President.
AL-HUDA CENTRE & LEBANESE MUSLIM SOCIETY. (Tel. 416-446-0935, Fax 416-446-0931, www.hlms.com, 10 Codeco Court, Don Mills). Contact: Khaled Kefel.
ARAB HERITAGE CENTRE. (Tel. 416-493-8635, 1057 McNicoll Ave), Contact: Khaled Homaidan.
ARAB CANADIAN MEDIA ASSOCIATION. (Tel. 416-493-8635, 1057 McNicoll Ave) Contact: Kamal Al Gindy.
IRAQI CANADIAN SOCIETY OF ONTARIO. (Tel. 416-494-1435, www.icsociety.org, 1057 McNicoll Ave), lower level.
CANADIAN ARABIC MEDICAL ASSOCIATION. (Tel. 416-962-5545, 1366 Yonge St., #306). President: Dr. A. Elzawi (MD FRCPC ABIM).