We Have Always Been Here
Insights into Arab Canadians
Arab Canadians have resided on this land for over a century.
As one of the largest growing visible minority groups, Arabs represent a diverse group of communities from nearly 22 countries, some that have migrated as skilled workers in recent decades, and others that set foot in Canada as early as 1907. Today, the Arab Canadian experience has been punctuated by refugee crises, unemployment, and misrepresentation in the media. The stories of Canadians Arabs have yet to be narrated, and their contributions to Canadian society remain vastly ignored.
The history of Arabs in Canada follows migratory chronicles of resistance and strength from the late 19th century. In 1882, the first Arab immigrants to Canada were of Lebanese and Syrian origin. The majority of immigrants were Christians seeking asylum as a result of oppressive colonial regimes during the Ottoman Empire. After World War II, more Muslim and Druze immigrants began to migrate to Canada in search of a better quality of life after a series of civil wars and political unrest. Settlement patterns were predominantly shaped in Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta. Currently, Arabs of Lebanese origin make up the highest numbers of the Arab population in Canada, followed by people of Moroccan, Egyptian, and Syrian origin.
The Beginning of Arab Migration
One of the most distinguished Arab Canadian academic figures, Professor Emeritus Henry Habib, describes the beginnings of Arab migration into Canada as being centered around the church as a communal center for the community. The first wave of migrants mainly stayed in Montreal as it was the most economically advanced city in the country during that time. With a long French colonial history, Arabs were able to integrate into French-speaking neighborhoods. Some early Arab Canadian families chose to migrate to the maritime provinces, namely Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where Arab Canadian political families became more involved in provincial and city politics. The Butlers, that changed their Arab native names to Anglo-Saxon names, served as mayors of Halifax for nearly two generations. In Prince Edward Island, Joe Ghiz also earned the title of Premier of the province from 1986 to 1993.
Arabs continued to take leadership roles within the Canadian government in later years with figures such as Marc Harb, who served in the Liberal government from 1988 to 2004, and Edie Francis, the youngest ever mayor of Windsor who served in office from 2003 to 2014. Today, Arabs such as Omar Algharba, Djaouida Sellah, and Tareq Brahmi serve as MPs and members of the House of Commons, respectively. As one of the largest rising voting blocks in Canada, Arabs are still largely underrepresented in the federal Canadian government, both in the Senate and the House of Commons.
Arabs have always been here, but why hasn’t that translated into policy?
Identifying as Arab in Canada carries complex intersectional identities and nuanced experiences that cannot be reduced to a homogeneity. Yet, demographically, Arabs are grouped by virtue of common ancestry and culture as a visible minority group in Canada, comparable to other visible minorities such as the South Asian, Caribbean, Asian, and Latin American communities. Unlike the United States Census, the Canadian Census has categorized Arabs as a distinct ethnic group, allowing for more race-based data to be collected on the status of Arab Canadians in this country. To some, identifying as Arab Canadian may be a badge of honor, while for others it may be coupled with collective trauma. For most, it provides community networks for education, employment, and social relationships that keep the vibrancy of the community alive and active.
Nevertheless, structural issues experienced by Arabs go beyond the traumatic experiences from their past and permeate into the labor market. Arabs have statistically faced obstacles in the workforce despite their highly educated population. Reports by the Canadian Arab Institute in conjunction with Statistics Canada show that nearly 61% of Arabs in Canada have postsecondary degrees, certificates, and diplomas, but the unemployment rate amongst the community stands at a whopping 13.5%, more than double the national average. This sheds light on an important barrier in Canadian immigration; not recognizing foreign degrees and qualifications as valuable in Canadian society, leaving thousands of Arabs without jobs, barely staying afloat, as they possess the third lowest employment income out of all major visible minorities in the country.
Similarly, Canadian media has also heavily contributed to the construction of harmful images of Arabs that represents them as terrorists or individuals that are either to be ridiculed or feared. In Jenna Hennebry and Bessma Momani’s book Targeted Transnationals: The State, the Media and Arab Canadians, they postulate that Arab-Canadians became “targeted transnationals” in a post 9/11 world, as discriminatory security measures directed towards Arabs began to become more and more common. The framing of Arabs as targeted transnationals within media coverage continues to promulgate the notion that the Arab Canadian community is monolithic and prone to extremist ideology. The promotion of authentic Arab stories, produced, written, and led by the Arab Canadian community is essential to resisting these stereotypes, and offering new perspectives that encapsulate the many realities of what it is like to be an Arab in Canada.
It is time that Arabs reclaim the narrative that has been constantly ripped away from the community. Just as Arabs have resided on this land for centuries, they will continue to exist and thrive in Canada for centuries more. However, it starts with a state held recognition of Arab contributions to this country, and ample representation in all areas of policy to account for the needs of the growing Arab visible minority group.
Meet Janine Alhadidi
Janine Alhadidi is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, majoring in Political Science and Diaspora and Transnational Studies.
Born and raised in Jordan, Janine immigrated to Canada four years ago and currently works as a policy analyst at the Canadian Arab Institute. Janine is proud to be a fellow at the Mosaic Institute’s UofMosaic Fellowship Program, where she has moderated events, conducted research, and collaborated with other students on critical issues pertaining to Canada's multicultural landscape. The Op-ed Janine has written chronicles Arab contribution to Canadian society over the years. She takes a close look at Arab immigration stories in Canada and their representation within Canadian media.
Over the course of the fellowship, Janine has enhanced her research skills and communication skills that have materialized in this Op-ed piece. As an Arab Canadian herself, Janine hopes that this op-ed illuminates readers' interest in learning more about the Arab-Canadian community.