Montréal à la Libanaise

Lebanese immigrants make Canada their home away from home

text by David Sheehan
photographs by Cody Christopulos

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You will find them bowed in churches, whispering praise to “Allah” (God).

You will find them animated in cafes and bars, smoking water pipes and exclaiming “haram” (it’s a shame) over the latest injustice in the Holy Land or some bad call during a European soccer match.

You will find them seated in restaurants before plates of lamb sausages and salads, pounding their fists on tables and crying “mish maouleh” (impossible) in response to some devilishly tall tale.

You will find them frenzied near altars, elbowing their way to capture the perfect photograph of a loved one exchanging marriage vows and begging “lazza choue” (pardon me).

You will find them bellies bared in dance clubs, twisting their torsos and asking “in jeid?” (really) over the reported affection of some member of the opposite sex.

They are everywhere. They are Lebanese and they have found a home in Montréal.

That the most distinct people of the Middle East have found refuge and new life in the most distinct of Canada’s great cities should come as no surprise. The urbane, gregarious and multilingual Lebanese seem a natural fit for Québec’s cosmopolitan center, whose denizens fiercely protect their Francophone patrimony.

The Lebanese first arrived in Canada some 120 years ago. Since then, more than 250,000 have followed, with more than half settling in Montréal.

The first among them came as peddlers and merchants seeking fortune and a quick return home. They, along with others, would meet Canada’s need for people to tap the country’s natural resources, work in its factories and populate the vast frontier.

Subjects of an Ottoman Empire beset by the colonial ambitions of the Great Powers, the Lebanese saw Canada as a refuge from political instability and religious persecution in their homeland. They numbered four in 1883, an estimated 7,000 by 1911.

Such statistics, however, are not precise. Though most of these immigrants hailed from what is now Lebanese territory, the Canadian government first classified them as Syrian (Lebanon did not exist as a modern political entity until 1926) and then Syrian-Lebanese before eventually distinguishing between the two.

World wars and a global economic crisis, coupled with restrictive immigration policies, brought their inflow to a halt for 40 years, but the Lebanese did not stagnate or lose contact with their ancestral home.

Instead, they created vibrant religious, social and cultural institutions to secure their place in Canada’s diverse national landscape and keep alive a deep connection to their heritage.

An estimated 90 percent of all pre-World War II Lebanese immigrants to Canada were Christians – chiefly Orthodox, Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholics. At first, these religious communities consisted of little more than a roving priest shepherding a dispersed flock. As the communities and their needs grew, however, churches were established and became centers of community life.

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Tags: Lebanon Emigration Canada Immigration Diversity