Arab Canadians | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Arab Canadians

Arabs, or more specifically, Syrian-Lebanese immigrants, began to arrive in Canada in small numbers in 1882. Their immigration was relatively limited until 1945, after which time it increased progressively, particularly in the 1960s and thereafter.

Arabs, or more specifically, Syrian-Lebanese immigrants, began to arrive in Canada in small numbers in 1882. Their immigration was relatively limited until 1945, after which time it increased progressively, particularly in the 1960s and thereafter. The designation of Arab in the census can be unclear because it can refer to a geographic region, an ethnic group or a language group and the Arab classification includes people who are not included elsewhere. In 2006 there were 86 135 Canadians who claimed Arab origin and 31 375 who claimed Syrian origin.


The Arab world extends from the Arabian Gulf through North Africa to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a region diverse in physical geography, climate and natural resources, but its inhabitants share cultural traditions and the Arabic language.

The early wave of Arab immigrants originated from Syria and what is now known as Lebanon. More than 90% were Christians seeking freedom from poverty and the Ottoman (Turkish) colonial regime. The post-WWII wave of Arab immigrants comprised a broader mixture of Christian groups and a substantial number of Muslims and Druzes who were motivated by the desire to escape unfavourable social, economic and political conditions in their homelands.

In the 1980s and the early 1990s a large number of Convention Refugees arrived from countries of the Arab world (1983-1992: 24 813), notably Somalia, Lebanon and Iraq. During the same 10-year period, 1983-1992, a total of 13 379 investors/entrepreneurs came largely from Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but with strong representation from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria.

The 2 waves of immigrants came from markedly different social and political contexts - the early immigrants from an economically less-developed Arab world colonized by the Ottoman Turks, the postwar immigrants from a decolonized Arab world undergoing rapid socioeconomic development and political upheaval, as evidenced by the prevalence of refugees in the closing decades of this century. These differences are expressed through different world views, attitudes and behaviour.


By 1901 Canada had about 2000 Syrian immigrants, by 1911 about 7000. For the next 40 years relatively few Syrian immigrants were admitted to Canada because of severe restrictions on the admission of immigrants from Asia (see Prejudice and Discrimination), but between 1946 and 1992 over 200 000 immigrants to Canada originated from the Arab world. In the post-WWII period, the numbers of landings were initially small but they increased substantially over time. For example, the average number of Arab immigrants per year was 150 for the period 1946-1955; 446 for the period 1956-1960; 2884 for the period 1961-1970; 3986 for the period 1971-1980; 8319 for the period 1981-1990; and 24 615 immigrants per year for the 2-year period 1991-1992.

The substantial growth in Arab immigration to Canada in the postwar period has radically altered the demographics of the Arab-Canadian community. This is most apparent in the predominance of the immigrant (ie, foreign-born) population in this ethnic community, which accounts for about 75% of the total (compared to 16% foreign-born in the Canadian population at large).

According to the 2006 census, the Arab ethnic population numbered almost 350 000 people of which 71 705 described their ethnic origin as Arab. Large Arab immigrant group include people from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Algeria, Kuwait, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and United Arab Emirates. Smaller numbers of Arab immigrants originated from Bahrain, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar and Yemen. Many of these Arab immigrants arrived as highly educated married couples with children.

The label "Arab Canadian" does not refer to one religious affiliation or country of origin but to a mixture of characteristics and beliefs that members of this ethnic group have assimilated from their family or have acquired in Canada. Of the people who described themselves as Arab in the 2006 census, 44% were Muslims, 28% were Catholic, 11% were Christian Orthodox; 5% were Protestant; and 6% had no religious affiliation.

At present about 49% of the Arab ethnic group in Canada are of Lebanese origin; 13% are of Egyptian origin; 6% are of Maghrebi origin; 5% are of Syrian origin; 5% are of Somali origin; 3% are of Palestinian origin and 2% are of Iraqi origin. The balance (about 17%) are recorded in the Canadian census as "Arab," with no specific reference to a country of origin. In terms of religious affiliation, about 40% are Muslims; 29% are Catholic; 20% are Eastern Orthodox; 9% are Protestant; and the balance of 2% is made up largely of individuals who claim no religious affiliation.

Settlement Patterns

Canadians of Arab origin have tended to settle in urban areas but not in neighbourhood concentrations. Since the turn of the century, Québec and Ontario have consistently attracted the majority of Arab immigrants; 83% of Arab Canadians are located in these 2 provinces. In Québec the heaviest concentration of Arab Canadians is in metropolitan Montréal; in Ontario, they are to be found largely in Toronto and vicinity, but also in Ottawa, Windsor, London and Hamilton. The Arab population in Alberta ranks third among the provinces and the largest concentration are located in Edmonton and Calgary. The Arab communities of BC (largely in Vancouver) and Nova Scotia (largely in Halifax) rank fourth and fifth respectively.

Economic Life

Many of the early Syrian immigrants entered the labour force through pedlary, an independent but relatively low-status occupation. Through hard work, frugality and reciprocal support, the economic fortunes of pedlars often rose and they expanded their entrepreneurial activities. The postwar immigrants, however, arrived with higher average educational and occupational qualifications, the majority of them planning to follow professional and other white-collar careers.

Religion and Community Life

Both the early and postwar immigrants were involved in institution building, particularly religious institutions. At the beginning of this century, several Eastern Christian churches were founded: Antiochian Orthodox, Melkite (Catholic) and Maronite (Catholic). The Coptic Orthodox Church was established in 1965, following the arrival of large numbers of Coptic immigrants from Egypt.

Muslim institutions developed more slowly, because of the initially small size and dispersal of this religious group. The first mosque in Canada, Al Rashid Mosque, was built in Edmonton in 1938. Since the 1950s Muslim immigrants from the Arab world, and from other parts of the Muslim world, came to Canada in large numbers and mosques have been established in virtually all major urban centres.

Secular associations were also established by both the early pioneers and later immigrants to serve social, cultural, charitable and political needs. Memberships are usually mixed; in a few cases they are confined to youth, women, university students or professionals. Some national groups - eg, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Maghrebis - have established their own distinct associations. Only the Canadian Arab Federation is national in scope and membership. Several Arab Canadian associations have sponsored the publication of multilanguage (Arabic, English and French) periodicals; some newspapers are published by individual Canadian Arabs.


Arab immigrants value education highly, both for themselves and for their children. Except for "Saturday" Arabic-language schools, they have not established their own community-based schools. The educational attainment of Arab Canadians is higher than the Canadian average. For example, in 1991, 23% of Arab-origin Canadians had a university degree compared to 11% for the Canadian population; 14% attended university; 18% received trades and other nonuniversity training; 15% had high school certificates and 29% completed grade 13 or less. Arab Canadians are to be found at all levels of the occupational hierarchy and some have achieved renown in their respective fields.


No particular political ideology or political party is dominant among Arab Canadians. They are involved in the political process at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Arab ethnicity has not been a prominent feature of their political involvement in Canada, except in pressure-group politics involving their social status in Canada or Canada's Middle East policy.

Group Maintenance

Arab immigrants have had to learn a new language, establish new social networks, integrate themselves into the economic system, learn new cultural norms and values and discard some of the ways of the country of origin. The Canadian-born generations have naturally been even further assimilated into Canadian society. At the same time, however, a moderate degree of institutional development within the Arab ethnic group reflects a tendency towards preserving ethnic traditions. Maintaining the Arabic language, for example, is important, and the family and the community language school helped this process with varying degrees of success. In the last 50 years cultural preservation has been facilitated by the steady inflow of immigrants from the Arab world.

Whether or not an Arab Canadian knows Arabic, links with the ancestral heritage can be and have been maintained through Arabic food, music, dances, mass-media exposure, visits to the "old country" and correspondence with friends and relatives left behind. Generally, the immigrant generation is more likely to maintain links with the cultural heritage than its Canadian-born counterpart, but although many Canadians of Arabic origin have probably lost contact with the past, the majority are aware and proud of their ethnic origins.

See also Islam.

Further Reading

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