Halifax celebrates 130 years of Lebanese immigration

Even in Canada, where cultural diversity has traditionally been celebrated, the attitude towards immigration is cooling.
Sunday 07/10/2018
A gift to the city. A statue portrays a Lebanese traveller in traditional clothes to commemorate Lebanese immigrants in Halifax. (Lebanity)
A gift to the city. A statue portrays a Lebanese traveller in traditional clothes to commemorate Lebanese immigrants in Halifax. (Lebanity)

In these turbulent times, when it seems that many people and governments in the Western world are expressing anti-immigrant sentiments, there are moments that celebrate cultural diversity.

In late September on the waterfront of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Lebanese community and its many friends and supporters, unveiled a statue honouring more than a century of Lebanese immigration to the Canadian city. The statue, which features a young man in traditional Lebanese clothing, faces away from Halifax Harbour as if he has just arrived to begin a new life.

A plaque on the statue reads: “This monument is a universal symbol of a proud, strong and globally united Lebanese community. The statue honours the early Lebanese settlers who, 130 years ago, established a presence in this country, sewing the bonds of loyalty, faith and perseverance. We are thankful to our Nova Scotia community and for the enduring friendships built in our new home, Canada.”

“In a time when the politics of division is on the rise and the topic of immigration is being politicised for political gain, this monument and the community behind it is an irrefutable testament to the importance of immigration to our country,” Wadih Fares, the honorary consul of Lebanon for the Maritime provinces, said at the unveiling.

“This piece of public art is a gift from us to our city, which we love and are blessed to call home.”

To understand the importance of the Lebanese community in Halifax and in the larger Canadian context, one must consider the role the port city has played in the lives of immigrants. The first Lebanese immigrants to Halifax arrived in 1884, a vanguard of Lebanese settlers who came through the early part of the 20th century.

Many in the first wave arrived in ships, which docked at Pier 21. In its heyday, Pier 21, which is known as Canada’s Ellis Island, saw the arrival of thousands of immigrants from all over the world. After a long sea voyage, many chose to remain in the city and develop new communities.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when the civil war in Lebanon was intense, Halifax saw a second wave of Lebanese immigrants. Many of those refugees already had family connections in the city.

Many immigrants who went through Halifax prospered. Canadians of Lebanese descent are among the most important developers in the city. About 3.5% of the city’s population of about 300,000 traces its roots to Lebanon. That’s approximately 2% higher than the Canadian average. Overall an estimated 250,000 people in Canada are of Lebanese descent, with 62,000 living in Montreal.

As for Halifax, English is the predominant language but Arabic vies with French as the city’s second language. The city has two Muslim schools: the Maritime Muslim Academy and the Ihsan Academy.

Nova Scotia’s welcome goes beyond Halifax. In the past few years, it has drawn Syrians fleeing the war, some of whom have started to contribute to the community. There is the Syrian family that settled in Antigonish in northern Nova Scotia and has built a chocolate business. From humble beginnings in a shack built by neighbours, the family has a factory that employs locals.

That said, even in Canada, where cultural diversity has traditionally been celebrated, the attitude towards immigration is cooling. The recent election of more conservative, sometimes openly xenophobic governments in the largest Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec alarmed many immigrant communities. At the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been forced to lower expectations of increased immigration under parliamentary pressure from a decidedly right-wing and anti-immigrant conservative opposition.

Even so, there are moments like the one on the Halifax waterfront that show the role immigrants play in Canada. Approximately 20% of Canadians are immigrants but this is a time of flux. The number of Canadians of European descent is declining and the country looks to immigrants to help sustain its vast array of social programmes.

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