Friday, July 2, 2010

Canada at 143 years young: The Presence of Saudis, Arabs, and Muslims

Today we are 143 plus a day. The previous post, Happy Birthday Canada!: From Colony to Constitutional Monarchy--A Model for MENA? Saudi?, gives a brief history and more on our Queen's visit. This one focuses more specifically on the history of Arab, Muslim, and Saudi immigration to Canada, and the contemporary presence of all three in Canada. For more on Canada-Saudi relations see the posts, Saudi/Canada Relations: Friends, Business Partners, and More, and G-20 Summit 2010 Toronto: Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, and Young Saudi Delegates.

First, some photos from our birthday party:

"During my lifetime, I have been a witness to this country for more than half its history since Confederation. I have watched with enormous admiration how Canada has grown and matured while remaining true to its history, its distinctive character and its values.""This nation has dedicated itself to being a caring home for its own, a sanctuary for others and an example to the world."--Queen Elizabeth II

I won't spoil the party by pointing out the politics of sending the Queen's representative Governor General Michaëlle Jean to Shanghai and the Canadian Pavillion of the Shanghai Exposition 2010 while the Queen was visiting Canada; or that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plans for a new Governor General come the fall have been the topic of speculation in the days prior to the Queen's visit. The Prime Minister recommends the choice of Governor General, whom the Queen appoints. Vicereine Michaëlle Jean, a Canadian born and raised partly in Haiti, who came to Canada as a refugee age 11, a dual French citizen courtesy of her husband, filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, and one who leans so far left as to have had Quebec separatist affiliations in the past, is the bilingual journalist, filmmaker, and broadcaster recommended for appointment by then Prime Minister Paul Martin (Liberal). She will become the "Special Envoy to Haiti for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, with an aim to fight poverty and illiteracy and raise international funds", after her September resignation as Governor General.

Arabs in Canada

An article in the Canadian Encyclopedia online, Arabs, by Baha Abu-Laban, actually summarizes well much of what I wanted to say about the history and contemporary profile of Arabs in Canada. Its findings concur with those I have read in other reliable sources, and they are well organized. Also there are further worthwhile resources at the end, both references and links. I would like to emphasize certain points, and add to them.

Recorded Arab immigration to Canada in significant numbers began in 1882 with Syrian-Lebanese citizens, most of whom were Christian, poor, uneducated, and part of the great wave of immigration around the turn of the century which is part of the history of Canada and the USA. Both countries at the time needed labour, and while services for integrating immigrants were minimal then, immigrants coped among themselves with the aid of family, community, and religious organizations.

Many of these Arab immigrants were fleeing conflicts of the break up of the Ottoman Empire. Most were seeking a better economic life. Their pattern of immigration to Canada, settlement, integration and assimilation over generations resembles that of the other immigrant groups of the time: Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans. It also resembles that of Asians, in that they were included among the restrictions applied to Asian immigrants beginning early in the 20th century and increasingly up until restrictions were more broad during the Great Depression. This means that their total numbers were lower than those of analogous European groups.

As with other immigrant groups, a second wave occurred after WWII, at first slowly but in increasing numbers since. Not mentioned in the article is the impact on this of the various wars of decolonization in Arab lands, and later civil wars. The latter is particularly true of certain countries included in "Arab", Somalia, and Sudan. The former is true of many others, which are now MENA countries. Also not mentioned are religious tensions in some countries which have led those who were able to seek more stable situations in Canada. Immigrants here seems to include refugees who are most often fleeing civil unrest whether religious or political or both, as well as economic risk.

The article does point out that there is a demographic distinction between these 2 waves of immigration in terms of original socio-economic status, education, and skill level. The newer group are for the most part highly educated, often professionals, and arrive as established families, whereas most commonly in the past young single men would arrive en masse and then go home to marry and bring back a wife; or husbands would come, live in rooming houses with other immigrant men (often family, friends, or villagers) or in work camps, save, and send for wife and children about a year later. Some would save and return home, and then either establish themselves there, or failing that return to Canada or the US.

Current immigrants also leave, either to return home, or to go to a third country with better opportunities. They are often disappointed, rightfully, that there are poor systems for recognizing professional accreditation, and integrating them into their professions here. They often have trouble finding positions as good as the ones they had in their home countries, and find that their degrees don't draw the respect they are accustomed to, that being a doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor or other professional doesn't hold the social cache that it does at home. They miss family supports, community, and any number of aspects of life in their home countries which for them was rather good. Or, they spend about 10 years qualifying and re-establishing themselves here, and then seek a better opportunity elsewhere.

However, not all in this new wave of immigrants are highly educated from high socio-economic backgrounds. Many are much less well qualified and educated, some are those who were internally displaced and poor in their own home countries and find themselves living on the margins of Canadian society too. Public education and health care do allow their children to make much better lives, however.

Overall, though, Arabs in Canada are much better educated than the Canadian average, are more likely to be high earning professionals. multi-lingual and to integrate well. They are a diverse group based on country of origin, time in Canada, religion, and geographical spread. Most are in urban centres, and local community support groups have formed, based on similar country of origin, religion, or newness to Canada (75% were born outside the country). They have contributed to changing the demographic of certain cities, notably Toronto and region, Montreal, and Ottawa, but also other cities in Southern Ontario.

The only national organization of Arabs in Canada is the Canadian Arab Federation, which federates a number of local organizations, as well as providing leadership in protecting Arab interests in Canada, including security, representation (including the importance of the Arab vote, a guide to elections), Canadian-Arab relations and perceptions and freedom from discrimination; and services around immigration, integration, and communal needs. At times their stance is highly politicized, or represented as such in the media, but the services to Arab Canadians and new immigrants are ongoing and apolitical.

Muslims in Canada

The Canadian Encyclopedia similarly provides an excellent overview of Islam, the history of Muslims in Canada, and a portrait of contemporary demographics and issues in the article Islam, by Yvonne Y Haddad. Just after Confederation (1861), in the 1867 census there were 13 Muslims in Canada. In the most recent census, 2006, there were 783,700, or 2.5% of the total population, and that up from 579,740, or 1.9% of the population. The vast majority are born Muslims, with a very small number of converts. Most arrived through immigration, the bulk of that post-WWII. As well as the Middle East, whether Arab, Iranians, or Turkish, Muslim Canadians are from all over the ummah, reflecting upheaval in their home countries (Albania, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, East Africa), or for more economic reasons, for example from Bangladesh or Yemen. Muslims from francophone countries (Morocco and Algeria primarily) have immigrated mainly to Montreal first, and then from there across the country. Most Muslim Canadians are Sunni, and the most prominent group among the Shia are Ismaili. The Ahmadiyya have found refuge in Canada as well

A change in immigration laws in the 1970's making it easier for non-Europeans to immigrate to Canada had a major impact on Muslim immigration. in 1971 there were 33,000 Muslims in Canada, 98,000 in 1981, and in 1991 254,265. Ten years later, in 2001, there were 579,000. Most immigrant Muslims, like most immigrants settled in the Greater Toronto Region, with other major centres in Montreal and Vancouver. Also as a reflection of immigration policy, there are 2 main demographics, the highly educated, already high socio-economic class, and the refugees often from poor backgrounds initially, and internally displaced within their own countries.

The main challenges for Muslim immigrants to Canada are similar to those of all immigrants: re-establishing a job, career, financial base, language acquisition and educational upgrading, and cultural differences, for example in the availability of halah food, especially outside of major centres, the celebration of the Eids, and the building of community organizations and places of worship. As in a recent CBC segment on the building of a mosque in Northern BC, in Prince George, a sense of community around the mosque, the ability to have a place of worship, and to create social services from the mosque, much as is done through churches, can be a major factor in retaining Muslims who immigrate to Canada as professionals and have high mobility, whether in a particular locale or in the country.

Generally Muslims, while facing some discrimination in Canada (17% of hate crimes are directed against Muslims), are better received and better accepted than those in Europe. There is not the same feeling of a threat to Western civilization by their presence with a few exceptions. One was the proposed introduction of Sharia family law in Ontario as an option for Muslims, which Muslims themselves successfully fought against and the other is the wearing of the niqab, which has become a political focus in Quebec, probably the province most sensitive to cultural identity issues, and in the courts in Ontario.

Muslims have formed a number of groups acting on behalf of the community, and with differing political leanings as well as interpretations within Islam. Most are broadly based like the Muslim Canadian Congress, ISNA-Canada, CAIR-Can, or the Muslims Students Association (MSA) at Canadian universities, while some are for a very specific community, the Ahmadiyya associations, for example. Muslims also figure prominently within their own ethnic community associations. As more are second and third generation Canadians they are taking on a higher profile in mainstream culture whether specifically around Muslim, ethnic, and immigration issues or not.

Saudis in Canada

The Saudi Embassy in Ottawa, Architect Canadian Arthur Erickson

Many of the Arabs and Muslims of a variety of backgrounds arrive in Canada after working and building a nest egg in Saudi Arabia. Some arrive as professionals, others as "business" or "investor" class immigrants. However, on arrival they may well be disappointed in the need to rebuild their lives, careers, and businesses, and do so in a country not organized around Muslim life as in Saudi. An article in the Saudi Gazette, Expats weigh in on 'Destination Canada’ By Fouzia Khan, addresses the issue directly. It is important to remember that this is the fate of many recent immigrants since immigration law was dramatically changed in the 1990's to favour those with higher education and language skills over the labourers, farmers, and tradesmen favoured previously. While immigration in mid-life has particular challenges anyway, because of family obligations, decreased adaptability, and more difficulty in being hired, as for any mid-life jobseeker, for professionals this often results in an irreparable career disruption as is described in the article.

I must add that in my own experience of having these discussions, it is very difficult to convince potential immigrants and the newly arrived that immigration status only makes them eligible to work, and in no way guarantees that work or of what type. Language skills are often underpar for professional standing and career advancement in competition with native born Canadians, whether there is discrimination or not. Degrees and qualifications may or may not be recognized, and often new requirements and Canadian certifications will need to happen before employment. The networks of colleagues, family, and friends that help to obtain a position and build a career, are by definition lacking. Also the process of getting hired, more what you know than who you know (though that definitely plays as part), more based on resume (in a certain format) and interview skills (linguistically and culturally challenging) then on diplomas only, is a challenge. To this end both the government and community organizations like the Canadian Arab Federation are making efforts to help immigrants with these skills. At the university level many student organizations whether ethnically or religiously based help with application to professional schools, and sitting aptitude tests, as well as resume and interviewing skills.

Saudis in Canada, rather than other expats via Saudi, are often students, and less likely to immigrate, than some other groups, for cultural, and lifestyle reasons, as well as a more stable political and economic home country. Some are on the Saudi government scholarship, the King Abdullah Scholarship, and are under the aegis of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Canada. Others are on scholarship from an employer, whether a university or a company. These are usually obliged to return to work for a number of years or to repay the scholarship in full. Some students arrive funded by their parents and remain so, or obtain a scholarship mid-way through their studies, which often begin with a year of English language training, and the TOEFL exam to get into a Canadian university.

The Saudi government has been sending students on scholarship to Canada since 1978 (to the USA since 1951) funding them to study in programs that meet the needs of development in Saudi, primarily basic sciences, engineering, medicine, and business. The degrees range from undergraduate through to the doctoral level. In medicine students usually arrive with basic  medical qualifications and do specialist and subspecialist training here. They are expected to sit and pass Canadian specialist exams, and maintain their professional standing here (FRCPC or FRCSC, for medicine and surgery respectively). Most get a provincial licence which they maintain while working in Saudi. Universities sponsor students in a broader range of disciplines in graduate studies to form them as  professors, including in the social sciences and humanities.

While many students are single when they begin their studies, others are married with or without children, and some marry during their studies. The scholarship program supports the family, and the spouses (usually wives) often complete their own undergraduate and graduate degrees after further English language study. Students on a King Abdullah Scholarship may not legally marry a non-Saudi citizen while on the scholarship or it will be forfeited and their visa revoked.

Most of the Saudis I have met in Canada have been scholarship students, mostly in medicine (favouring surgical and internal medicine specialties, though some are in pediatrics and psychiatry), and some in engineering or business. Others are spouses of those on scholarship, often working in Canada after completion of their own undergraduate degree. All have been highly competent and pleasant, and most of those newly arrived eager to know how to survive the climate (thermal underwear! Hot Chillies, parka bought here, hats, ear muffs, scarves, mitts and boots--ugly warm ones if necessary).  They have this in common with scholarship students from any number of other countries.

To paraphrase a slogan of the federal position in the 1995 Quebec referendum:

Our Canada Includes Arabs, Muslims, and Saudis!

What do you think of our birthday celebration?
If you are/were an Arab, Muslim, or Saudi in Canada, what have been your impressions and experience of life here?
What has been most difficult/easiest to adapt to?
How does living here compare with life you have experienced elsewhere?
If you are Canadian what has your experience been of Arabs, Muslims, Saudis in Canada?
What are the analogous impressions for those of you in or from other countries?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Susanne said...

Your birthday party is so beautiful! I love all the red! It's a favorite color of mine. :)

I enjoyed reading about Arabs and Muslims in Canada. Very informative post. Thank you, Chiara! :)

Chiara said...

Susanne-I am glad you liked the post! This was a fun one to do, both the red red celebration, and the more formal look at Saudis, Arabs, and Muslims in Canada (as opposed to friends, family, and acquaintances).

I just read that there are plans to eliminate the Canadian Dept of Veterans Affairs, as a cost saving measure, and because so few WWII and Korean war vets are still alive. Conveniently overlooking the Afghan War vets and others in between like those who served in Vietnam under US forces but are Canadians residing in Canada. The article concluded that the Dept is relatively untouchable, and I hope it is right. Modernizing is one thing, eliminating is another.

Thanks again for your comment. Sorry to get back here so late!

nancy john said...

Migrating to a country is a big decision, and a thing not to be taken lightly. Especially a country like Australia where there are numerous opportunities in almost all of its states.

immigrate to Canada

nancy john said...

Migrating to a country is a big decision, and a thing not to be taken lightly. Especially a country like canada where there are numerous opportunities in almost all of its states

Job in Canada

nancy john said...

Canada is the land of opportunities for those who want to build their future

Immigration to British Columbia, Canada


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