Lebanese Heritage Month Bill

Second Reading--Debate Adjourned

June 7, 2022

Hon. Jane Cordy [ + ]

Moved second reading of Bill S-246, An Act respecting Lebanese Heritage Month.

She said: Honourable senators, Canada is a country with a rich heritage of immigrants from all over the world arriving on our shores to pursue the dream of a better life for themselves and their families.

Bill S-246 aims to recognize and celebrate the experiences and contributions Lebanese Canadians have made and continue to make to Canada.

As the preamble to the bill states, Lebanese Canadians have — for generations — made significant social, economic, cultural, religious, military, philanthropic and political contributions to our social fabric and to the strength, resiliency and diversity of our communities.

Colleagues, I must begin my remarks by first acknowledging Member of Parliament for Halifax West, Lena Metlege Diab, whose leadership on this initiative has been instrumental.

Ms. Diab is a long-time community leader and active member of the Halifax Lebanese community. In 2010, she was the recipient of the Outstanding Professional of the Year award from the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce in Nova Scotia.

She has served as president of the Canadian Lebanon Society of Halifax at several intervals since 1993, including 2013 when the society celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Honourable senators, according to the 2016 Census data of those respondents who identified as Lebanese, Canada is home to 220,000 Canadian Lebanese. However, unofficial estimates by Global Affairs Canada put the number anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000. The largest Lebanese communities are in Montreal and Toronto. Recognizing and celebrating a Lebanese heritage month will encourage Lebanese Canadians across the country to share their stories, their traditions and their culture with all Canadians.

With the passage of this bill, each and every year throughout Canada the month of November would be designated as “Lebanese Heritage Month.”

Honourable senators, why designate November as Lebanese heritage month? From time immemorial, the region of modern‑day Lebanon had been under the rule of any number of empires, dynasties or colonial powers.

Beginning in 1920, the region fell under French colonial rule. In 1940, during the Second World War, the Nazi-installed Vichy France government assumed power over Lebanon. While the war continued, the Vichy government was removed in 1941 as Nazi control of Europe eroded and Allied forces made military gains in the region.

General Charles de Gaulle visited Lebanon shortly after Vichy France released control of the region. National leaders in Lebanon approached de Gaulle requesting independence. On November 26, 1941, General Georges Catroux, a delegate general under de Gaulle, proclaimed the independence of Lebanon.

However, this proclamation was essentially a hollow gesture as France maintained administrative and political control over the region. In defiance of France and following national elections in early November 1943, the first order of business for the new government was to amend the Lebanese Constitution to abolish France’s mandate over the country.

On November 11, 1943, the Lebanese flag flew for the first time over Lebanon.

The French government responded by arresting and imprisoning the newly elected president, prime minister and several other ministers.

Under immense pressure from other countries and wartime allies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the Arab states and the Soviet Union, France had little choice but to reconsider. On the morning of November 22, 1943, France released their political prisoners, and, after 23 years of French colonial rule, Lebanon was then officially an independent state.

November 22 has since been recognized and celebrated to mark Lebanon’s independence. The month of November holds significant importance for the population of Lebanon, Lebanese nationals and Lebanese descendants worldwide.

Honourable senators, in 2018, my province of Nova Scotia became the second province to officially recognize November as Lebanese heritage month. Ontario was the first to do so in 2017.

Nova Scotia has a robust Lebanese community with a rich history in our province. Many of the first Lebanese immigrants coming to Canada landed in Nova Scotia beginning in the late 1800s, and they chose to make the province their new home.

In 2018, a statue commemorating Lebanese immigrants was unveiled in Halifax. It portrays a Lebanese traveller wearing traditional clothes. The plaque accompanying the statue reads:

This monument is a universal symbol of a proud, strong, and globally united Lebanese community. The statue honors 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.

Nova Scotia is also home to the Canadian Lebanon Society of Halifax, one of the oldest Lebanese societies in North America.

This past weekend, the fifteenth annual Lebanese Cedar Festival took place in Halifax. This annual festival was first conceived in 2006 under the leadership of Father Pierre Azzi and the parish council of Our Lady of Lebanon Parish. The focus of the Lebanese Cedar Festival in Halifax is to:

. . . promote and foster the Lebanese culture and traditions as integral elements of Canada’s multicultural mosaic and to provide a venue for Canadians of Lebanese heritage to reacquaint themselves with their rich roots. The Cedar Festival is an opportunity for families and groups of all ages to be together to experience the culture and heritage in a fun, free, and safe atmosphere!

Honourable senators, my husband and I spent last Saturday afternoon at the Lebanese Cedar Festival. It was a wonderful, sunny afternoon with singing, dancing and games for the children. Of course, there was also plenty of homemade traditional Lebanese food. Best of all, there were lots of smiling faces and friendly people.

It was the first festival since COVID, so there was a special feeling of coming together again. When the festival was cancelled in 2020, the community rallied to donate 2,000 meals of Lebanese food to first responders, health care workers and charities.

Honourable senators, Canada’s story is one of immigration. People from all over the world have left their homes, some by choice, but far too many have been forced to leave their homelands, to forge a new life in Canada.

We know that immigration enriches Canadian society and grows the economies in communities large and small, urban, rural and remote, and leads to stronger Canadian trade and cultural ties with other countries.

Canada is not so much the melting pot that we are told growing up. Canada is rather like a big salad, with each culture adding a new ingredient and a new flavour. Cultures are not lost like they would be in a melting pot. But, rather, they come together to complement each other for a truly Canadian flavour.

Honourable senators, in 2015, a report entitled Economic Benefits of Immigration: The Impact of Halifax’s Lebanese Community was prepared by the Halifax Partnership and the Canadian Lebanese Chamber of Commerce. The aim of the report was to provide a case study and a summary of the impacts immigrants have on the Canadian and Halifax economies, with a focus on the Lebanese experience in Halifax.

According to the National Household Survey, the broader Lebanese community in Halifax in 2015 was 4,500 people. However, unofficial estimates put the number close to 7,000.

Officially, the Lebanese community makes up 3.75% of the Halifax population, of which nearly 20% are self-employed. The Lebanese Chamber of Commerce in Halifax counts among its members owners of many restaurants, grocery and convenience stores and construction and real estate development companies. They are innovators and they are entrepreneurs.

The report estimated that developers from the Lebanese community were responsible for nearly $4 billion in construction in Nova Scotia between 2005 and 2015, and that number has grown significantly since then. The report also estimated the direct and indirect employment related to Halifax’s Lebanese community and related business in Halifax is between 4,000 and 5,000 full-time jobs.

Honourable senators, the Canadian Lebanese community, like all immigrant communities that have chosen to make Canada home, have contributed greatly to the fabric of Canadian society and an enriched Canadian culture. I know in my province, Lebanese businesses have left an indelible mark on the city of Halifax with billions of dollars in construction projects.

And let’s not forget another significant cultural contribution to my province when, as the story goes, in 1901 Lebanese immigrant George Shebib introduced the unofficial card game of Cape Breton: tarabish. For those of you who are from Cape Breton, you have probably all played tarabish. I know that many Cape Bretonners still enjoy a good game of tarabish with friends around the kitchen table.

Honourable senators, I hope you will join me and support this bill in recognition of the rich history and contributions the Lebanese community has made to Canadian society. I look forward to hearing about the contributions Lebanese Canadians have made in your corner of Canada. Thank you.

Honourable senators, I am delighted to rise today to speak in support of Bill S-246, An Act Respecting Lebanese Heritage Month. I speak quite selfishly, since Senator Cordy’s bill gives me such a wonderful opportunity to share with you more of the Alberta history that I love.

I want to take you back to 1905 — the year Alberta entered Confederation. The province was booming with the arrival of waves of pioneer settlers. In 1901, the population of Alberta had been just 73,000. By 1905, it had more than doubled to 160,000.

Among the newcomers to arrive that year was young Alexander Hamilton. No, not the $10 founding father without a father Alexander Hamilton; not the American revolutionary immortalized in rap by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m talking about Alberta’s Alexander Hamilton, whose adventure story is no less amazing.

Our Alexander Hamilton, who was born Ali Ahmed Abouchadi, arrived in Alberta in 1905 from his home in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He was just 12 years old.

He and his uncle Sine Abouchadi came to Alberta via Winnipeg, hoping to strike it rich in the Klondike gold fields. Finding themselves almost a decade late for the gold rush, they decided to become travelling fur traders instead, buying pelts from Cree and Métis trappers around Lac La Biche and then selling them in Edmonton.

When young Ali was just 16, his uncle decided to go back to Lebanon, leaving the teenager alone to make his own way on the western frontier. But Ali, who changed his name at that point to Alexander, made his fortune — and I do mean his fortune — as a fur trader, merchant, farmer, cattle salesman and finally as one of Alberta’s first dealer of Ford automobiles. He was one of the first Lebanese pioneers to settle in Alberta. Immigrants: they get the job done.

Hamilton was soon followed by a wave of others from the Bekaa Valley, some of them inspired by his early successes. There were Hamdons and Tarrabains, Shabens and Saddys, Mouallems and Kazeils and Chadis, Awids and Johmas and Amereys, Haymours and Salloums and Darwishes — cousins, friends, in-laws and neighbours who emigrated, one after the other, from small Lebanese villages such as Lala, Qab Elias and Kherbet Rouha.

Peddlers and shopkeepers, fur merchants and farmers, ranchers and restaurateurs, they left their homes half a world away to become settlers on a vast new frontier.

For the Indigenous peoples of Alberta, this wave of settlement in the wake of the treaties was a profoundly difficult and unjust time. But the Lebanese newcomers learned Cree and Dene and forged strong bonds of friendship with the First Nations and Métis people they met as they built new lives for themselves as traders and merchants in Lac La Biche, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray, Athabasca and High Prairie, plying the rivers to the north in the Northwest Territories in search of the best furs.

When you think of fur traders, homesteaders and ranchers — Alberta pioneers — Lebanese immigrants might not be the first people who come to mind. But there were Lebanese settlers in Alberta from the very moment it became a province. They laid the foundation for the vibrant, multicultural province we were to become. Without their contributions, Alberta would not be the province we know today.

The first to arrive were single men, but the women soon followed and left their mark on their new homeland. There were women such as the formidable Hilwie Jomha Hamdon. Born in 1905 in Lebanon, Hilwie moved to northern Alberta as a bride of 17 to join her husband, Ali Hamdon, a successful fur trader who greeted her, on her arrival, with a full-length sable coat.

The couple spent their early married life in Fort Chipewyan, a primarily First Nations community in the north of the province. There, Hilwie formed enduring friendships with her Indigenous neighbours, learning to speak both Cree and Chipewyan. An Edmonton Journal story from 1964 reported that one of the local chiefs had dubbed her “the finest white woman in the North.”

Hilwie hosted visiting celebrity bush pilots, including “Wop” May and “Punch” Dickins, in her home. But, as their family grew, Hilwie wanted a better education for their six children and insisted that they all move to Edmonton, where she soon became a leader in the capital’s growing Lebanese community.

You may already know that Edmonton was home to Canada’s first mosque, the Al Rashid. You might not have known that it was Hilwie Hamdon who led the charm offensive that got that mosque built.

She convinced Edmonton’s then-mayor John Fry that the city should donate the land. Then she convinced Muslims and Arabs all across Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as Edmontonians of all faiths and backgrounds, to donate to the mosque and raised the necessary $5,000 to pay for construction.

The mosque was built by Ukrainian-Canadian contractor Mike Drewoth. Mike had never seen a mosque, so he designed the Al Rashid to look like a Ukrainian church, complete with those distinctive signature “onion domes” that mark eastern Christian churches — one onion bulb atop each minaret. You could hardly imagine a more uniquely Edmonton building than one that fused Lebanese and Ukrainian culture and aesthetics into a harmonious whole.

The original Al Rashid opened in 1938 and stands today in Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton’s living history museum, where young Muslim guides provide tours and programming through the summer, teaching tourists and reminding Edmontonians about our city’s deep Lebanese and Muslim roots. In 2017, the Edmonton Public School Board opened Hilwie Hamdon School, named in honour of this remarkable Edmonton champion of education and inclusion.

While many of Alberta’s early Lebanese settlers were Muslim, others were Christian or Druze, and certainly not all of them were northern fur traders.

Isper Shacker, for example, got his start in the small Alberta town of Hanna, where he ran the local movie theatre. He would later go on to become the Mayor of Hanna. And though he himself was Christian, not Muslim, he travelled to Edmonton and attended the opening of the Al Rashid Mosque as a special guest of honour.

William Haddad, the son of Lebanese shopkeeper Abdelnoor Farhat Haddad, graduated from law school at the University of Alberta in 1941, becoming one of Canada’s first Lebanese lawyers. He served in the navy during the Second World War, became president of the Edmonton Bar Association, the first chair of the Edmonton Police Commission, vice-chair of the Alberta Securities Commission and finally a judge on the Court of Appeal of Alberta — one of the first Arab judges in Canada.

In keeping with such legal traditions, just last month, Edmonton lawyer and community leader Bob Aloneissi, the son of Lebanese immigrants, was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, becoming, I do believe, Alberta’s first Druze judge.

Of course, the first Lebanese pioneers were joined in Alberta by later waves of immigrants in the 1950s and the 1970s and continuing to this day.

By 1969, the Muslim population in Lac La Biche made up about 10% of the town’s total population, the largest proportion of Muslims in any town or city in North America at that time. Today, one in six people in Lac La Biche can claim Lebanese roots, and the town claims it has the highest proportion of Lebanese Canadians in the country.

Alberta certainly has, by far, the largest Lebanese population outside of Quebec and Ontario. This has, perhaps, given Albertans — especially Edmontonians — a disproportionate passion for hummus and donair.

The Edmonton novelist Todd Babiak — not Lebanese himself — once wrote that it was impossible to have a party of any kind in Edmonton without someone bringing hummus. Now, Ottawa may think it has cornered the market on shawarma, and Halifax might think it can claim the donair, but Edmonton has something to say about that.

Alberta, though, can certainly claim the Lebanese-inflected Burger Baron mushroom burger, recently immortalized by the award-winning Edmonton author, journalist and documentary maker Omar Mouallem, in his film, The Last Baron, which tracked the social history of Lebanese immigration via the stories of the Burger Baron restaurants that were, and are, landmarks across the Prairies.

Less calorically, Alberta will also proudly claim Canada’s first Lebanese cabinet minister, Larry Shaben, who served with distinction in the cabinets of premiers Peter Lougheed and Don Getty, and who was the first Muslim appointed to any provincial or federal cabinet in Canada.

Notably, while commuting north to his riding in High Prairie, Larry Shaben survived a horrific small-plane crash that killed six people, including his friend and colleague, the Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley, father of Rachel Notley. The story of Shaben’s extraordinary escape, not just from death in the crash but from death in the freezing northern wilderness, was told in the award-winning book Into the Abyss, written by acclaimed Lebanese-Canadian journalist Carol Shaben — Larry Shaben’s own daughter.

Edmonton was also home to Canada’s first-ever Muslim judge, Ed Saddy, the proud son of Lebanese immigrants, and one of my dad’s oldest friends. They grew up together on Edmonton’s Boyle Street, where Lebanese and Jewish kids shared a special bond.

Today, Alberta’s Lebanese community — Muslim, Christian, Druze or decidedly secular — is stronger than ever, whether its members are newly arrived immigrants or fourth-generation Albertans.

Those deep, deep roots are among the reasons that the Edmonton Public School Board currently offers Arabic bilingual immersion programs at six of its public schools.

They’re the reason the Edmonton Journal recently reported that there are nearly 120 shops and restaurants in Edmonton with “donair” as part of their name, which, in the words of Postmedia columnist Chad Huculak, “. . . dwarfs Calgary’s minuscule 50 and Toronto’s less than 20.”

And they’re the reason Edmonton is proudly home to the Canadian Druze Centre and a significant population of the Druze diaspora in North America.

I guess you might say every month in Alberta is Lebanese heritage month. But I don’t think anyone back home will object to having an excuse, every November, to celebrate, and I’ll bring the hummus.

To Senator Cordy, I say thank you, hiy hiy and šukran.

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Simons, for your speech on Edmonton, and Senator Cordy, thank you for your speech and also for starting this inquiry. I may have missed you saying it, but wasn’t the first Muslim mosque also built in Edmonton?

Yes, I think you did miss it. It opened in 1938 in downtown Edmonton on a gift of land from the City of Edmonton with $5,000 raised from communities across the West. I have to say, the original mosque was moved brick by brick and now stands in Fort Edmonton, but the Al Rashid Mosque endures as one of the largest mosques in Western Canada, throwing open its doors in times of fire and disaster. The Al Rashid Mosque has been remarkable for welcoming the homeless during cold snaps and for opening its doors to people who were fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfires. It’s an extraordinarily important part of Edmonton’s cultural and social community.

Senator Jaffer [ + ]

May I ask a second question Senator Simons?

If I have time, absolutely.

Senator Jaffer [ + ]

Thank you. Senator Simons, I did mean to say that it was moved, and that it was the first mosque ever built is something that we Muslims celebrate. Of course, the women from that mosque are some of the most forward-looking, including Dr. Lila Fahlman who was sort of a matriarch of the women’s movement in the Muslim community. So thank you for raising that.

Senator Simons, I think you would agree that the Muslim community is still very vibrant in the Al Rashid Mosque.

Absolutely. I think those first Lebanese pioneers laid down a foundation that has allowed Muslim immigrants from around the world to come and find a home in Edmonton, whether they are coming from North Africa, East Africa or Indonesia. Wherever Muslims have come from to Edmonton, the Al Rashid Mosque community has been there to welcome them.

You mentioned Lila Fahlman. I didn’t raise her in my speech for one reason, which is that her family was Syrian rather than Lebanese. I know the border is liminal, but as this was about Lebanese heritage month, I wanted to focus on Hilwie Hamdon, who was the remarkable woman who fought for the Al Rashid Mosque, which was, indeed, the first mosque in Canada.

Interestingly enough, the first mosque in North America was, I believe, in North Dakota and not in Chicago or New York as you might have expected. There was really an important Lebanese diaspora that came and filled up that whole prairie west on both sides of the Canadian-American border.

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