Middle East in Crisis
Canada and Lebanon, a special tie
Last Updated August 1, 2006
Canadian citizens wait outside the Canadian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, hoping to be evacuated from the Lebanese capital. (Associated Press)
For many Canadians of Lebanese background this was to have been the summer of return.
The long civil strife that had bedeviled the country for so many years seemed finally at an end. Israeli troops pulled out six years ago and last year the Syrians did as well during an outpouring of Lebanese nationalism, the so-called Cedar Revolution, that seemed to cleanse the spirit and offer a new start.
This year, the tourists returned in droves from all over the world, to reconnect with family they hadn't seen in years or to spend a summer by the Mediterranean in the ancestral home.
Samir Sleiman, a travel agent in Edmonton, told CBC News that he had booked vacation trips to Lebanon for over 1,500 people from the Edmonton area alone. At least 300 more were jetting there from other centres in Alberta.
Now, with the Muslim militia Hezbollah having sparked another border war with neighbouring Israel, many of these Canadian tourists are seeking shelter from Israeli aerial bombardments and facing one of the largest international evacuations of modern times.
The Canadian government has taken heat for not responding more quickly to the crisis facing its citizens abroad. The British navy has already begun moving thousands of Britons from the port of Beirut to Cyprus and so have the Italians and French.
Canada has chartered a fleet of six cruise ships which it hopes will be able to arrive in the port of Beirut by Wednesday to begin ferrying as many as 4,500 people a day to Cyprus, and then home by air.
But Canada does face a special challenge in these circumstances - and it is not just that it is more than an ocean away from where the fighting is taking place. Canada has thousands of citizens in Lebanon, even more than France, which has had a close relationship with Lebanon and Syria for over a century.
There are at least two countries with more citizens in Lebanon than Canada. Sri Lanka has about 80,000 of its nationals in Lebanon, and most of them are guest workers. About 25 per cent are said to be there illegally. Brazil has an estimated 70,000 citizens in Lebanon.
That means Ottawa will also likely be facing more of the secondary problem when it comes to evacuations like this — getting Canadians in Lebanon to the docks via roads that are either bombed out or under attack from Israeli jets. About 230 Lebanese have been killed, including seven visiting Canadians, in the first five days of fighting.
Of the estimated number of foreigners in Lebanon at the moment:
- up to 80,000 are Sri Lankan
- 70,000 are Brazilian.
- 40,000 to 50,000 are Canadian.
- 30,000 roughly are Filipino.
- 25,000 are Australian.
- 25,000 are U.S. citizens.
- 22,000 are British.
- and almost 20,000 are French.
Why so many Canadians?
That's a good question. The answer seems to be that Canada has had something of a special relationship when it comes to Lebanon and Lebanese immigration over the last hundred years or so. And that this has been bolstered on at least two occasions in recent years.
In the mid-1970s, during the height of the Lebanese civil war, Canada was one of the very few western countries to adopt special immigration measures to assist those Lebanese fleeing the conflict. It later even set up emergency visa offices in Cyprus to help with family reunification and refugee applications.
That was in 1989 and the result was a spectacular increase in Lebanese immigration in the early 1990s. The 1991 census records only 54,605 Canadians of Lebanese extraction. A decade later there would be 144,000, according to the 2001 census. But in a 2002 report to La Francophonie, the federal government said there were over 250,000 Lebanese in Canada, not all of whom, of course, would be French speaking.
Many of these newcomers, French-speaking Arabs, ended up in Montreal, which boasts Canada's largest Lebanese community. This helps explain the huge outpouring earlier this week when seven members of the el-Akhras family, a Montreal family with four small children, were killed by Israeli bombs while vacationing with relatives in Aitaroun, a village near the Israel border. Ali el-Akhras, the 36-year-old father, ran a pharmacy in the Montreal neighbourhood of Snowdon.
- IN DEPTH: Canadian casualties
A list of the best-known Lebanese-Canadians would include singer Paul Anka; René Angelil, Celine Dion's husband and manager; and the late Joe Ghiz, the former premier of P.E.I. whose son Robert is the current Liberal leader in the province.
Of the possibly 50,000 Lebanese Canadians in Lebanon today, it is estimated that about half hold dual citizenship and live there on a regular basis. The rest are there on extended business trips or visiting family. About 21,000 have registered with the Canadian embassy.
According to Ottawa, the most recent immigrants to Canada have maintained strong on-going ties with their homeland: They visit often, send home substantial amounts of money to help family members there and raise funds here for Lebanese charities.
Lebanese and Syrian immigration to Canada began, scholars say, as early as the 1880s. The first Syrian-Greek Orthodox Church in Canada was built in Montreal in 1910; the first mosque built by Lebanese immigrants was in 1938 in Edmonton.
But immigration from Lebanon didn't really take off until the 1950s. And for most of the period since, Lebanese have been the largest group of Arabs in Canada, with either their own distinct lobby groups or their own strong voice in Canadian-Arab organizations.
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