Nova Scotia

Little mosques on the ocean: Halifax welcomes a growing Muslim population

The number of Muslims and Arabic speakers has risen in Nova Scotia over the past few decades — slowly changing what has largely been a homogenous population.

Rising number of immigrants from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait

Imam Zia Khan, shown in the mosque at the Centre for Islamic Development in Halifax, was something of a novelty to his friends as a child. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When nine-year-old Zia Khan arrived in Halifax in the late 1970s, the boy was something of a novelty to newfound friends who knew little about his Muslim heritage or his distant homeland. 

Khan and his family immigrated to Canada's east coast from Pakistan, answering a call for families and well-educated foreigners interested in settling in less populated parts of the country under then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

For the Khans in 1978, that meant finding their way in a province that was predominantly Christian, anglophone, and more than 90 per cent white.

"I was an oddball," Khan, the imam and director of the Centre for Islamic Development, says with a laugh. "I had very good friends and they were mostly all Christians. We had a very small pocket of Muslim communities and an even a smaller pocket of Arab communities."

Arabic more common than Mi'kmaq

Khan, who co-founded the mosque about 17 years ago, has watched that change over the last few decades, and has been part of a demographic shift that is slowly changing the complexion of a largely uniform province to include a richer mix of languages, religions and cultural practices.

The numbers appear to bear that out.

The most recent census in 2011 listed Arabic as the third most commonly spoken language or mother tongue in Nova Scotia — at roughly 6,700 people — and third in Halifax, ahead of Mi'kmaq and Chinese.

Many of the Arabic speakers are part of the province's Lebanese population, much of which is Christian, but a rising number are from other countries like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait.

Signs in Arabic

About 1,500 Syrian refugees also arrived in the province this year, boosting the number of Muslims and Arabic-speaking people in communities that many say are responding to the unique demands of a changing population when it comes to language, food and religion.

Gerry Mills, executive director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, has overseen the arrival of many of the Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia since late last year, and says there have been visible gestures aimed at accommodating the growing Arabic-speaking population, which peaked in the 1990s as people fled conflict in the Middle East.

Provincial Immigration Minister Lena Diab (far left) says Nova Scotia welcomes the influx of diversity. (Robert Short/CBC)

"In Halifax, I'm starting to see welcome signs and instruction signs and organizations ... doing their pamphlets in Arabic, especially this year when we've seen a lot of people at one time speaking one language coming into the province," she said, adding that some sports facilities, libraries and banks are now posting signs in Arabic.

"If you go into the banks and the grocery stores, you'll begin to see people who clearly don't have English as their first language. I don't think you used to see that 15 years ago, but you do see that now and that's wonderful."

5 mosques

Hijabs are no longer an uncommon sight in the city's core. And most Nova Scotians are learning to see immigrants as a solution to the aging province's demographic crisis.

When Khan arrived there was one mosque in Halifax. Now, there are at least five, along with several halal grocery stores, markets and restaurants.

Still, there are growing pains for many in the Arab and Muslim communities, who say acceptance in the province has been marred by a lack of understanding and outright racism.

Mohamad El Attar, a Palestinian who grew up in Halifax, says he has experienced subtle and overt displays of "ignorance" that he chalks up to a lack of exposure to his Muslim faith. Both he and his sister have faced abuse from strangers, who have called her a terrorist and told both to "go back to where you came from."

'I'm from here'

El Attar tries to laugh it off, usually responding with a smile and a question — "I'm from here, so do you want me to go back to Halifax or Dartmouth?"

"Some people think, 'Oh this is the guy I saw on the news,' and it is misreported that we're violent crazy terrorists who have come to take over and I'm just like, 'Man, I'm just looking for a job. I'm just paying off tuition fees and just here working and trying to pay rent,"' says the 22-year-old accountant.

"Not everyone has encountered an Arab or Muslim, especially in Nova Scotia, and some people may not have ever had a friend who wasn't white."

'Diversity brings strength'

Others say Nova Scotians' overwhelming response to the plight of Syrian refugee families fleeing their war-torn country highlights a more typical attitude to the province's growing diversity.

Immigration Minister Lena Diab said she was stunned by the generosity of residents who dropped off thousands of bags of clothes, furniture and other items when the call was put out to help arriving Syrians late last year.

"Diversity brings strength and we welcome that," she said.