Canada celebrates its first Lebanese Heritage Month. For some members of the Lebanese community on PEI, it is a recognition that has been a long time coming.
Earlier this year, Parliament unanimously passed legislation making November a time to recognize and honor the contributions of the Lebanese people across the country.
In PEI, the local Lebanese community will commemorate the milestone by raising the Lebanese flag in a ceremony at City Hall in Charlottetown on Saturday.
According to the 2021 census, more than 700 people in PEI identify as being of Lebanese descent. That’s out of 210,000 people across Canada.
Paul Haddad, a board member of the Lebanese Canadian Association of PEI, said the first Lebanese came to PEI more than a century ago. Most of them did not know English and had to work as street vendors selling items door to door, he said, but they eventually transitioned into other trades and professions.
“It takes a long time, over 100 years, to get to this point, to be recognized in Canada as an important part of this society,” Haddad said. “It’s a very proud thing, really.”
Haddad said Lebanese culture and heritage is “everywhere you go,” from Lebanese food to people who have made important contributions in fields such as law, medicine, engineering and business.
In PEI, Joe Ghiz became Canada’s first prime minister of non-European descent in the 1986 general election. His son Robert Ghiz was prime minister from 2007 to 2015.
The annual Lebanese dike, which began in the 1960s to celebrate New Year’s Eve, has become an event that attracts hundreds of people each year. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the event returned last January.
“This year should be even bigger and better,” Haddad said. “This is a special year. We are celebrating Lebanese Heritage Month for the first time… We would like to see you all on the dike.”
‘You must not forget your culture’
Olinda Gossen’s family moved to Canada from Lebanon in the early 1960s. They first came to PEI about a decade later, during their honeymoon.
“We’re still here,” he said. “I met my husband in Lebanon… He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Arabic very well either, but we communicated. I learned the Arabic language from him, from my friends in PEI and by listening to Lebanese music.”
Gossen was born in Brazil, the country with the largest community of Lebanese outside of Lebanon itself. He said he has done everything he can to keep his culture alive, including passing it on to his four children and six grandchildren.
“I learned how to cook, the language and dance,” she said.
“We all have our culture. So you should know it and teach it to your children too… You should not forget your culture. Never.”
Haddad’s father, Najib, came to PEI in the late 1950s, following his brother who was already on the island. Haddad said the brothers eventually took the entire family to Canada.
“At the age of nine or ten, my parents took us back to Lebanon,” he said. “They wanted to educate us there. They wanted us to learn the language, to read, to write, and to learn the culture. And then times got tough there with the civil war and everything, and we came back.”
A long history of conflict
Haddad said there have always been conflicts in Lebanon and the Middle East.
The first Lebanese immigrants to Canada were mostly Christians fleeing the Ottoman Empire, for example.
Much more recently, Lebanon’s 15-year civil war displaced up to a million people before ending in 1990.
Just days ago, the Canadian government asked its citizens to leave Lebanon amid rising tensions along its border with Israel, as the conflict between that country and Hamas-controlled Gaza deepened.
“I just want everyone to pray for the Middle East, you know, because we are all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God,” Gossen said.
“I was born here, born and raised on PEI,” Haddad said. “We are fortunate and very proud to be Canadian.”