Peddlers and premiers

Posted on January 7, 2012
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Lebanese Canadians in Atlantic Canada

(This is the original version of an article written for “Saltscapes” magazine and published in the January-February 2012 issue. The editors edited and amended it to meet their space and content requirements. Even this draft is less than half of the material volunteered by generous sources. I’m having trouble with my contact for the site at present so, if you want to email me, please use . )

In 1911, 15-year-old Ibrahim Kassouf,  left his home in the Mount Lebanon area of Syria. He eventually arrived at the Newcastle, New Brunswick, train station having become, according to a tag on his chest, Abraham Asoyuf who would be picked up by his brother Charles, who had arrived in 1897 at the age of 15.

The very next day, with no English and a few words of French, equipped with a pack of dry goods and notions from Charles’ store, Abe Asoyuf set out to peddle in Eel River, near Baie Ste. Anne, on Miramichi Bay.

Like Charles, already on his way to becoming a successful merchant, Abe thrived and eventually owned a herring packing plant. When it came time for him to have a wife, his parents arranged his marriage to to a cousin, Zakia, from home. He met her boat in Montreal and brought her home.

Their Maronite Christian countrymen repeated that story, over and over, in all four Atlantic Provinces. Their Phoenician ancestors built the first world empire around 1,500 BCE. It was based on trade and gave the world its first alphabet. Like them, immigrants from the area we now know as Lebanon, fanned out from arrival ports in Montreal, Quebec, Halifax and New York to trade in communities throughout their new world.

In Newfoundland, Saliba Dominic started out as a peddler, opened a store and hired ships to carry his goods from Spaniard’s Bay to outports in Labrador. He had S. Dominic & Sons Ltd. stores in Corner Brook and Botwood. His grand daughter, Sharon Dominic now co-ordinates a growing annual gathering of Lebanese Canadians in St. John’s.

When and why

The first surge of immigration from what was then Syria and part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire occurred between 1880 and 1900.

Population growth was a factor. Lebanon is one fifth the size of Nova Scotia. There was little opportunity for young Lebanese to acquire land. The European industrial revolution dealt a heavy blow to the Lebanese textile trade as did the 1869 opening of the Suez canal which gave Chinese silk a much faster, cheaper route to European markets.

Religious conflict and Ottoman designated government were significant factors.

In 1860, as many as 20,000 Maronite Christians were killed in a conflict with Islamic Druze. France and other European countries intervened with the fading Turkish Ottoman Empire. Its Ottoman rulers agreed to separate Lebanon from Syria and appoint a Christian governor. France sent 6,000 peacekeeping troops to ensure order.

The presence of missionaries and the opening of European and an American university in Beirut gave young Lebanese some idea of the U.S. and Canada as potential areas of opportunity. Even more went to South America and many to Australia.

Ocean liner agents in Beirut and Alexandria sold tickets to Marseilles, Montreal, Halifax and New York. Fraud artists put some on ships that dropped them off as nearby as Egypt telling them they were in New York.

Immigration to Canada dwindled after 1900. Lebanese were included in quotas and fees aimed primarily at excluding Chinese. The Turks fought on the German side during WW I, which prevented immigration from the Syrian part of their empire.

There was another surge when the Mt. Lebanon area was parceled off to the French in 1920 after the war.

Yet another surge occurred during civil war from 1975 t0 1990.

According to Fredericton artist, Michael Khoury, continuing conflict in Lebanon is not among Lebanese Christians and Muslims. Syria has never accepted Lebanon as a separate country and Iran sponsors conflict there as part of its ambition to destroy neighbouring Israel. Lebanon has the misfortune to be a battleground.

The French connection

The French connection with Lebanon grew from the Christian crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries. Coming to the Holy Land, the French encountered the Catholic Maronite Christians named for their fourth century monk founder, St. Maroun.

The French and Maronite Christian relationship bloomed and grew with religious, linguistic, cultural and commercial engagement. In 1638, France guaranteed the protection of Catholics, including the Maronites, in the Ottoman Empire of which Lebanon, in Syria, was then part. France cited that declaration when intervening after the 1860 conflict.

In 1920, after WW I, the League of Nations divided up the remains of the losing Turkish Ottoman Empire. France was awarded a mandate to control what became Lebanon. That enabled another surge of emigration.

During WW II, with France occupied by Germany, the French Vichy government recognized Lebanon as an independent country. In 1946, the post-war French government confirmed the recognition and Lebanon became an independent country for the first time. That meant that the first and second surges of emigrants to Canada were Syrian Turks, not Lebanese. Most became Canadians before they became Lebanese.

After Lebanese independence, French remained an official language. Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East.


Lebanese peddlers, more than their Jewish and Greek contemporaries, tended to pick up from the end of another peddler’s route and go on from there rather than settle around larger communities.

It was arduous work carrying carefully balanced packs weighing about 100 pounds. In the days before catalogues and cars, country homemakers eagerly anticipated the arrival of the peddlers with the staples like suspenders, shoe laces, thread, pins, needles, tapes, scissors, thimbles and elastic along with fabrics and items of clothing.

The peddlers also brought news and paid for meals and accommodation with small gifts from their packs.

Their tendency, as soon as they could, to open stores near their routes, accounts for the presence of prominent Lebanese Canadian families in communities throughout Atlantic Canada.

Assimilation began almost immediately. Barry MacKenzie, author of an M.A. thesis on the Lebanese immigrant experience in New Brunswick, learned that, rather than teach their children Arabic, most first generation immigrants concentrated on learning the local language from their children.

One exception was Joab Abbass in Sydney, Cape Breton. When his daughter, Philomena, complained about the difficulty to learning French in school, he taught himself to read and write French from an Arabic-French, Bible. He told his daughter, “If I can learn French from a book, you can learn it in school”.

The Abbasses are also one of the remarkable examples of families with names changed from the original. Unlike most, the story goes back to olden times in their native country.

According to Fr. Francis Abbass, Joab’s son, the family name was originally Esau.  The family was descended from one of many Crusaders’ orphans left behind when the French forces withdrew. With the Pope’s approval, the orphans were raised as Maronites.

When an Esau killed a man with a sword (saif in Arabic) the family became Esau Saif. The family fled to southern Syria where it resettled among Islamic Druze.

During a time of Druze, Maronite, conflict, the Esau Saifs left their children with an Arab neighbour for safety. Druze came looking for Maronites for probable execution.

The Arab neighbour swept the children behind her skirts, bared her breasts, and declared “These are my children nursed at my breast!”. According to family history, the Druze were reluctant to attack a woman and left.

In gratitude and respect, the Esau Saifs declared the children would forever be known by their Arab saviour’s name, Abbass.

Fr. Abbass confirmed details of the family story from a Saif genealogist in Lebanon and passed it on to his niece, Ann-Marie MacDonald, author of the award winning novel, “Fall On Your Knees”.

When Fr. Francis Abbass visited Lebanon both Christian and Islamic citizens were startled by the combination of Christian and Muslim in his name. Several times he heard “It is as likely that a berry bush would produce a power pole as that an Abbass would produce an altar boy!”.

There were very many Lebanese names changed by mistake or for convenience in Canada. One of the most extreme was when Ibrahims, landing among the Irish immigrants in Miramichi, became O’Briens! In Newfoundland, Lorraine Michael’s father, Ferdoon Elia ibn Mikael became Frederick Michael. In PEI, Frank Zakem’s brother-in-law, Rahshib Labeeb became Larry.

Cuisine not assimilated

Describing assimilation, Barry MacKenzie says that the marker that has survived most clearly is food. Lebanese Canadians always enjoyed it and often included it in menus in otherwise conventional Canadian restaurants.

Michael Khoury, who was brought to Canada at the age of 9, says that it began to really spread into the non-Lebanese community after the 1975 Lebanese civil war. He says immigrants from that time popularized the cuisine outside the Lebanese community.

Now yogurt, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, dolmass, kibbeh, fattoush, falafel, shawarma kebabs, flat breads and various phylos are increasingly familiar to Canadians. Yogurt, hummus and baba ghanouj are available in most supermarkets and many farm markets. Most larger communities have Lebanese food restaurants. Over the millennia, Lebanese, Turkish, Syrian and Greek food intermixed and evolved so it is difficult to determine where a dish originated.

Shaun Abbass remembers his father eating, at Easter, a special penance meal consisting of a type of meatball and bulgar wheat in a vinegar sauce. It was to be a reminder of the Roman refusal of water to slake the thirst of Christ on the cross. Lebanese are dedicated vintners. Currently Mitchells (el Miitke) are crossing a grape vine their family brought with them from Lebanon with another brought by their neighbours, the Salomes.

The common spirit is arak, anise (licorice) flavoured which, like the Greek ouzo, turns milky when mixed with water.

The Lebanese version of the Turkish hookah is called the narghile. In the homeland, it is used to smoke everything from rose petals to hashish. A 100-year-old woman says that, on her visits to Lebanon and Egypt, she never saw any tobacco growing. She will remain nameless because she will only admit to 95 although her name appears in the 1911 census. In fact, she is more vivacious and irreverent than many people less than half her age but it would not be polite, or quite safe, to contradict her.

A large party feature unique to the Sydney area is a card game called tarbish or tarabish. It seems to have originated in Turkey and came to Cape Breton with one of the early Lebanese immigrants. It is a game of tricks like euchre or 45’s. According to Fr. Maroun, it is a significant feature of undergraduate life at the University of Cape Breton.

Lebanese include avid gamblers. Lorraine Michael tells of a Belle Island woman renowned for coming to the St. John’s weekend poker games with nothing but money and changes of underwear. Regular high roller poker weekends, conducted by people of Lebanese heritage have been a standard feature in most communities.

Mahajarans and hufflees

Lebanese are renowned for their hospitality, love of socializing with family and friends, music, dancing, drinking and smoking.

Sources for this article in all four provinces mentioned that a visitor to a Lebanese home is not offered food or drink. It is automatically served. That was certainly the case during all interviews conducted for this article.

Emile “Clish” Napke’s family, in Miramichi, still holds a large family dinner with from 20 to 35 family members every weekend.

A mahajaran is a larger reunion or gathering. A hufflee is a smaller party. English spellings of Arabic words and names are phonetic and vary from region to region and family to family. Annual mahajarans now occur in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Some New Brunswickers attend the large one in Halifax each year.

Frank Zakem, former mayor of Charlottetown, says that half of the 600 people who now attend the community’s annual mahajaran, about a week after New Year’s,  have no Lebanese heritage. The Lebanese association women cook for about three days and have a unique arrangement with the hotel to provide their own food.

Lorraine Michael, Member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, and leader of the province’s New Democratic Party, remembers big community parties among the Lebanese families clustered in the New Gower Street area since razed for redevelopment. She remembers lots of music and dancing, including the dabke, a type of line dance, and women taking their turns belly dancing inside a circle.

Emil Napke remembers families from all over New Brunswick gathering in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton. He also remembers a party of young couples at a local hall where the women, clearing up after the meal, drank the remains of the wine in the glasses and became especially cheerful.

Lebanese weddings are exuberant. Traditionally the bride’s family and friends celebrated at her house and the groom’s at his. Then the bride and her group came to the groom’s. In a ritual called the zaffeh, the bride made her entrance doing a sensuous dance. These days, with bride’s wearing conventional North American gowns, a belly dancer often performs in her place.

Shaun Abbass remembers being at a wedding that was typically Canadian except that the bride danced up to her husband at the reception.

Fr. Albert Maroun, of South Bar, Nova Scotia, remembers a party where a young Cape Breton woman got up and step danced to a dabke beat played by a German immigrant.

Musical instruments

Lebanese music and instruments are, like the cuisine, a mixture and evolution of various Asia Minor regions. Various Atlantic Provinces sources identify the same drums, for example, by different names and vice versa. The tablah and darabuka are similar and common.

The oud is a pear-shaped guitar. The buzuq is a long-necked guitar with a round body.

The most amazing of the instruments common to Lebanese music is the mijwiz. It is a pair of reed tubes with smaller tubes inside them. There are holes in the tubes as in a flute.

The amazing thing is that the musicians produce a constant sound with what is called circular breathing. That is they breathe in and out at the same time!


The success and contributions to Atlantic Provinces community life has been enormous. Too many Lebanese Canadian families to mention have been and are dominant merchants throughout the region.

Joe Ghiz and his son Robert both became premiers of Prince Edward Island. Frank Zakem, a former mayor of Charlottetown, was given a founders award by the University of PEI in September. Lorraine Michael lead her New Democrats in the Newfoundland and Labrador elections that same month.  Michael Basha represented Newfoundland in the Senate of Canada. Paul Zed served as a Member of Parliament in New Brunswick.

Anne-Marie MacDonald wrote the Giller finalist and Oprah Book Club selection, “Fall On Your Knees”. Dedicated scholars like Peter Murphy, David Weale, Nancy and Joseph Jabbra, Frank Zakem and Barry MacKenzie have laboured to preserve the record of Lebanese Canadian immigration to the region. Charles Asoyuf of Miramichi maintains a huge library of Lebanese Canadian genealogy, documents and photographs in files and on computer media his home.

Band leaders, musicians and artists of all kinds pervade the Lebanese Canadian community. The same holds true for academics, teachers, and local philanthropists. During one interview, the subject pointed to a picture of a local United Church celebrating its centennial.  “My father donated those pews!” he said.

Atlantic Canadian governments might be well advised to consider attracting a few thousand new Lebanese immigrants to re-energize our economies and further enrich our social and cultural lives. DAC


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