People of Lebanese/ Syrian origin began immigrating to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s (some immigrants were born in what was western Syria prior to the border between Lebanon and Syria being redrawn after World War I—those towns are now part of Lebanon—whereas the designation “Lebanese” is typically used by current families when referring to their heritage). A number of families settled in the southeast, in or near communities such as Radville, Ceylon, Lampman, and North Portal. Over forty individuals and families homesteaded or started businesses in small towns in the Swift Current district. Some only remained for a year or two before moving to larger centres, but many stayed and became part of the mosaic of life in rural Saskatchewan.
As with many other immigrants, Lebanese were facing social and economic hardships in their homeland and were looking for a better life for themselves and their families. However, some government officials wished to restrict immigration to Canada of people from southeastern Europe and the Near East, including Syria/Lebanon. In a 1914 letter, W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, wrote: “None of the races belong to those likely to assimilate with the Canadian people; none of them are of a class whose presence could reasonably be expected to improve the status of the Canadian race, whether considered from a political, social, moral, mental, physical or economic standpoint.”
Despite the fact that Lebanese were classified as Asians under the Immigration Act and therefore were required to pay $200 rather than $25 as a condition of landing in Canada, this was not a deterrent to everyone. The first to come were young men. Typically, they spent a year or two in the United States before coming to Canada. There was an established Arab community in the Detroit area and several members had relatives living in western states. These contacts provided an opportunity to earn some money, learn a little English, and become familiar with prairie farming practices. After taking out homesteads in Saskatchewan, some returned to Lebanon to get married or bring their existing families back with them; others married young women of Lebanese families in the United States.
Many of the families that came to the Swift Current district were from three small towns: Ain Arab, Bire, and Qaraoun in eastern Lebanon. Some were Muslim and others were Christian Orthodox. Both groups had difficulties maintaining their religious traditions. The Christians relied on infrequent visits from itinerant Greek Orthodox priests or traveled to the United States for religious rites. Most of them eventually turned to the Anglican Church, which came closest to the ceremonies and traditions to which they were accustomed.
Following a visit to Mecca in 1922, Alex Himour organized the parish of Jamah, with himself as sheik. A “cleansed” room in his house in the Waldeck area became an improvised mosque, serving families in the immediate area and others in the Pambrun and Gouverneur districts; it never became the centre for Islam in western Canada as proclaimed in a Leader-Post article in 1922. However, Himour did travel throughout the west to perform religious rites.
Peddling was a common occupation in Lebanon and several Lebanese men used it as a way to supplement their incomes in early years. Saleh “Charlie” Gader started out by carrying wares on his back, frequenting farms in the McMahon district. He later traveled by horse and buggy and even learned to speak some Low German to better serve his Mennonite customers. Businesses were also established in small towns. The Haddad family operated general stores in Meyronne, McCord, Hazenmore, Eastend, and Morse. Several members of the Salloum family had stores, a bakery, café, and pool hall in Aneroid, Neville, Vanguard, and other communities. The Kouri family owned a grocery store and meat market in Ponteix from the 1920s until 2000.
Perhaps the most well-known member of a Lebanese-Saskatchewan family was Ameen “King” Ganam, born at Swift Current in 1914. He learned to play the fiddle at an early age and was entertaining at dances by the age of 9. He formed a band in Edmonton in the 1940s, which regularly performed on radio. Ganam moved to Toronto in 1952. He had his own radio program and was also a regular performer on television country and western shows during the 1950s. The “King Ganam Show” aired in 1961. Ganam became one of the inaugural inductees into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
Several Lebanese immigrated to Swift Current and district in the 1950s. Most were related to established families, who assisted them in getting settled and finding employment. A few also came in the 1970s, including young women who were to become brides.
In 1982, several families in Swift Current and district organized classes to teach their children Arabic. An Islamic Centre was opened the same year. Since that time, it has provided a setting for Muslims of various cultures to worship together. The city of Swift Current recently opened a new cemetery. A section of it is reserved for Muslim burials, with plots oriented to face Mecca. It is a respectful acknowledgement of the ongoing presence of Lebanese heritage in the community and district. (See also Visible Minorities)
Abu-Laban, Baha. 1980. An Olive Branch on the Family Tree: The Arabs in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart; Salloum, Habeeb. 1989. “The Urbanization of an Arab Homesteading Family,” Saskatchewan History 42 (2): 79-83; Waugh, E.H., B. Abu-Laban and R.B. Qureshi (eds.). 1983. The Moslem Community of North America. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.