History of the Canadian-Arab
Friendship Society

By: Habeeb Salloum

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 165-167
1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario


Arab immigration to Canada has gone on for at least a hundred years. During this period the new arrivals have come, tried to preserve some of the virtues and values of their homelands, but most, in a few years, melted into the mainstream of Canadian society. Generally, Arab immigrants, whether Christian or Muslim, in one or two generations severed much of their cultural connection with the past.

After the Second World War, new waves of immigrants came. Unlike their predecessors, these new arrivals had, in addition to their religious affiliations, a feeling of nationalism. However, in the main, it was not Arab nationalism, but rather the nationalism of the petty states set up by the British and French in the Middle East after the First World War. These much more sophisticated immigrants formed numerous organisations, each representing a particular ideology, religious sect or nationalism of one of the petty states.

In this atmosphere of proliferating Canadian Arab societies, a group of Canadian Arabs and their sympathizers met in 1960 at the Westbury Hotel in Toronto to organise an all-encompassing Canadian Arab society. The new organisation was to include anyone of Arabic origin, or other Canadians who sympathized with the Arab cause and appreciated Arab history and its contributions to western civilization. The society was to have no political, religious or petty Arab nationalist affiliation. It was to be a Canadian organisation for those who held a broad view of and cherished Arab history, worked to expose the anti-Arab prejudice of the North American media and defended the cause of oppressed Arabs, especially the Palestinians.

Twenty-seven Arab Canadians, including a cross-section of Toronto residents-from labourers to professionals-and a few of their friends launched the Canadian Arab Friendship Society. From its inception the society did not pretend to have or seek a mass following. Its goals were to some extent social, but for the most part, educational. However, through the years, defense of the Palestine cause and attempts to correct the Arab image in the media overshadowed the social and educational objectives.

With half a dozen dedicated workers, the society began in early 1960. Meetings were scheduled once a month and, with few exceptions, have been held regularly ever since. From the very beginning, a speaker or an educational project or films was included as part of every gathering. Equal weight was given to the business and educational segments of each meeting. Year after year, with rare exception, our ongoing educational pro- gram was never overlooked. It became the cornerstone of our society. Not only our friends and sympathizers, but also we ourselves were educated in Arab culture and its contributions to civilization. In the twenty-three years of our existence we have had speakers discuss hundreds of subjects. Some of these were given by respected intellectuals in their respective fields. Topics covered include: Arab Philosophy in Spain, Arabic Contributions to Siculo-Italian, Arab Contributions to Western Technology, Islamic Architecture, Mediaeval, Classical and Modern Arab Music, Travelogues on the Arab World, World Religions, Analyses of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Maltese Language and its Arabic Connection, Analyses of the Political Situation in Arab Countries, and Canada and the Arab World.

In addition to our monthly speakers, an annual banquet was held by the society, which prominent Canadian and Arab political figures and scholars attended. With these banquets and the educational program, the society became known in the Arab community as a learned association. There is no doubt that very few ethnic societies have had a better organisational pro- gram for so many years.

To aid our educational program and help correct the anti-Arab bias of the Canadian media, the Canadian Arab Friendship Society published a newsletter for six years, January 1962-January 1968. The "Middle East Digest and Newsletter," edited by James Peters, the society's president, since its inception, (with the exception of one year), and assisted by this writer, was published quarterly. It only ceased publication when the Canadian Friendship Society joined the Canadian Arab Federation in 1968. At that time it was agreed that the federation was to put out a publication called the "Arab Dawn," which was to be the voice of all Arab Canadians.

Once the society joined the Canadian Arab Federation, it became the main pillar of that organisation. While other societies have waxed and waned in their support of the federation, the Canadian Arab Friendship Society has never wavered in its affiliation. Through the years, its members have been in the forefront of community work, at times as part of the federation's efforts, but usually under the auspices of the society.

In 1973, feeling that a community centre was needed, the Canadian Arab Friendship Society applied to the federal government for a grant to establish a centre to aid new Arab immigrants. The grant was received and an Arab community centre was established under the umbrella of the Friendship Society. After a period of one year, seeing that the Arab Community Centre was functioning well, the Friendship Society withdrew and allowed this new Arab centre to operate on its own.

No sooner had the Arab Community Centre been established than it sponsored an Arab pavilion as part of Metro Caravan. Although members of a number of Arab societies worked to make the Arab effort a success, the core of volunteers were from the Friendship Society.

As a member of the Canadian Federation, or as a sponsoring body for the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, or as part of the Arab Caravan pavilion, the Friendship Society has left its mark on the history of the Arab Canadian community. However, it has not forgotten the humanitarian causes in the Arab motherlands. The Palestinian refugees, the Algerian war victims, the earthquake survivors in Arab lands and the Mauritanian victims of drought, all were aided in a modest way from the slender funds of our society. Also, for three years in the late seventies, our society sponsored a Palestinian orphan in the occupied lands. The sponsorship only ceased when we lost contact with the child.

Socially we have also been active for the last twenty-three years. In the cold months of January and February we have organised snow picnics. Our Christmas parties are always looked forward to by our members and friends, and our pot-luck dinners are unforgettable gourmet delights. The spring friendship dinners and summer picnics have been an ongoing tradition since he first years of the society.

With all these cultural, educational and social activities, it would seem likely to an outside observer that the Friendship Society would have a headquarters, but this is not the case. Unlike most organisations, the Canadian Arab Friendship Society, during its existence, has only occasionally met in rented halls. Usually meetings are held in the homes of its members. In a sense it has become an organisation which is like an extended family, and like a family, no one usually leaves it completely. From its first days, very few of those who became members ever dropped out. Only when one moved out of the city were the ties broken. Other Arab Canadian societies have had a much larger membership than our society, but their life has been only a fleeting mirage. They flowered, declined, then in most cases disappeared. Only our society, with a core of dedicated members, has stayed constant through the years.

Today, the Canadian Arab Friendship Society of Toronto is the oldest non-religious functioning Arab society in Canada, perhaps, in North America.

As befits a society with nearly a quarter-century of distinguished history, we will sponsor a two-day conference, in the spring of 1984, to review the first 100-year history of Arab Canadians. Under the chairmanship of Muna Salloum, the vice president of our society, prominent Arab Canadians and Arab American scholars and writers will examine the contributions made to Canadian society by Arab immigrants and their descendants. Papers presented at this conference will be a landmark in the history of the Canadian Arab Friendship Society.

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