Iraqis in Canada come from a country of great ethnolinguistic and religious diversity. Centred along the plains of Mesopotamia that are watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq covers nearly 440,000 square kilometres and borders on Syria and Jordan to the west, Turkey in the north, Iran in the east, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south.

Of its 18.2 million people, over 75 percent are Arabs who live mostly in the central and southern regions. The rest consist of Kurds, Assyrians, and Yazidis in the northern mountainous region, Turks and Turkmens in the centre and northeast, and Persians along the eastern border with Iran. Although Arabic is the state language spoken by most Iraqis, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen, and Yazidi (a Kurdish dialect) dominate among those groups.

Religious affiliation cuts across ethnic and linguistic lines. Muslims comprise 90 percent of Iraq’s population and are represented by the two major branches of that faith. The Shiites, whose numbers have increased substantially only in the twentieth century, today account for about half of Iraq’s total population and about 70 percent of its Arabs. The Sunnis include the remainder of the Arabs as well as Kurds, Turkmen, Turks, Persians, and Yazidis. Various Christian groups represent about 10 percent of Iraq’s population and include the Assyrian Nestorians and Chaldeans. Jews, who in earlier times comprised about 2 percent of the population, have been reduced by emigration since 1948 to a few thousand living mostly in the capital of Baghdad. Several of the above ethnic and religious groups have found their way to Canada. (See also ARABS; ASSYRIANS; KURDS.)

Although Iraq was formed as a nation-state only in the early twentieth century, it has a long history going back over five thousand years. Iraqis are well aware that it was in the rich valleys of Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that the first sedentary civilization known as Sumeria came into being around 3000 B.C.E. For the next three millennia Iraqi lands were at the heart of or were part of several empires and civilizations known to history as the Akkadian, Babylonian, Kassite, Assyrian, and Sassanid. It was the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century, however, that was to have the most long-lasting impact.

In the 630s Iraq became part of the Arabic Muslim world which within a few decades, under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, encompassed the entire Middle East and lands as far east as the borders of India and westward across northern African to the Iberian peninsula of Europe. It was during this early development of the Arab caliphate that Iraq became the scene of an event that was to divide the Islamic world. After the death in 661 of the fourth caliph, Ali, who was the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the leaders of the Umayyad dynasty claimed they were the rightful successors of the Prophet. Ali’s son, Hussein, fled to Iraq and led an unsuccessful revolt against the Umayyads that ended in his assassination in 680. Hussein’s death initiated a religious schism in Islam that lasts to this day between the Shiites (followers of Ali) and the Sunnis, or Orthodox Muslims, who recognize the first four caliphs (successors to the Prophet Muhammad) but attribute no special role to Ali.

The legitimacy of the Umayyad dynasty was continually challenged until its collapse in 747. It was succeeded by the Abbasid dynasty, the so-called “golden age of Islam,” which lasted for over five centuries (750– 1258) and was centred on Baghdad, the present-day capital of Iraq. The economic and cultural wealth that characterized Muslim society on Iraqi lands came to an end with the invasion of the Mongols in 1258. For nearly three centuries the region experienced political instability and further invasions. In the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire annexed Iraqi territory and ruled it uninterruptedly until the end of World War I. Ottoman rule sustained the already existing cleavages within Iraqi society between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the urban and rural populations, and the Arabs and Kurds.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the victorious Allies established in 1920 the kingdom of Iraq as a League of Nations mandate under the authority of Great Britain. The new kingdom gained its full independence in 1932. While still a mandate, Iraq was plagued by border disputes with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and, in particular, by an armed struggle with the Kurds, who still hoped to create their own independent state which they had been promised at the conclusion of World War I.

In 1958 Iraq experienced a bloody revolution that toppled the monarchy. Since that time, Iraq has been a republic in which the army has often played a decisive role in political decision making. A military coup in 1968 brought to prominence Saddam Hussein, who gained full reins of power in 1979. As head of the ruling Iraqi Baath party, Hussein was proclaimed president for life in 1990.

Under Hussein, Iraq has witnessed an enormous increase in population and enjoyed a degree of economic growth helped most especially by revenues from the export of oil. At the same time, the country has suffered years of war and internal repression of all political dissent. During the 1970s, the Kurds stepped up their military campaign for self-rule. Between 1980 and 1988, Iraq carried out a long and inconclusive war with Iran. Then, in 1990, Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, which prompted retaliation by an American-led international armed force that within two weeks virtually annihilated the Iraqi armed forces at the cost of an estimated 100,000 military casualties and 90,000 civilian deaths. Almost immediately, civil war broke out as Shiite Muslims in the south and Kurds in the north revolted against Saddam Hussein’s rule. The ongoing external and internal conflicts since the 1970s have forced tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens, most especially among the minority Kurds and Shiites, to flee the country in search of temporary or permanent refuge.

Migration, Arrival, and Settlement

Iraqi immigration to Canada is a recent phenomenon that has been inspired mainly by the political and economic situation in Iraq. The Iraq-Iran War (1980–88) devastated the Iraqi economy, as have the economic sanctions against Iraq that have followed the Gulf War of 1990–91. As well, even though Iraqi society has been more pluralistic, especially since the secular, pan-Arab Al-Baath party came to power in 1968, there has been terrible oppression, even genocide, committed against some groups, and Saddam Hussein has ruthlessly crushed opposition.

From 1945 until 1975 fewer than 200 Iraqis arrived in Canada. Substantial emigration began in 1979, the year Saddam Hussein became president, and, between 1975 and 1992, 6,472 Iraqis arrived – about 3.5 percent of all Arab immigrants in Canada. About 65 percent of Iraqis have settled in Ontario, particularly in Toronto, and most of the remainder in Montreal. There are virtually equal numbers of males and females.

The ongoing violation of human rights and political instability in Iraq over the last three decades have affected, in particular, three groups of immigrants: Christians, persecuted because of their leftist political beliefs; Kurds, brutalized as a result of their demands for sovereignty or autonomy; and Shiite Muslims, oppressed, particularly during the Iraq-Iran War, because of their perceived affiliation with neighbouring Shiite Iran. Several factors account for voluntary emigration – religious, economic, and, principally, political. As one Iraqi Canadian has stated, “The structure of the Iraqi community in Canada in reality reflects the structure of Iraqi society at the national, sectarian, and religious levels. The primary reason for emigration is related to the question of human rights in Iraq.”

The 1991 Canadian census recorded 4,790 Iraqis: 3,525 of wholly Iraqi ancestry, and 1,265 of partial Iraqi ancestry. However, community sources in the mid1990s estimate the population at over 25,000. Three factors may explain this discrepancy. First, a significant wave, particularly Shiites, have arrived since the 1991 census as a consequence of the Gulf War and subsequent oppression. Second, insecurity, and fear of retaliation by agents of the Iraqi regime, may prompt many Iraqis in Canada to conceal their true national identity. Third, many Iraqis identify themselves with other groups – for example, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Kurds. Iraqi immigrants for the period 1981–92 settled principally in a few cities in Ontario: Toronto (2,205), Ottawa (268), Mississauga (203), Windsor (176), and Hamilton (152).

Economic Life

Most Iraqi migration following the Gulf War was driven by the situation in Iraq, worsened by the continuing internationally imposed economic embargo. In Canada, Iraqi immigrants seem to have three interrelated problems: failure to find jobs where they can apply their professional expertise; perceived discrimination, perhaps because some potential employers identify them with the regime that they fled; and lack of Canadian experience. Despite a high level of education and professional experience, 54 percent of 892 immigrants were unemployed, and, of the 407 with jobs, 40 percent had professional positions; 24 percent, lower white-collar; 30 percent, blue-collar; 3 percent, service; and 3 percent, not stated.

As one Iraqi immigrant says, “We came to Canada basically because of the violation of human rights in Iraq. We find ourselves victims of the pursuit of these same rights in our chosen homeland. Undoubtedly, it is a situation of double alienation.” Several interviewees in Toronto and Windsor, Ontario, narrated painful experiences or discriminatory treatment.

Family and Community Life

Except for the old Iraqi-Chaldean community in Detroit, Michigan, immigration is a new phenomenon for Iraqis. Iraqi Canadians are reluctant to talk about their experiences to outsiders in view of their distrust of others, fear of retaliation by the Iraqi government, and the desire to avoid recollection of the painful experiences that compelled them to leave their homeland.

Kinship networks are vital to Iraqis. The traditional family structure in Iraq is patrilineal, extended, and endogamous, but it has been evolving. Although the nuclear family has become dominant, the extended family remains important at the social, political, and economic levels. The father’s authority is not open to questioning; males are preferred to females; and the father is usually named in accordance with the name of his oldest son. ( Abu means the father of; for instance, Abu-Ahmad means the father of Ahmad.) Premarital sex by men is condoned, while such activity by women is forbidden. Marriage within one’s own extended family is preferable to marriage to outsiders. The behaviour of sons and daughters should adhere to traditional norms, and deviation from that standard reflects negatively on the entire family.

In Canada, the generation gap and the existence of two competing value systems are both affecting this ethos. During the early years of settlement, and in view of the difficulty of adjustment, the entire ethnic community may seem like family while one’s own family, both nuclear and extended, is essential. At the same time, however, the authority of the father, and of parents in general, which has been decreasing throughout the Arab world, is being strongly challenged by children born in Canada, who are more open to Canadian values.

Interaction and social gatherings are confined to homes yet, even within Toronto and Montreal, group conflicts do exist. The earliest arrivals function primarily at the private level, with the Arab-Canadian community as their reference group, and they are well adjusted, with some of them successful professionals or businessmen. Their children have internalized the Canadian way of life. Recent immigrants who already have relatives in Canada are ordinarily sponsored, counselled, and assisted by them.

The patterns of formal association among Iraqis are new and voluntary, as revealed most notably in the Iraqi Canadian Society in Toronto and Iraqi House in Montreal. They help Iraqis adapt to Canada and develop ties with the general society, and they disseminate information about the ethnocultural heritage of Iraqi Canadians. Gender equity is the norm; the president of the Iraqi Canadian Society is a woman.

Culture, Education, and Religion

Despite differences in dialect, Iraqi Canadians see themselves as Arabs. Almost all Iraqi immigrants wish to maintain the Arabic language in both oral and written forms. Because young children and Canadian-born ones cannot easily learn reading and writing skills, more emphasis is put on teaching oral skills. Many Canadian-born can understand spoken Arabic without being able to speak it. Gender equity, which has expanded in Iraq itself, is encouraged in Canada. Marriage for both males and females remains principally endogamous.

Iraqi Canadians have their own community newsletters, and almost all Iraqi-born read magazines, books, and newspapers written in Arabic and published outside Canada. Cultural products imported from Iraq or other parts of the Arab world are an essential component of family life, including videotapes of Arabic films, plays, and songs and cassette tapes of Arabic music. Visits by well-known popular singers from Iraq and other Arab countries are very common.

Children of both Christian and Muslim Iraqi Canadians are taught to respect and be proud of their cultural heritage. While they are sensitized to the problems of the old country, they are admonished to adjust to the new land and to address the opportunities and problems faced here. The longer the residence in Canada, the less the role of the family in fostering ethnic identity. Canadian-born children are keenly responsive to the pressure of acculturation, as facilitated particularly by public schools, the peer group, and the mass media. Ancestral ties and the old country become secondary.

In Iraq, adult literacy in 1980 was 70 percent, and the excellent, secular education system was open to both sexes. Most Iraqi immigrants to Canada are highly educated professionals, and their children will almost certainly place a great value on educational achievement.

Although in Iraq Christians account for less than 10 percent of the population, in Canada it is estimated that they comprise about 60 percent of the community. Christian denominations include Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Nestorian, and several rites of Catholicism. The remaining 40 percent are Muslims, either Shiite or Sunni. In contrast to Iraq, where just over half the country’s Muslims are Shiite, among Iraqis in Canada as in the Arab world as a whole, Sunni are by far the majority.

Politics and Intergroup Relations

In the absence of meaningful democracy and human rights, civic participation is minimal in the Arab world. Lacking civic experience in Iraq and being sometimes perceived in Canada as security risks, Iraqi immigrants, like Arab Canadians more generally, are little involved in politics.

Some Canadians may fail to distinguish the people of Iraq from their leaders, and many Iraqis in Canada worry about the continuing economic embargo on Iraq, which is devastating the ordinary citizens. The decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict has exacerbated discrimination and even official harassment against Arab Canadians. One scholar, who has long been documenting such cases, claims that they contributed to Iraqi Canadians’ feeling of “double alienation,” from the country of their birth and from the country of their adoption.

Further Reading

Tareq Ismael and Jacqueline Ismael, “The Republic of Iraq,” in Politics and Government in the Middle East and North Africa, edited by Tareq Ismael and Jaqueline Ismael (Miami, Flo., 1991) 151–87, is a comprehensive overview of the modern history of Iraq beginning with the monarchical period of 1921–58 and ending with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Readers interested in British colonial policy towards Iraq and the country’s history during this century should refer to Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq 1914–32 (London, 1976); and Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk-Sluglett, Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship (London, 1987).

Literature dealing specifically with Iraqi Canadians is non-existent. The few available works on the Arab-Canadian community have some information on Iraqi Canadians; the best is by Baha Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on The Family Tree: The Arabs in Canada (Toronto, 1980). Recently, Farid Ohan and Ibrahim Hayani, in The Arabs in Ontario: A Misunderstood Community (Toronto, 1993), have provided statistical data on Iraqi Canadians specifically. Of relevance also is Tareq Ismael, ed., Canadian Arab Relations: Policy and Perspectives (Ottawa, 1984), and Andrew Matthew, “An Exploration of Arab Stereotypes during the Gulf War Crisis” (M.A. thesis, University of Windsor, 1992).