Somalis in Canada

Africa contribution to Canada's population was minimal prior to 1970s. From 1970s to 1985, the African component of the Canadian population increased considerably. In 1981, there were 50,107 African in Canada. The Following year the number increased by 9 percent to 54,617. In 1985, the number rose to 65,000, an increase of 29.72 percent (1). The major source countries from the sub-Saharan Africa, during this period, were Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Except for Ethiopia, the other four countries were members of the commonwealth.

There was a shift in refugee producing countries in late 1980s as a result of the crises in the Horn of Africa.(2) Following the massive political and social upheavals accompanying the civil war of the late 1980s in Somalia, thousands of Somalis were forced to flee their homes. Somalia was one of the top refugee/immigrant producing countries by early 1991(3) and Somalis represented 58 percent of the total intake of landed immigrants in Ottawa-Carleton from African sources in early 1990(4). By 1993, Somalis represented the largest group of new immigrants in the Ottawa-Carleton region(5) and the third largest immigrant group coming to the region in the past decade, slightly behind the Lebanese and Chinese.

Historically, this is not the first time that Somalis migrated out of their native country. During the early 20th century, a mixture of ambition and adventure called tacabir took Somalis outside their home(6). Many settled in Britain, which currently has the oldest Somali immigrant population anywhere in the world. In the 1970s, during the oil boom in the Gulf States, a significant number (largely male) of Somalis migrated to countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in search of economic improvement. Nonetheless, two things differentiated the early migration from the more recent migration. First, the extent and the circumstances surrounding the migration of Somalis during those earlier times and now are largely different. In the words of Samatar, "this is not the age of tacabir, it is the age of qaxooti (refugees and displacement)."(7) Second, the early migrations constituted almost exclusively male. There was rarely any female migration during the early periods.

In contrast to the early periods, a significant number of the Somalis who have come to Canada are women and children.(8) They generally had experienced a high degree of migration stress. In the host country, Somalis, like many other refugees, face many challenges and stresses such as family separation, lengthy refugee determination process, language and cultural barriers, lack of recognition of previously acquired professional skills, disproportionately high unemployment rate,(9) and economic difficulties. In addition, many are dealing with post-traumatic stresses as a result of significant personal losses, including violent deaths of family members and friends.

Yet, the majority of Somalis in Canada received neither counselling nor reliable information on the existing newcomer adjustment services, on their arrival to Canada.(11) Somalis fled their native land in large numbers because of circumstances beyond their control and they shared this "push" factor with other earlier groups of refugees such as the Vietnamese "boat People". However, the social and economic context to which they have arrived was significantly different. The resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees was a national effort with different levels of governments, private sector and individuals participating in the resettlement.(12) While there were sponsorships and settlement programs put in place(13) specifically for the Vietnamese, there were no mechanisms set to meet the particular needs of the Somali newcomer upon arrival in Canada.

This lack of an organized response to the resettlement needs of the Somali refugees has forced many to fend for themselves upon arrival or rely on information from other Somalis who came earlier. This usually becomes very problematic because since Somalis came here around the same time in large influx, they are not very much knowledgeable about the existing services. The lack of appropriate resettlement services to help them with the adjustment process in their adoptive home has also contributed to a large number of Somali refugees in Canada to stand out as one of the most disadvantaged ethnic groups in major Canadian cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.

What further compounds the issue is the media's construction of stereotypical and negative images of immigrants in general, and lately, of Somalis in particular. This had had detrimental implications for Somalis, particularly the youth. These biases are internalized by youth that are anxious to conform. As a result there are various youth related problems: severe identity crises, incidents of school drop outs, and problems with police become more and more frequent.

Despite the enormous challenges Somalis face daily, a large number have successfully integrated into the larger Canadian society. These Somalis are constantly trying to unite their efforts to collectively respond to the settlement and post-settlement needs of the community. Many are finding new and alternative ways of coping with stress in this climate of dramatic restraint in public expenditure. Support groups, run by volunteers, help women deal with lack of traditional support systems and the dramatic changes due to the uprooting and break from customary familial relations. Homework clubs are developed to provide students with cultural education and to help them achieve academic excellence, improved self-esteem and positive relations with their teachers and parent. University level students provide role models for younger students and help bridge the gap between youth, parents and service providers.

In addition, there are a number of businesses mushrooming in many neighborhoods. Restaurants serve favorite Somali dishes to the increasingly multi-ethnic population of cities like Toronto while record stores have a multiplicity of Somali tapes (both audio and visual) for their customers.

These informal structures and local entrepreneurships clearly indicate that Somalis are developing new ways of dealing with new issues, while retaining some of the old as an element of continuity. They are negotiating dynamic identities of resistance and defy prescriptions and stereotypes and are seeking to forge new identities based on their Somali roots, while adapting to the Canadian environment.

One thing is obvious, despite the tremendous hardships and obstacles in the path of their resettlement process in the host country and against all the odds, Somalis are determined to reconstruct a live for themselves and families and make Canada their home. Like the Italians, Greeks, Ukrainians, West Indians, Chinese and Vietnamese, Somalis are slowly, but surely, claiming and rightly assuming their place in the rich and colorful Canadian quilt.

-- Hamdi Mohamed, Warsame & Associates


1 A.B.K Kazoki. Integration of Black African Immigrants in Canadian Society: A Case Study of Toronto. Toronto: CANACT, 1986.

2 Some of the recent crises that in the region that forced an enormous number of population out of their homes include the overthrow of the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, the 1977-78 Ethiopia and Somalia war, the 1984 Ethiopian famine and the 1980s Somali civil war.

3 Because of the official recognition of the vicious human rights abuse in Somalia and the violence that engulfed their home country, Somalis received one of the highest acceptance rates of any national group.

4 Elizabeth Chin, Hamdi Mohamed & Beate Schifeer-Graham. The World Within Our City: A Study of Social Service Needs of Immigrants and Refugees in Gloucester. Ottawa: Gloucester Center for Community Resources, 1992.

5 "Ottawa-Carleton hasn’t seen such a sudden influx of newcomers since the region opened its heart to nearly 4,000 ‘boat people’ from Southeast Asia more than a decade ago," said an article in the Ottawa Citizen (November 26, 1992). It is estimated that there are approximately 100,000 Somalis in Canada.

6 Ahmed I. Samatar. "A current political analysis of the situation in the Horn of Africa and the state of the Somali refugees." Paper presented at the International Congress of Somali Studies. Turku, Finland, August 6-9, 1998.

7 Ibid.

8 According to 1994 Immigration and Refugee Board Statistics, children younger than 18 years of age constitute 40 percent of Somali refugees in Canada.

9 For discussions on the employment prospect of Somalis in the Ottawa-Carleton region see Hamdi Mohamed. Beyond Settlement: Economic and Occupational Adjustment of the Somali in the Ottawa-Carleton Region. Canadian Heritage, 1998.

10 Post-traumatic stress syndrome refers to a series of symptoms that follow a trauma outside the range of normal human experience.

11 Edward Opoku-Dapaah. Somali Refugees in Toronto: A Profile. Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, 1995. p. 26.

12 Mohamed. Beyond Settlement… p. 24.

13 The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) awarded its prestigious Nansen medal to the Canadian people in recognition of their compassionate response to the refugees from Indochina and elsewhere.


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