Afghan Canadians

The Afghan community in Canada is relatively new. Until 1978, about 1,000 Afghans were living in Canada. Following the 1978 coup led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the subsequent Soviet invasion and occupation of the country and continued war over the last four decades, the Afghan population in Canada has grown. According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, approximately 84,000 Afghans are living in Canada, the majority of whom are settled in the suburbs of major cities.

Afghanistan
A map showing the Middle East and South Asia, including Afghanistan (yellow), Pakistan (green) and the Arabian Sea.

Overview

Afghanistan is a landlocked country situated at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia. It is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and is often also considered part of the Greater Middle East. Therefore, the country has historically been a land bridge and a major passageway for conquerors, empires, trade caravans and peoples. The cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Bamiyan and Balkh were major hubs on the ancient Silk Road trade route. Because of its prime geographical location, the famous South Asian poet Iqbal Lahori called Afghanistan “the Heart of Asia.”

The country is bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. It has a very diverse population. Nearly all major ethnicities and nationalities in the region have a presence in Afghanistan. Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimaq, Turkmen, Baloch, Brahui, Nuristani, Pashai, Pamiri, Gujjar, Arab, Jatt, Kirghiz, Hindu, Qizilbash, Bayat and many others live in the country. Persian (Farsi-Dari) and Pashto are the two official and most widely-spoken languages in the country, though more than 30 other languages are spoken there.

The majority of the people of Afghanistan are Sunni Muslims, although the country has significant Shia and Ismaili-Shia minorities. A small minority of Hindus and Sikhs are also present, mostly in major urban areas. However, as a result of ongoing war, economic insecurity and discrimination, their numbers have been dwindling as they increasingly leave the country. Historically, Afghanistan had a small Jewish population, but as a result of the last four decades of war, all but one has migrated. The country lacks reliable statistics: no census has been successfully completed to determine its population or the size of its different ethnic and religious groups. It is believed that its current population is about 30 million.

War and Migration

Afghanistan has been plagued by ongoing war since the pro-Soviet military coup of April 1978 led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion of 1979. This military coup marked the beginning of a period of political turmoil in Afghanistan, which has lasted until the present day. It is estimated that as a result of the Soviet invasion and occupation and the war of resistance against it, around six million Afghans have migrated from Afghanistan, approximately two million others have been killed and many more have been wounded.

After the Soviet withdrawal from power in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan state, a fatal civil war ensued in 1990, which continued with the emergence of the Taliban movement, the establishment of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and their takeover of Kabul in 1996. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, an American-led coalition invaded and toppled the Taliban regime and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was installed, which was first led by Hamid Karzai and is now led by Ashraf Ghani. The project of state building has been met with armed resistance by the Taliban and other insurgents, and the war has continued.

Canada in Afghanistan
From 2001-2014 Canadian soldiers served with an international coalition fighting the war in Afghanistan \u2014 a legacy of the 9/11 attacks.
War in Afghanistan
A de-mining engineer of the United Nations' Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (MAPA) clears an anti-personnel landmine in 2007.
War in Afghanistan
A Canadian C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, arriving at Kandahar airfield in May 2002.

Afghanistan is currently experiencing a fourth decade of continuous war and political instability. In the 1980s and 1990s, Afghans made up one of the largest part of the world’s refugee population. Most of them resided in refugee camps and in urban areas of neighbouring countries, primarily Iran and Pakistan.

Settlement in Canada

The Afghan community in Canada is relatively new. Most Afghans migrated to Canada after the pro-Soviet military coup in 1978 led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and the subsequent Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. Prior to 1978, there were about 1,000 Afghans in Canada. However, between 1981 and 1995, around 10,000 Afghans arrived as refugees and asylum seekers. This sizeable first wave of migration to Canada corresponded with the Soviet invasion, the subsequent war of resistance against Soviet powers and occupation and civil war following the collapse of the Afghan state. This trend of migration continued, and between 1996 and 2001, about another 11,000 Afghans arrived in Canada. A total of 37,265 Afghans have arrived in Canada since 1991. Almost all Afghan Canadians reside in large metropolitan cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. According to the latest Statistics Canada Census (2016), more than 83,995 Afghans are living in Canada.

Economic Life

Afghans in Canada engage in a wide variety of economic activities. Many works in the food industry, either owning franchise restaurants or working in them as wage labourers. Numerous Afghan restaurants have appeared in big cities where there are large Afghan communities. Afghan-style kebab joints have become part of Canadian cuisine in major urban areas. Grocery stores catering to Afghan communities have become a feature of shopping plazas in the suburbs of major metropolitan cities, especially in the Greater Toronto Area. These stores import Afghan speciality food products such as dried fruits, nuts and spices.

Since weddings are big part of Afghan community life, many Afghans are also employed in the wedding industry. Advertisements for photographers, makeup artists, musicians and other marriage-related services cover the pages of community news publications. Some Afghan businesses are involved in the import and export of auto parts and work as mechanics. Others work as skilled physical labourers in the construction industry, from landscaping to renovation. A significant proportion of the new generation of Afghan Canadians attend schools, colleges and universities.

Community and Cultural Life

Afghans in Canada come from diverse ethnic, religious, class and political backgrounds. Therefore, the Afghan-Canadian community reflects that diversity. The Mosque is the center of religious life. Sunnis, Shias and Ismaili-Shias each have their own mosques and religious centers, sometimes sharing their vicinities with other Canadians of the same faith. In addition, weddings and concerts form a big part of Afghan cultural life in Canada. Many Afghan Canadians enjoy gathering in urban parks, congregating in the summer in small family groups or in larger community picnics or parties. For the most part, this is a cultural activity that Afghan Canadians have adopted in Canada, and it has become a new and important part of community life.

Canada is home to several prominent Afghan singers. Wahid Qasemi, Hangama, Ustad Ulfat Ahang, Qamar Gul and many others were established singers in Afghanistan before they immigrated to Canada, while a new generation of Afghan-Canadian musicians and singers, such as Qais Ulfat, Muzhda Jamalzada (Mozdah Jamalzadah) and many others, who were either born or have grown up in Canada, have become famous in Afghanistan.

There are several Afghan-Canadians news magazines: Zarnegaar (since 1996), Afghan Post (since 1999) and Nayab (since 2003) are the longest-running.

Political Life

Afghan-Canadian political life is twofold. On one level, since almost all Afghans in Canada are refugees and have settled in Canada as a result of political turmoil in their country of origin, the community reflects the range of political opinion in Afghanistan, which is divided along ideological, ethnic, religious and class lines.

Maryam Monsef

On another level, Afghan Canadians are active participants in Canadian political life. They are present in social movements, including the anti-war movement, student activism and labour unions, as well as in the Canadian electoral system. Maryam Monsef is the first Afghan to be elected as Member of Parliament, after wining the 2015 election on a Liberal ticket. She was also the first Muslim cabinet minister in a Canadian government.

Relations between Canada and Afghanistan

Canada and Afghanistan re-established diplomatic relations in 2002 after the demise of the Taliban government. The Canadian Embassy is situated in Kabul, and the Afghan Embassy is in Ottawa (see Diplomatic and Consular Representations). Canada has provided significant financial and military support as part of the broader efforts to an American-led coalition to facilitate the process of state building in post-Taliban Afghanistan. There is also a relatively small bilateral trade relationship between the two countries. Canada imports related equipment such as fruits, nuts and carpets from Afghanistan, while Afghanistan imports products such as machinery, aircrafts and parts from Canada. In recent years, despite the safety concerns, a number of Canadian companies have been doing business in Afghanistan. For instance, Canadian companies have shown interest in the exploration of mineral sectors, e.g., gold, copper, iron, oil, gas, coal, chromite and uranium (see Mining).


Further Reading

  • Barrnet R Ruben, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (2002, 2nd edition).

    Sayed Askar Mousavi, The Hazaras of Afghanistan: An Historic, Cultural, Economic and Political Study (1997).

    Mujib Rahman Rahimi, State Formation in Afghanistan: A Theoretical and Political History (2017).

    Mohammad Hassan Kakar, A Political and Diplomatic History of Afghanistan, 1863-1901 (2006).