Turkish Canadians

With well over 70 million inhabitants, modern Turkey has become a powerful actor in a political arena stretching from southeastern Europe into central Asia (where many Turkic-speaking peoples live).


With well over 70 million inhabitants, modern Turkey has become a powerful actor in a political arena stretching from southeastern Europe into central Asia (where many Turkic-speaking peoples live). Turkey proper straddles part of Thrace, in the Balkan area, and Anatolia, which makes up the bulk of its territory. These 2 regions are separated by the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. While a geographical crossroads on this scale would normally be a strategic nightmare, it seems to have only enhanced the Turkish people's capacity for cultural synthesis.


The modern period, in particular, has seen some of the greatest transformations. The people of Turkey have not always been known as "Turks." Formerly, it was the Ottoman State that conferred citizenship and political identity, doing so upon a number of religio-ethnic groupings - from the Muslim to the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic. Well before the concept of citizenship was superimposed in the 19th century upon the millet system, which had served for centuries as the prime mechanism of representation for all of Turkey's religious communities, a subject was considered an "Ottoman" above all, regardless of religious or linguistic affiliation. The Ottoman State, moreover, used to hold the seat of the Caliphate, representing all Muslims.

In the 18th century, this age-old institution was gradually merged with the more restrictive title of "Sultanate" normally accorded to any regional power. But the "Caliphate-Sultanate," intended to serve the Islamic world in the face of Russian imperial designs, was finally abolished in 1924 and the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed just before that in 1923. Although predominantly Turkish and Muslim, the modern Turkish Republic is composed of different ethnicities: Kurds, Arabic-speakers, Armenians, Greeks and Jews. Turkey, as is Canada, is also not new to immigration, having long been a land of refuge for its neighbours. Millions of Bosnians, Bulgarians, Chechnians and other Eastern Europeans have fled their homelands since the 18th century, and the turbulence in the Balkans, the former Soviet Republics of central Asia and the Caucasus has displaced thousands more.


The earliest Turkish immigrants to Canada are believed to have arrived in the 1880s. Their numbers since then have steadily grown: 1900-04 (156), 1906-14 (3922), 1915-55 (1262) and 1956-75 (5710). The latest census figures (2006) put the number of Turkish-born people living in Canada at 43 695 (single and multiple response), the majority in Ontario (57%) and Québec (26%). But there are many more people of Turkish ancestry who have been born and raised in Canada and consider themselves to be entirely Canadian.

Economic Life

In the past, Turkish Canadians tended to be professionals more often than entrepreneurs or industrial workers, as in Western Europe. Recent arrivals, however, combined with the increasingly cash-strapped private and educational sectors, have altered the picture somewhat. A far greater percentage is now made up of self-employed and skilled or unskilled labourers. The changing composition reflects to some extent the volatile economic conditions inside Turkey, whose urban centres have been subjected, since the early 1990s, to huge influxes from rural areas, especially the eastern provinces. In these outlying regions, major political and economic changes are currently in progress.

Religion and Community Life

Compared to other ethnic communities, the Turkish Canadians population is not very large. Many Turks remain strongly attached to organized religion, despite several decades of a militant form of secular state ideology in Turkey, and they tend to congregate not on the basis of ethnic affiliation, but out of a religious sense of community.

This is not to say, though, that religious practice lacks a "Turkish" flavour or character. Turkish Muslims everywhere observe "Kurban Bayrame," which is Turkish for the Arabic "Id al-Adha" (the Feast of Abraham's Sacrifice and annual pilgrimage to Mecca); they celebrate "Ramazan Bayrame" rather than "Id al-Fitr" (marking the end of the month of fasting); and commemorate "Ashure günü" and "Mevlid Kandili" (Prophet's birth) - all of which are calques from the Arabic.

More importantly, their spiritual character has been moulded by a long and complex tradition that has managed to survive into modern times through various channels, though chiefly through the ever-present mystical orders. Open to both men and women, these Sufi orders have made a remarkable comeback in recent years in practically every facet of cultural, artistic and intellectual life, despite decades of official disapproval. While the general surge of interest in Islam has given rise, on occasion, to ideological aberrations of one kind or another, spiritual sentiment so far has largely remained within the bounds of mainstream religion. The intellectual and artistic legacy of the Mevlevi order, founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi's followers in the 13th century, has proven difficult for ideological currents of the religiously "fundamentalist" brand to supplant. And even the most hardened nationalists have had to pay tribute at one time or other to the country's most celebrated mystical poets and thinkers, such as Yunus Emre, Sultan Valad, Mehmet Chelebi, Ismacil Ankaravi and others.

These figures have not lost their national stature. Indeed, the search for new stylistic and thematic inspiration which is at the same time faithful to the achievements of the past has spawned a flourishing book trade among younger, more educated age groups that are reaching into Canada and the US.

Group Maintenance

The Turkish Cultural Association of Canada was founded in Montréal in 1964. It is one of the oldest Turkish-Canadian organizations and was established to support new immigrants and help maintain some of the Turkish culture among its members. The following year, both Toronto and Vancouver established the Turkish Canadian Cultural Society and the Turkish-Canadian Association respectively. The Toronto-based Canadian Turkish Islamic Heritage Association is also a prominent cultural organization: it was founded in 1984 and regularly puts out the Haber Bülteni. Finally, the Communauté Islamique Turque du Québec, one of many religious organizations administering mosques in Canada, operates a Turkish mosque in Saint-Laurent. The 2006 census recorded 25 625 people who described Turkish as being their mother tongue (first language learned).

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