Syrian Refugee-Host Community Relations in Nova Scotia

nova scotia

Syrian Refugee-Host Community Relations in Nova Scotia

Title: Syrian Refugee-Host Community Relations in Nova Scotia

Writer: Ainslie Pierrynowski

Nova Scotia’s resettlement of 1 079 Syrian refugees between November 4th, 2015 and August 31st, 2016 is not only notable for the relatively large number of Syrian refugees which the province took in—the third highest number per capita of all the Canadian provinces[i]—but also for the remarkable level of community support involved in the process of resettling Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia. Prior to the Federal Government’s plan of November 2015 to resettle 25 000 Syrian refugees in Canada by February 2016,[ii] few services for refugees and sponsorship groups existed outside of the province’s capital and urban centre of Halifax[iii]. As of November 6th, 2016[iv], this is the sole Nova Scotia community with programs in place to accept government-assisted refugees. As news of the Syrian refugee crisis permeated local and national media, however, grassroots-organized rallies in support of resettling Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia took place in various locations, namely Halifax,[v] St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish,[vi] and Cape Breton[vii]. Furthermore, a public meeting in favour of supporting Syrian refugees was organized by community members in Sydney,[viii] and 2015 saw newly formed private sponsorship groups arise across the province, like Lifeline Syria Cape Breton in northern Nova Scotia (created in September 2015) to Digby Welcomes Refugees (created in November 2015), located at the province’s southern tip.[ix] Public opinion toward refugees seemed generally positive in Canada overall and particularly in Atlantic Canada, according to the most recent information available at the time of writing. A December 2015 Forum Research poll found that 48% of Canadians supported the government’s recently announced plan to bring in Syrian refugees,[x] while a Nanos Research survey conducted at the same time found that 65% of Canadians support taking in 25 000 refugees by February 2016 (as prescribed in the government plan) or taking in even more refugees.[xi] In fact, the latter poll found that support for taking in more than 25 000 refugees was highest among Atlantic Canadians, at 45%, compared to 28% across Canada.

The seemingly positive reception of Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia seems surprising in light of Atlantic Canada’s reputation for having an unwelcoming attitude toward outsiders without roots in the community, referred to derisively as “come-from-away’s” (CFAs).[xii] This attitude had been identified in a 2007 study[xiii] as one of the primary reasons as to why immigrant health professionals frequently choose to leave Atlantic Canada in favour of other provinces. This “quasi-racist clannishness”[xiv] renders immigrants subject to distrust and subtle discrimination and hence puts them at a disadvantage in terms of employment and job opportunities. For instance, a nurse, who had moved to Atlantic Canada six years before being interviewed, cited a co-worker’s degrading comment that newly hired nurses “from away” were different and “not like [them]”[xv] and claimed that hiring practices that seemingly favoured locals over more experienced newcomers.[xvi] Indeed, Nancy W. Jabbra found that Nova Scotia is relatively ethnically homogenous, with the Nova Scotian population consisting of 73.3% people of British descent, 12.2% those of French descent, and 14.6% those of other origins, compared to 41.5% people of British descent, 28.8% people of French descent, and 30.2% people of other origins in Canada’s population as a whole.[xvii]

Several factors can help to explain Nova Scotians’ apparent positive reception of Syrian refugees, despite the purported prevalence of hostility toward newcomers in Atlantic Canada. First, the Nova Scotia government’s statement on Syrian refugees,[xviii] as well as media interviews with members of the Nova Scotian public, cite altruistic, humanitarian reasons for accepting Syrian refugees. Indeed, one donor to a Halifax organization supporting Syrian refugees claimed that seeing Alan Kurdi’s photograph emotionally moved her and prompted her to act,[xix] as did several attendees at a Cape Breton meeting in support of accepting Syrian refugees.[xx] According to University of Prince Edward Island professor Don Desserud, Atlantic Canada’s post-Confederation economic stagnation has fostered Atlantic Canadians’ apprehensiveness toward outsiders, who are perceived as “looking down at”[xxi] economically insecure Atlantic Canadians. Therefore, if Atlantic Canada’s unwelcoming attitude toward outsiders can indeed be attributed to the perception that affluent newcomers look down on Atlantic Canadians[xxii], then Syrian refugees’ dire plight may explain Nova Scotia’s more sympathetic reception of this group.

Second, collective memory may play a role in Nova Scotia’s acceptance of Syrian refugees. In particular, Stephen Augustine, Dean of Unamaki College—a Mi’kmaq studies institute at Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton University—alluded to Cape Breton’s history of accepting immigrants from other areas of the world in an attempt to convince his community to take in Syrian refugees.[xxiii] For example, one Halifax donor who supported Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia paralleled her grandparents’ journey from the Soviet Union to Canada reflected in Syrian refugees’ migration to Nova Scotia, hence her support for Syrian refugees coming to the province.[xxiv] Further, support from a substantial community of Syrian and Lebanese descent in Cape Breton, owing to immigration to Nova Scotia during the early 20th century and the Lebanese civil war in the 1970’s[xxv], has also contributed to the growth of Lifeline Syria Cape Breton.[xxvi]

Third and finally, support for Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia has been shaped by the province’s economic reality. The 2014 provincial government commissioned-report on the Nova Scotian economy, Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians,[xxvii] also known as the Ivany Report, argued that urgent action was needed to combat Nova Scotia’s post-Confederation economic stagnation due to the decline of its manufacturing, mining, forestry, and fishing industries, as well as the province’s aging population and substantial outmigration rate.[xxviii] Specifically, the report contended that Nova Scotia must drastically increase its intake of immigrants to sustain itself financially.[xxix] Meanwhile, according to Jabbra, newcomers to Canada have been drawn to economic opportunity in more prosperous areas beyond Atlantic Canada, hence Nova Scotia’s comparative lack of diversity and high provincial outmigration rates.[xxx] Thus, Nova Scotia is trapped in a Catch-22, in that the province needs more people to buy Nova Scotian products and start businesses, but Nova Scotia needs to provide economic incentives so that newcomers come to and remain in the province.  As a result, multiple Nova Scotian political leaders and organizations have echoed the Ivany report’s financial arguments for increased immigration in the context of taking in Syrian refugees, including Nova Scotia Member of Parliament and President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison,[xxxi] the Halifax Chamber of Commerce,[xxxii] and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.[xxxiii] These individuals and groups argue that the influx of Syrian refugees will increase Nova Scotia’s dwindling population and thereby provide more people to work, start businesses, buy Nova Scotian products, and ultimately fuel the province’s economy.

As such, the reasons behind Nova Scotia’s acceptance of Syrian refugees are multidimensional, founded on humanitarianism, collective memory, and economic forces. Nonetheless, the Syrian refugee experience in Nova Scotia has not been free of difficulties. For instance, Syrian refugees have struggled with relatively high food prices and fulfilling religious and medical dietary requirements, which has been compounded by the language barrier[1]. Owing to the food insecurity faced by many Syrian refugees in the province as well as an economic downtown in the Albertan oil sector (where a substantial number of Nova Scotians were employed), food bank usage has surged by over 17% in Nova Scotia in 2015.[2] Given the social and financial concerns of both host communities and Syrian refugees in the province, Syrian refugee-host community relations in Nova Scotia may very well structure the future of both groups.


[1] Olesya Shyvikova, “Syrian refugees grapple with dietary needs and high food prices,” CBC News, 10 May 2016,

[2] Michael Lewis, “Influx of Syrian refugees fuels surge in food bank use, report says,” The Toronto Star, 15 November 2016,

[i] Kashmala Fida, “Maritime Provinces Lead the Way in resettling Syrian Refugees per Capita,” CBC News, March 1, 2016,

[ii] Department of Immigration, Citizenship, and Refugees, “Backgrounder: #WelcomeRefugees to Canada,” Government of Canada, November 24, 2015,

[iii] —, “#WelcomeRefugees: Key Figures,” Government of Canada, November 6, 2016,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] CBC News, “Halifax rally wants country to let in more Syrian refugees,” CBC News, October 10, 2015,

[vi] Kristian Rasenberg, “StFX for SAFE to hold Peace for Syria Walk,” The Xavierian, October 10, 2016,

[vii] Tom Ayers, “Rally for Refugees set for CBU,” Chronicle Herald, September 16, 2015,

[viii] Ken MacLeod, “Meeting confirms desire of Cape Bretoners to host Syrian Refugees, Cape Breton Post, September 8, 2015,

[ix] Refugees Belong, “Other Sponsorship Efforts,” Refugees Belong, ACCESSED DECEMBER 10, 2016,

[x] Éric Grenier, “Is Canadians’ support for taking in Syrian refugees increasing?,” CBC News, 10 December 2015,

[xi] Josh Dehaas, “Exclusive poll finds huge support for Syrian refugees,” 23 December 2015,

[xii] Michael Macdonald, “Cliquish Atlantic Canadians rethink an unfriendly phrase: ‘Come from away,’” The Canadian Press, 7 July 2016, Factiva, Document CPR0000020160708ec770003s.

[xiii] Godfrey Baldacchino, Sarath Chandrasekere, & Pat Saunders, “INTERNATIONALLY EDUCATED HEALTH PROFESSIONS IN ATLANTIC CANADA,” Canadian Issues Spring 2007: (2007), 104-107, accessed December 10 2016,

[xiv] Ibid, 104.

[xv] Ibid, 106.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Nancy W. Jabbra. “Ethnicity in Atlantic Canada” Canadian Ethnic Studies-Etudes Ethniques Au Canada, 20 no. 3: (1988): 1, accessed Decmber 10, 2016,

[xviii] Government of Nova Scotia, “Refugee Response,” Government of Nova Scotia, 16 March 2016,

[xix] The Canadian Press, “BR-Syrian-Refugees-Donors,” The Canadian Press, 25 December 2015, Factiva, Document BNW0000020151226ebcp0000o.

[xx] Ken MacLeod, “Meeting confirms desire of Cape Bretoners to host Syrian Refugees, Cape Breton Post, 8 September 2015,

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Michael Macdonald, “Cliquish Atlantic Canadians rethink an unfriendly phrase: ‘Come from away,’” The Canadian Press, 7 July 2016, Factiva, Document CPR0000020160708ec770003s.

[xxiii] Tina Roache, “Mi’kmaw professor calling on Indigenous leaders to push Canada to accept more Syrian refugees,” APTN National News, 17 September 2015,

[xxiv] The Canadian Press, “BR-Syrian-Refugees-Donors,” The Canadian Press, 25 December 2015, Factiva, Document BNW0000020151226ebcp0000o.

[xxv] Nancy W. Jabbra, “ Household and family among Lebanese immigrants in Nova Scotia: Continuity, change and adaptation,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 22 no. 1: (1991), 41, accessed December 10, 2016,

[xxvi] Cedars Club, Posts on 12 Feburary 2016, 4 February 2016, 30 January 2016, 26 Janurary 2016, 4 January 2016, 17 December 2015, and 15 November 2015 in “Cedars Club Sydney,” Cedars Club,

[xxvii] Ray Ivany, “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians,” One Nova Scotia Commission (Government of Nova Scotia), February 2014, accessed December 9, 2016,

[xxviii] Ibid, 12-16.

[xxix] Ibid, 24.

[xxx] Nancy W. Jabbra. (1988). Ethnicity in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies-Etudes Ethniques Au Canada, 20(3), 2, accessed December 10, 2016,

[xxxi] Michael Macdonald, “Cliquish Atlantic Canadians rethink an unfriendly phrase: ‘Come from away,’” The Canadian Press, July 7, 2016, Factiva, Document CPR0000020160708ec770003s

[xxxii] Fabian, Sabrina. Syrian refugees will help stimulate economy, says Halifax Chamber of Commerce, 13 November 2015, CBC News,

[xxxiii] Demont, John. Halifax at Forefront of National Refugee Effort, 4 October 2014, Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (originally published in The Chronicle Herald),