Lac La Biche is the site of one of the first permanent Lebanese settlements in Alberta and has the highest percentage of Lebanese people per capita (14%) in the province. Most of the Lebanese community today have roots in either Lala or Kherbet Rouha, both located in the Beqaa Valley.
The first Lebanese immigrants in Alberta, Ali Abouchadi (Alexander Hamilton) and his uncle Sine Abouchadi, came to Canada in 1905 intending to work the gold rush. Unfortunately, they arrived too late. By 1906, they were peddling goods between Edmonton and Lac La Biche; eventually, Sine opened a general store in Lac La Biche, which his nephew took over in 1913. By the late 1920s, Alex Hamilton was one of the biggest businessmen in town. Many other arrived in Lac La Biche around the same time, such as Mohamed Abuali Gotmi (Frank Coutney), who came to Lac La Biche in 1911. Initially, he worked for Alex Hamilton, but later started an independent fur trading business. He learned English, Nêhiyawêwin (Cree), Dene, Ukrainian, Swedish, and French.
The largest wave of Lebanese immigration took place in the 1940-1950s, and many worked in mink ranching. For exmaple, Jim Tarrabain and Sine Abougoush’s mink were among those in the community recognized for their high quality across Canada. Anne Tarrabain maintains that working with her husband on their mink ranch in Lac La Biche helped preserve the language, morals, and traditions of her family’s culture.
“We talked about tolerance, understanding, and always having those strong morals and values. Honesty, hard-working and trusting… because the community allowed us to practice our religion and culture, we never felt other than comfortable and we belonged.
Most Lebanese in our community are Muslims, but they did not have a mosque, or masjid (مسجد ), for several decades after their arrival in the area. Without a mosque, families would meet in their homes for prayers and other gatherings. In 1958, construction began on the first mosque, a place to pray, gather, and educate their children. This was the second mosque built in Canada. In the 1960s, an Imam arrived in Lac La Biche to serve the community. The current Al Kareem Mosque was constructed in 1986.
The largest holiday for Lebanese Muslims is Eid, which follows Ramadan, a month long fast during daylight hours from sunrise to sunset. Eid-al-Fitr is full of celebration and delicious food, such as fatayer, a turnover pastry made with spinach. For dessert, baklava, phyllo pastry layered with nuts and honey, is popular.
Arabic is still a common language spoken among the Lebanese is Lac La Biche, due in part to its necessity for Muslim prayers. Classes have been available at the Al Kareem Mosque and J.A. Williams High School. Poetry in Arabic is usually sung, creating a beautiful harmony of prose and melody.
“A lot of cultural habits go hand in hand with the language. Arabic is different than English. English is kind of a left-hemisphere language. Arabic is a right-hemisphere language. You can describe abstracts better than English, where English is very straightforward—it’s an accountant’s, lawyer’s language where everything is specific. It helps me, knowing both languages, because if I can’t get a concept in one language, I switch thinking into the other language, and it’ll come to me. […] In Arabic, you can describe an abstract idea in three or four words, while in English, you may need a while.”
The traditional dance of Lebanon is called dabke. It originated from repairing mud roofs that were damaged by weather change. To fix the roof, people would hold hands, form a line, and start stomping their feet on the roof. Today, dabke is a much livelier line dance performed at special occasions such as weddings and social gatherings.