In pockets of Metro Vancouver, some 30,000 Iranian Canadians live in flourishing cultural neighbourhoods. Iranian tastes and smells fill the shops and restaurants, and Farsi signs and newspapers catch the eye in places like Lonsdale Ave.
After the Greater Toronto area, Vancouver has the largest Iranian population in Canada. Of the 92,090 Iranian-Canadians counted in the last census, approximately 29,000 settled in Vancouver. North Vancouver is the most significant of these ethnic hubs, followed by West Vancouver and Coquitlam.
With a significant upswing in immigration after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, there has been a steady flow of immigrants from Iran looking for political, economic, and social opportunity. Local store manager Fatemeh – who prefers to remain identified by first name only – came over a decade ago as a skilled labourer. Some of her compatriots fled from Iran as refugees, while others – especially in recent years – seized opportunity as business immigrants. Once here, the existing Persian communities welcomed them with memories of home and the promise of a new future.
Culture meets tolerance
Those who immigrate today can find cultural support in a number of places, including cultural centres, festivals, concerts, poetry classes, mosques, and meet-up groups for walking and talking. Examples of specific groups include the Society of Iranian Canadian Professionals and a Farsi-based media group. There are also organizations that help navigate the line between living in a supportive community and participating in a new culture. The Canadian-Iranian Foundation (CIF), for example, specializes in the orientation and integration of new immigrants. They stand for social responsibility and human welfare, distancing themselves from religion and politics. Education and volunteerism are listed as their most important tools.
“It is also an aim of this Foundation to educate and advise newly arrived immigrants about education, charitable work and becoming involved in the process for social reform in Canada,” their mission statement reads.
Many first-generation Iranian-Canadians retain strong ties to their home country, returning home two or three times in a decade. The later generations are much less likely to visit the land of their ancestors. Interest in the culture, however, is unflagging. Many second and third generation immigrants are raised with Persian values. Fatemeh says her children, here since 2003, see themselves still as Iranian.
“My home is very Persian. That life is beautiful to me and I raised them, so it is only natural to them,” she says.
Language is seen, by many, as the most important part of passing on Iranian culture. In 2013, an estimated 60% of Iranian-Canadian households still spoke Farsi or another ethnic language at home. English trailed behind in the 30% range, according to Iranian-Canadian news site IranTO. Traditions and festivities also carry strong sentimental value. While religion and politics may still invoke deep personal feelings, they were less significant in community engagement. Fatemeh says that, while she has seen prejudicial and extremist groups meeting in the name of religion, it not unlike prejudicial groups elsewhere. For the majority of her religious community, Islam is the belief system of a moderate, respectable people.
“Everything is to peace,” she says.
Many others in the community are happy to say that Iranians can embrace secularism as fully as any other.
Trials and triumphs
The Iranian-Canadian community is a highly educated population, well-represented in fields such as engineering, mathematics and computer science, though many who gained their credentials back in Iran now struggle to have them recognized in Canada. What started as a flow of political refugees after the Iranian Revolution has largely become a group of skilled workers and investors. Fatemeh says in the last six or seven years the demographics of her West Vancouver Iranian-Canadian community has seen a definite turn, with the influx of new money and generations raised under a different political system. She is concerned about the changing demographics. She sees that the Iran she visits now is not the same Iran she grew up in. The political systems have since changed the character of the people there. She believes that Canada’s political environment – valuing freedom and multiculturalism – will improve the community in other ways.
“Such a system causes people to become more open-minded,” she says.