By Craig Carter-Edwards
We’ve all heard stories of Syrians coming to and settling in Canada. The notion brings up images of refugees walking through the welcome gate at airports. Perhaps we wonder what the future holds for these new Canadians.
In truth, Syrians have been coming to Canada since long before that first plane load of Syrian refugees arrived three years ago this month. In fact, Syrians have been settling in Canada since before our first commercial flight in 1913.
To give a bit a sense of the Canadian journey that may await some of these new Canadians, we wanted to look back and share a story of another Syrian Canadian – Rose Aziz.
Rose Aziz was born on May 12, 1891 in the village of Chebaa in the Golan Heights (which was Syrian territory then, but is part of Lebanon today). At the time, the hills around Chebaa were lush, covered with fruit trees and pastures where livestock grazed.
Rose’s love of vegetation started early, and continued her whole life.
Her family home was modest – two stone rooms with a flat roof, built on the side of a mountain. They had an open fireplace and simple furniture; sleeping mats were rolled up to create space for the day’s activities, and lighting was provided by oil lamps.
Rose’s father, Esber, raised animals for a living. The kids all pitched in; it was Rose’s job to mind the goats, and she also helped in the garden by weeding, removing stones, and spreading manure. She was also responsible for collecting kindling for the fire.
For her education, Rose attended the village’s school, a one-room building where the kids sat on the floor and wrote on slates with chalk. They learned reading, writing, arithmetic, heard bible stories, and picked up skills useful at home, such as carding wool.
In the early 1900s, many Syrians were moving to Canada, seeking new opportunities. Ebser was encouraged to make the move himself by cousins of his who had already made the trip and were now running a successful clothing factory in Toronto. Esber’s whole family would eventually make the move, including Rose, who came with her mother Naklia and brother Norman in 1913.
The three of them travelled from Chebaa to Beirut by donkey, then boarded a boat to Marseille, France. There they stayed for several months, earning money for the trip to Canada. Rose and Naklia became entrepreneurs, charging other travelers to take care of their laundry.
Like most crossings at this time, the boat Rose, her mother and brother were in was cramped, the food terrible, and many people got sick. It was a relief when they finally arrived in New York, the ship’s first port of entry. They were met by Edward, an older brother who had already settled in Canada. The first thing Edward did was get them some new sets of clothes.
Rose’s first home in Toronto was at York and University, where Chipotle Mexican Grill can be found today. She got a job working at the Persian Laundry on King Street to help her family with bills. At night, she and her brother Norman took English lessons at night school.
Esber himself moved from Chebaa to Toronto in 1914, and the family upgraded to a larger house at 15 St. Patrick Street, now the location of The Rex Hotel and Bar.
Rose got another job at Joseph Simpson’s, where her duty was to provide quality control on underwear being produced for soldiers fighting in World War I.
On July 23rd, 1916, Rose married Albert Aziz. The irony is that, while she was unimpressed by Albert when first introduced to him by her mother, it was to eventually get out and gain some independence from her mom that Rose accepted his proposal. Rose bought her dress, but borrowed her veil from a sister-in-law. The wife of her father’s cousin Joseph provided flowers for the bouquet out of her own garden. Rose and Albert had a simple honeymoon; they rented a horse and carriage and went for a ride around Queen’s Park.
Their first child, Nicholas, was born on June 13, 1917. Albert continued to work in a warehouse while Rose cared for Nicholas. She would take him for walks with her good friend, Belita Thomas. In 1919, the growing family moved to a hose they shared with Rose’s parents at 319 Dundas Street West, near where the AGO now stands. Their second child was born in 1920; altogether, Rose and Albert would have eight children. One of their favourite activities to do together was watching the fireworks at nearby Queen’s Park.
In 1923, at the suggestion of his cousin Gibron, Albert decided to move the family to Colborne, Ontario, where he bought a dry goods store which sold clothing and shoes to the locals. The family lived in Colborne for twelve years, and became active members of the community. Four of Rose and Albert’s children were born in Colborne, so they moved from the living space above the store into a house that had been owned by a doctor, and had a big maple tree in the backyard.
Like many businesses, Albert’s store suffered during the Great Depression. Matters were not helped by the building of a brand new highway – the 401 – that passed by Colborne, reducing customer traffic. In March of 1935, Albert moved the family again, this time out west to Saskatchewan. Albert’s brother Kelly ran a farm in Foam Lake Station, Saskatchewan, and invited Esber and family to come out and help him.
The Aziz family had been such a strong and respected part of the Colborne community that 100 people came to bid them farewell as they headed west. Kelly’s farm had cattle, horses, milk cows, hogs and chickens. The Aziz boys also worked hard on the farm, helping to manage the animals and till the fields.
Rose’s younger children attended a one-room school not too different from the one she attended in Chebaa – though one of the older brothers, George, would drive them there on a covered sled during the winter months. Life was hard; the Depression had an impact on Western Canada as well, and a prolonged drought made things worse. Eventually, Rose decided to move her family back to Ontario.
In 1938, the Aziz family returned to Toronto. At first, they lived in a boarding house on John Street; this was also used as a bootleg house, so Rose wasted no time in moving to a rented house on Roxton Avenue, and eventually another house on Shannon Avenue. The boys found work and gave part of their pay to Rose for rent, food, and supplies.
World War II broke out in 1939. Four of Rose’s children were of age to enlist, and she was proud to see them do so and fight for their country, even if she was worried for their safety. They all had different duties primarily non-combat, and all survived the conflict.
Towards the end of the war, Rose and Albert bought their first house at 654 Balliol Street. It cost them all of $5,600, with a downpayment of $200. Rose started a dress-making business out of the home, calling it Delia’s Darlings after one of her daughters.
The family settled in nicely, hosted family and friends to card games, and got involved with the local church. Rose became famous for the delicious Syrian food that she prepared.
Recalling how much she enjoyed gardening back in Chebaa, Rose kept up a lovely garden at her new home. She was particularly proud of her tomatoes, fruit trees, and roses. Just as she helped when she was a child, Rose’s children helped her with weeding and cutting branches.
In July of 1966, Rose and Albert celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren joined them for a family brunch at the Savarin Tavern at 336 Bay Street, not far from Old City Hall. Afterwards, family and friends got together for a large party featuring lots of Syrian cooking. The couple received a letter of acknowledgement for this milestone from then-Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
Albert died of a stroke on February 9th, 1970. Rose was broken-hearted to lose her partner of 54 years, though had some comfort from her extensive family and network of friends. She stayed in the home she and Albert had bought in 1944, hosting family and friends in her garden. As her health began to fail, Rose started to think about smaller accommodations, and in 1973 she sold the house she had bought for $5,500 for $65,000.
Rose moved to an apartment complex at Yonge and Eglinton, where she lived until 1981, her 90th year. For the next seven years she lived in a senior’s home, moving in 1988 to an extended care home. It became a family tradition to gather together for Rose’s birthday, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all celebrating her life.
Before passing, Rose left a note to her family, discussing that which mattered to her most in life:
To my family,
I often think about the past and thank God for my memory of so many things. I have had good things and bad things in my life. Sometimes life was hard, but I have always had good health. The most important thing to me is my good family. I have wonderful children that have helped me so much. I love my family and I am pleased how they all turned out.
God bless them.
Except for Canada’s indigenous population, we all have a story like Rose’s somewhere in our family history. Whether one generation ago or several, we have all come from somewhere else, bringing our culture, hopes and dreams with us. We all adapt, and in the process, add a bit of our unique experiences to the Canadian tapestry.
If you’re curious what the future holds for many of the Syrians who have settled in Canada in recent years, or any of the other families that have come here as migrants or as refugees, take a look at the picture of Rose with her extended family.
That is the story of Canada.
Much thanks to Tanya Dunn and the Aziz family and descendants for sharing Rose’s story and pictures.