A small but proud community contributes to Toronto’s cultural landscape. Written by Krystyna Cap and originally posted August 3, 2010.
“Explore the heritage of a country influenced by the Greeks, Romans, Italians and Turks,” says Gillian Gloyer in The Bradt Travel Guide: “This ancient land still offers something increasingly rare in Europe these days – a glance at a culture that is all its own,” writes The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Eastern Europe. “You’ll continue to find beautiful pristine beaches, fascinating classical sites and dramatic mountain citadels…The mad traffic of Tirana is symptomatic of a bustling, bright city…Albania is a warm and sincerely hospitable country.”
Everything I knew about Albania came from an undergraduate class on twentieth-century Eastern European history. Admittedly, my knowledge was spotty back then and, as far as undergraduate surveys go, the class only offered the most cursory introduction to key historical developments, from the communist takeover to the conflict in Kosovo.
Like any writer and researcher in the Web 2.0 world, I began my search online, examining both Albania’s rich history and dynamic culture.
“Welcome to Albania,” boasts the country’s main tourist site. “In the heart of the Mediterranean…Albania is fast becoming one of the world’s most interesting getaways.” A stream of photos rotate: sandy beaches, Roman bridges, primeval forest, majestic mountain peaks and diverse cities.
Its inhabitants call it Shqipëri, or “Land of the Eagles.” A black double-headed eagle features prominently on the country’s flag and coat of arms – said to be derived from the seal of Gjergj Kastriot Skanderberg, one of Albania’s national heroes. In the 15th century, Skanderberg led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, successfully securing a brief period of independence for some regions of present-day Albania.
Albania’s capital, Tirana, was founded in 1614. Today, it is home to more than 500,000 people and represents the nation’s administrative, economic, industrial and cultural hub. The picturesque city boasts significant manufacturing facilities, institutions of higher learning, national museums and fine arts galleries.
Toronto’s Albanian Community
Most Torontonians don’t know that Albanians come from seven different European countries. Although many emigrate from Albania proper, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro are all countries of origin for those who make up the city’s Albanian population.
Albanians belong to three major religious groups – Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim – and have lived free of religious conflict for centuries. According to Genc Tirana, the Albanian Consul General in Toronto, though Albanians are not strongly religious, they observe myriad holidays each year and respect each other’s faith. For much of the twentieth century, communism was responsible for curbing many religious practices.
“After the Second World War, religion was banned under the [communist] regime,” Mr. Tirana said. “A whole generation grew up without religious influence.” However, this has not stopped Albanians from worshipping at mosques and churches in Canada, and national holidays, such as Liberation Day on November 28, further unifies this strong community.
Over the years, Toronto’s Albanians have established associations and cultural groups aimed at preserving their language and culture. These organizations have also helped other immigrants acclimate to life in Canada. Among these groups, the Albanian Muslim Society of Toronto and the Albanian-Canadian Community Association – founded in 1954 and 1991 respectively – are the largest and most well organized. Outside Toronto, Albanian communities of varying size can be found in Hamilton, Kitchener, London and Peterborough.
Immigration to Canada
Although the first Albanians arrived in Canada at the beginning of the century, and some after World War II, Toronto’s Albanian community remains relatively new. In Toronto, a nexus of Albanians settled around The Junction, but the majority live in the city’s north end around Marlee Avenue and Lawrence Square.
Census statistics prior to the early 1980s remain scarce as Albanians were largely undistinguished by the Canadian government as a separate nationality. By 1986, however, the number was recorded at just under 1,500, and, within five years, these numbers nearly doubled. According to Mr. Tirana, the number of immigrants peaked in the late 1990s as immigrants fled economic and political crisis in both Albania and Yugoslavia.
Ilir Lena, producer of the weekly television show “Pasqyra Shqiptare” (Albanian Reflections), left Albania in 1998. Mr. Lena initially worked as an English interpreter, translator and settlement consultant. In collaboration with Albanian Public Television and OMNI TV, Mr. Lena consulted on, produced and wrote three documentaries about the Albanian immigrant experience in Canada – “Marsel,” “Jani,” and “1999.” Mr. Lena eventually became the producer of the weekly OMNI TV broadcast in 2003.
“The TV show [“Albanian Reflections”] has quickly become an ‘institution’ around which Albanians gather,” said Mr. Lena. “Everyone watches it together.”
“Albanian Reflections” reports on community life in Canada, as well as current events in Albania. Another program, “Albanian Waves,” is dedicated mainly to celebrity news, with longer reports on tourist attractions and success stories from the Albanian-Canadian community.
In March 2009, Mr. Lena welcomed the debut of a radio program, Radio e Djela, on CHIN, which currently plays Albanian music from across south-central Europe.
Reflections on Canada
According to Mr. Lena, Albanians think well of Canada. As an ally country, and one which participated in the NATO intervention in Kosovo, goodwill is certainly expressed towards Canada, as well as the opportunities it offers immigrants.
Lindita Bicaku, a public school teacher, says Albanians are ready to make a positive contribution in Canada. “Those who are here are willing and eager to work,” said Mrs. Bicaku. “The majority have a university degree, or have upgraded their professional skills in Canada.”
“We are a community that is interested in progress,” says Mr. Tirana, “and Canada has been very helpful in this regard.”
Though the Albanian community in Toronto may be small, the rich history and culture of its people are testament to a proud nationality, which continues to make significant contributions to the Canadian mosaic.