The immigrants came originally from Diman, a poor Maronite Catholic village of 1,400 overlooking a picturesque valley in northern Lebanon, and now they are transforming the historic city of Halifax into a modern metropolis.
The so-called Diman developers – the Ramias, Fares's, Ghosns, Metleges and Arabs – are the latest generation of Lebanese to make a life in Halifax, an unlikely magnet for immigrants from their hometown. The families built their fortunes here, and they are investing millions of dollars on soaring towers of glass and steel in a conservative city long accustomed to squat, humble buildings.
"Our ancestors came here peddling – they cleaned floors and their kids got an education – and they are the ones building the city today," said Wadih Fares, president of WM Fares Group who is also the Honorary Lebanese consul for the Maritimes and a recent Order of Canada recipient. "Our legacy and interest is to build nice buildings, to contribute to the change of the face of the city."
Mr. Fares's $41-million, 19-storey condominium, The Trillium, was completed last year and was the first major development in Halifax's downtown in more than 20 years. Andy Fillmore, former urban design manager for the city and now vice-president of planning with the Waterfront Development Corp., a provincial Crown corporation, describes The Trillium as a "phenomenal turning point for the city."
"It began to give the city a confidence that contemporary architecture is not only okay, but great," he said, noting that the Diman developers were the first to embrace new planning rules that encouraged tall, skinny buildings as the recession was ending. Now, he notes, the Diman developers are building nearly everything in the urban core.
In addition to The Trillium, there is the $500-million Nova Centre, a one-million-square-foot convention centre, hotel and office building that takes up two city blocks of downtown; the $150-million redevelopment of the 33-storey Fenwick Tower, the tallest building east of Montreal; a new seven-storey glass tower across from Citadel Hill; and the $300-million redevelopment of the Dartmouth waterfront, with views of Halifax, that includes 70,000 square feet of office space.
Mr. Fillmore called it a "brave new world" in Halifax – once a cautious city fearful of losing its historic character when it came to downtown development. Heritage promoters have resisted many of the developers' towering projects, but through politicking and public consultations they've managed to prevail.
Frank Palermo, a Dalhousie University architecture and planning professor, said the Diman developers are "taking a hand in actually moving forward on a number of projects that are really, in a way, leaving behind the idea that has been very firmly planted in the city, that we are a historic city … we are a bit of a backwater."
In a city of 400,000, nearly 4,000 Haligonians claim Lebanese as their ethnic origin – about 700 of whom have roots in Diman. They are among about 165,000 individuals who came, or whose ancestors came, to Canada during five major waves of immigration from Lebanon beginning in 1882. Only Montreal has a bigger Lebanese Canadian community, with more than 53,000 of Lebanese descent.
"The earliest immigrants were often poorly educated and bought tickets heading westward to ports, including New York, Montreal, Marseille and Halifax," said researcher Jan Raska, with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Such is the reach of tiny Diman that, in addition to the Halifax contingent, there is a large Diman diaspora in Australia, where they are also successful developers.
"With the Lebanese, chain migration has played a profound role in the settlement of the community in Canada," Dr. Raska said. "Lebanese migrants often clustered with kin in neighbourhoods where family and friends, from the same village in Lebanon, already resided."
Mr. Fares, whose grandfather came to Halifax around 1920 after a brief stint in St. Louis, describes the Lebanese as "very competitive."
"It's a healthy competition," he said. "They tend to follow each other. … If somebody made good money from buying a house and renting rooms, they bought a house and rented rooms." The formula has worked well for the Diman developers – they started small, with one or two houses or a business, and branched out.
Wadih's cousin, Francis, is developing King's Wharf – a $300-million condominium, hotel and office development on the Dartmouth side of the Halifax harbour.
Joe Metlege is a first-generation Haligonian whose father, Andrew, arrived in Halifax from Diman in 1964. Andrew cleaned restaurants, got a university degree and formed his own company, Templeton Properties Inc. – a name deliberately chosen to sound English and substantial. When he was 27, an influential Halifax lawyer showed him the "Canadian way of doing business." His company grew; he built the Queen Sana Tower – named after his wife, Sana Ghosn, also originally from Diman. Next came Prince Joe, Prince Matthew and then King Andrew – buildings named after family members.
"There is a big portion of the population that accepts immigration and accepts us and welcomes us … but there is still an undercurrent that is resentful and angry," said Joe, who is vice-president in the family business. Now the Metleges are about to give the Fenwick Tower a new, eye-popping, multimillion-dollar glass skin.
But the jewel in the crown of the Diman developments is the Nova Centre – a gleaming convention centre designed to look like a billowing sail. It's Joe Ramia's vision for the city. The president of Rank Inc. was nine years old when he arrived from Diman in 1966. Mr. Ramia's mother's family, the Arabs, were already settled here when his father decided his sons would have a better future in Canada. He and his brothers worked peeling carrots and potatoes in his father's north-end restaurant, the Green Parrot, getting an education in understanding the customer, before opening a furniture business. Joe branched out into real estate and development.
Before designing the Nova Centre, Mr. Ramia visited destinations he thought were similar to Halifax – Quebec City, Old Montreal, Toronto and Boston – to see how new buildings can mix with the old. "The heritage [promoters], they mean well and I think they want the right thing," he said. "[But] they don't see it in the right light. You need the mix of old and new. The new has to support the old."