Rahim Mohamed: A Brief History of the Ismailis in Canada

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(This column originally appeared in Policy Options)

Canada’s Ismaili Muslim community was thrust into the spotlight recently following Justin Trudeau’s New Year’s getaway to a private island in the Bahama’s owned by the Aga Khan.

Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, known formally by the title of Aga Khan, is the spiritual leader of the world’s 15-million Nizari Ismaili Muslims. He also happens to be a billionaire philanthropist who oversees the sprawling Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – a global charitable entity that has received some $300-million in grant money from the federal government since 2004.

Trudeau’s visit to the Aga Khan’s island became controversial because the AKDN’s Canadian arm (Aga Khan Foundation Canada) is registered to lobby members of the House of Commons and Cabinet, including the Prime Minister.

However, commentators from both sides of the political spectrum have refrained from casting aspersions on the Aga Khan himself. Centre-left leaning journalist Andrew Cohen, for example, referred to the Aga Khan as “one of the world’s most respected figures” in a recent Globe & Mail op-ed. Even Ezra Levant, Canada’s right wing provocateur in chief, was careful to separate his condemnation of Trudeau’s lapse in judgement from his respect for the Aga Khan, tweeting: “Like many people, I admire the Aga Khan. It was Trudeau's duty to decline or disclose this massive gift. Trudeau damaged the relationship.” (1/8/2016).

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The ultimate token of this near-universal admiration came in 2010, when the Aga Khan became just the fifth person ever to be named an honorary citizen of Canada – a remarkable honour he now shares with Raoul Wallenbourg, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Malala Yousafzai (who became an honorary citizen in 2014).

No less remarkable is the history of Canada's Ismaili community which, since arriving in Canada in the early 1970s, has woven itself into our cultural fabric to a degree that’s perhaps unmatched by any other non-Western migrant community. As an Ismaili myself, I am not alone in my belief that the Ismailis have made a positive imprint in virtually every major Canadian city, hosting such prominent community events as the annual World Partnership Walk (held simultaneously in ten cities) and an always well-attended Calgary Stampede pancake breakfast.

The jamaat (Ismaili community) is also well represented in business, political, and cultural circles. Prominent Ismaili-Canadians include Rahim Jaffer, Canada’s first-ever Muslim Member of Parliament, former Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed, incumbent Mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi, Giller Prize winning novelist M.G. Vassanji, and – my personal favourite – Juno nominated recording artist Alysha Brilla.

At a time when an increasing number of politicians throughout the West are showing skepticism towards Muslim immigration – particularly raising questions about the ability of Muslims to successfully integrate into Western societies – the remarkable history of the Ismailis in Canada serves as a timely reminder of the need to reject crude, one-dimensional depictions of Islam. It’s a story worth revisiting.

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The first wave of Canadian Ismailis – which included my parents and grandparents – arrived in the fall of 1972 after now-notorious dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of some 80,000 Asian residents from Uganda. The Aga Khan was ultimately able to secure refuge for roughly 6,000 (mostly Ismaili) Ugandan Asians in Canada, thanks to his personal friendship with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau (the two had attended Harvard together in the 1950s) and, as rumour has it, a touch of good fortune.

According to one account, the Aga Khan happened to schedule a dinner meeting with Canadian immigration officials that coincided with the 1972 Summit Series of hockey, which pitted Team Canada against Team USSR. One Canadian official had reportedly instructed a waiter beforehand to keep him updated on the game’s score throughout the meeting. When, near the end of the evening, the Aga Khan asked how many Ugandan Ismailis Canada would be able to take in, the official caught a glimpse of the same waiter, who held up three fingers on each hand (to indicate that the score was tied at 3–3). Misinterpreting this gesture, the official responded that Canada could accept 6,000 exiles, which was double the number that had been authorized.

This very Canadian origin story turned out to be a good omen for the Ugandan Ismailis and their trajectory as future citizens. Approximately 3,300 of them initially accepted federal subsidies to facilitate their resettlement; by the end of their first year in Canada, fewer than 150 were still receiving social assistance. According to a follow-up survey conducted at around this time, eighty-nine percent of the Ugandan émigrés who wished to enter the Canadian labour force had already done so and more than ninety percent indicated that they planned to stay in Canada permanently.

The Ugandan Asians, of course, had certain advantages that would set them apart from other refugee groups. Over half of the community possessed at least a high-school education. Most already spoke English. As Canada had no official refugee admissions policy at the time, most of the Ugandan emigres would have also qualified for residency through the regular immigration skill-based ‘points system’.

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Arriving in Canada with an abundance of education and job-ready skills certainly helped smooth the Ismaili Ugandans’ transition from refugees to citizens. Another factor that also helps explain the exceptional success of Ismaili-Canadians is the compatibility of Canada’s approach to cultural pluralism with the inclusive, contemplative interpretation of Islam espoused by the Aga Khan.

The Ismailis, who emerged in the eighth century out of a schism in Shia Islam, have long taken the view that the Qu’ran (Islam’s central religious text) is to be read as a set of allegories and reinterpreted over time. It requires and ensures constant reformation. 

This has put the community at odds with more dogmatic Muslim sects, leading to a long history of oppression and marginalization. Such animosity forced the Ismailis to take on a nomadic existence, scattering from their ancestral home in Syria to pockets of Africa, the India Subcontinent, and Central Asia.

As a perpetual minority community, Ismailis have come to view cultural pluralism as not only an ideal, but also a means of survival. This philosophy, which has been central to the Aga Khan’s global outreach strategy, entails establishing collaborative practices and building institutions that foster strong cultural linkages between the Ismailis and their respective host communities.

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In Canada, this notion is most visibly embodied in Ottawa’s Global Centre for Pluralism – a multimillion dollar think-tank jointly established by the Aga Khan and the Government of Canada in 2006.

Today Canada is home to approximately 80,000 Ismailis, with the most recent waves arriving from Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. At this point, it’s fair to say that Canada – as much as any other country – is now our “homeland.” Ismailis have thrived here as much, if not more, than anywhere else in the world. Canada’s open and welcoming approach, its pluralistic society, juxtaposed with the Ismaili community’s commitment to modernity and integration, have created one of the world’s best examples of a thriving, successful and peaceful Muslim community in the West.

Through the years, the Ismailis have made an indelible mark on Canada’s national identity and our story speaks to the potential for newer immigrant groups who embrace Canadian norms of cultural pluralism and tolerance to write their own chapter in the story of Canada.