PHOTOS AND SPEECH EXCERPTS CONTRIBUTED BY KAMRUDIN RASHID; NARRATIVE AND TIMELINE ADAPTED FROM AN ESSAY BY JEHANGIR A. MERCHANT
[As Ismaili Jamats around the world prepare to celebrate the 82nd birthday of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, on December 13, 2018, we bring you the following highlights and photographs of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s historic first visit to Canada in 1978. The timeline has been prepared from an extensive essay on the visit by the Late Alwaez Jehangir Merchant (1928-2018) which appeared in Ilm, volume 5 number 1, July 1979, a flagship magazine that the long serving Ismaili missionary edited during his tenure with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the UK. The photos accompanying the post as well as excerpts from numerous speeches that were made during the historic visit were submitted to us by Alwaez Merchant’s long time Dar es Salaam friend and colleague Kamrudin Rashid, who now lives in Toronto. Mr Rashid acquired the speeches from Ismaili periodicals. We thank Mr. Rashid for preserving the photos and magazines over the past forty years].
The earliest recorded settlement of Ismailis in Canada goes back to the 1950’s with the arrival of Mustansir Ismaily from Pakistan. Over the years, Ismaili students came to pursue higher education in universities across the country. The earliest large scale settlement by Ismailis began with the arrival of hundreds of Tanzanian Ismailis following the nationalization of houses and other properties by the Tanzanian Government in early 1971. Thanks to Tanzanian Ismailis, who settled mainly in Vancouver and Toronto, the ground work for future migration was laid. The Tanzanians were instrumental in the establishment of rudimentary community institutions at that time. The expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin’s decree of 1972 occurred more than a year later. It led to the settlement of thousands of Ugandan Ismailis in Canada beginning in late 1972. Today, Canada is home to more than 100,000 Ismailis from all over the world.
When the Jamat settled in Canada in large numbers, they began supplicating from the innermost recesses of their hearts for Mawlana Hazar Imam to visit Canada and bless the Jamats with his Didar. The Jamat’s call was answered on November 12, 1978 when Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini arrived in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, with Begum Salimah to begin a memorable and historical 10 day visit.
TIMELINE: HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN’S HISTORIC VISIT TO CANADA IN 1978
1. NOVEMBER 12 – NOVEMBER 13, 1978, OTTAWA
- November 12, 1978: Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini arrives in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, with Begum Salimah.
- Mawlana Hazar Imam meets with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Allan Gotlier (Under Secretary of the State for External Affairs), Michel Dupuy (President of the Canadian International Development Agency) and other Government Officials.
- Mawlana Hazar Imam gives an interview to the Global Television Network. He says that he has requested the Prime Minister and Federal Officials to step up Canada’s aid programme to the poorer countries as they were already having a major positive impact. He praises Canada’s existing aid programs and says that “Canada has one of the most practical and best founded foreign aid development programmes I know of.” He adds that Ottawa is using its $1.1 billion aid budget sensibly, rather than producing wagon loads of paper.
- Asked whether his wealth is a handicap in convincing people in poor countries that he really wants to help them, Mawlana Hazar Imam responds by saying, “The West tends to look at the individual – the Aga Khan – and not the institution he represents – the Ismaili Imamate. In a sense you could turn around and say the Vatican is very wealthy. That does not mean that the Vatican misuses its wealth or does not do the work it should do. In my case, I think the Ismaili Imamate is very active in economic and social development.”
- On Monday November 13, 1978, in an interview with Norm Perry of the CTV Network in Ottawa, Mawlana Hazar Imam responds to the war against modern industrialization in an Islamic country, with the following remark: “I think the main issue really is, how the mullahs, or like myself, the Imam, view the compatibility of Islam with the modern world. And, as far as my family is concerned, my community is concerned, we don’t run away from that. We are not prepared to say that there is a basic conflict between the modern world and our practice of Islam.”
- Later in the same interview, Norm Perry asked Mawlana Hazar Imam, “You are a man with a background in the East, and you were educated in the West. You speak like a Westerner, and if you forgive me, you look like a Westerner. Is there not a contradiction between what you represent, who you are as a Spiritual Leader, and the lifestyle you live?” Mawlana Hazar Imam’s response was: “No, I see no contradiction whatsoever. I think you have to be very careful not to apply to Islam, what I would call Western terminology. You are accustomed in the West to seeing ‘the man of the Church’, so to speak, and men who are living everyday lives. In Islam, that isn’t the case at all. The Prophet was married, was a businessman, and had ongoing business activities, led armies, and yet, that did not stop the Prophet from being the Prophet, from leading the prayers, and I think that one has to really correct that image, or that understanding, because it is a misunderstanding in the West. In a sense what you are saying is that the modern world cannot live at peace with a faith.”
- When asked if there was any problem in getting Ismailis into Canada and what he had learnt about his people who have settled here, Mawlana Hazar Imam answered, “Well, you know that the Canadian Government extended a level of co-operation, understanding and help that was absolutely remarkable.” With regard to the Jamat, he observed, “Firstly, that they are a changed community psychologically, which is understandable, but very palpable, I would say if I can use that word. There is a sense of peace and equanimity which is really very visible. There is a sense of challenge; it’s a new country that they are getting to learn about and one they are very attached to. They view Canada as a country with great prospects, completely different from what they have known up to now. So it’s very exciting.”
- Mawlana Hazar Imam grants his first mulaqat of the Canadian visit in Ottawa to a gathering of approximately 800 Ismailis. He is accompanied by Begum Salimah, who stays for 20 minutes. Mawlana Hazar Imam then performs Jamati work.
- During the visit to Ottawa, Mawlana Hazar Imam and Begum Salimah were the guests of the Prime Minister and stayed at his private country residence at Harrington. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s younger sister, Princess Yasmin, had also come from the USA to visit them.
2. NOVEMBER 13 – 16, 1978,VANCOUVER
- Mawlana Hazar Imam and Begum Salimah fly 2500 miles to Vancouver. Total number of Ismailis for the mulaqat numbered approximately 9,500 with almost 1,500 coming from the USA.
- Mawlana Hazar Imam meets the Vancouver Jamat on November 14th, 15th and 16th. In his Farman, Mowlana Hazar Imam advises the Jamat to make Canada their permanent home, maintain unity within the Jamat and be regular in the practice of their faith. He expresses his appreciation for the wonderful organisation and the work that had been done in preparation for his visit. He gave his special blessings to all the workers and volunteers for their devoted services. As in the past, Mawlana Hazar Imam advised the Ismaili youth to avoid the pressures of social evils of smoking, drinking and drugs which limit the mental and physical abilities.
- In a special separate mulaqat with the student Jamat, Mawlana Hazar Imam enumerated a number of professions which would stand them in good stead in Canada and elsewhere. He listed professions such as agriculture, Islamic studies, medicine, nursing, teaching and tourism. His very young spiritual children were not forgotten either as there was some advice for them to be regular at school and not to look for excuses to remain absent. He also expressed his immense happiness for the praise lavished upon his Jamat by the Government Officials.
- Mawlana Hazar Imam approved the building of a new Jamatkhana in Burnaby and said that he would be there to open it (the high profile Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana was opened in 1985 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam).
- The Ismaili Councils hosted a banquet in honour of Mowlana Hazar Imam and Begum Salimah. It was attended by the Mayor, High Government Officials and other dignitaries. Prime Minister Trudeau sent a message of sincere regret explaining that he had to attend the Parliamentary session being held then.
- Mawlana Hazar Imam took this opportunity to again praise the welcome Canadians had offered to the Ismailis, who were forced to flee Uganda in 1972. He said: “It was Canada which opened her arms, and none of us will forget that gesture of spontaneous good will. All of us are determined to repay the kindness.”
- Begum Salimah visited the Vancouver General Hospital, accompanied by Late Dr. William Storrer, the then medical advisor to the Aga Khan Foundation in Switzerland. Begum Salimah toured the Obstetrics Department and Intensive Care Nursery. Seven year old Isabella Sammarco very graciously presented a bouquet to the Begum at the Health Centre for Children. The Begum showed great interest in medical care for expectant mothers and children, and told the press that some of the latest techniques and treatments she saw there might be useful for the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, which was then under construction.
3. NOVEMBER 16 – 19, 1978, CALGARY, EDMONTON, WINNIPEG AND MONTREAL
From the 16th to 19th November, Mawlana Hazar Imam accompanied by Begum Salimah visited the Jamats in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal. The Jamats of all these cities greeted their beloved Imam with intense spiritual enthusiasm. Knowing that their Aqa (Lord) would only be amongst them for a very short time, they had prepared themselves to derive the maximum from his visit. They drank unceasingly from the ocean of his Noorani Didar and drenched their souls under the showers of his warm and loving blessings.
4. NOVEMBER 19 – 22, 1978, TORONTO
- The last stop was Toronto, where over 16,000 Ismailis had gathered to be blessed. Mawlana Hazar Imam with Begum Salimah arrived in Toronto on 19th November. The Jamat gathered at the International Centre for their mulaqats with Mawlana Hazar Imam and Begum Salimah. This was the largest gathering which Hazar Imam encountered during the Canadian visit and he expressed his joy at seeing so many of his spiritual children there. During the three days, Mawlana Hazar Imam stayed with the Jamat for many hours including late into the night, to accept and perform services, make Farmans and to bless the Jamat. He would often address the Jamat as ‘My International Jamat’.
- Mawlana Hazar Imam continued to advise the Jamat to make Canada their permanent home and contribute towards its progress.
- He also expressed the hope that the educated youths from this part of the world would come forward to give the benefit of their knowledge and experience to the Jamats in developing countries. He also urged that they should seek excellence in their studies and that it was not sufficient to go through their education career with a D+ or C- average.
- He advised the Jamat to be regular in Jamatkhana attendance and said that the young in the Jamat should understand the meaning of the Dua when they learn and recite it.
- On the evening of November 21, Mawlana Hazar Imam with much happiness accepted the invitation to celebrate his birthday and cut a cake. Mawlana Hazar Imam termed the event as his official birthday and mentioned that this was probably the second or at the most the third time that he had spent “my official birthday with my Jamat in any part of the world.” He said he was cutting the cake with immense happiness because of the happiness that the Jamat in Canada had given him during the visit.
- In a truly loving reference to all his spiritual children of all age groups who were present to witness the cake cutting ceremony, Malwana Hazar Imam said, “I would like to remind you on this occasion − from my nursery school children to my primary school children, to my secondary school children, to my university undergraduates, to my post graduates, to my middle aged, to my elders and to my very very senior citizens − that above all else, they should remember that they must remain united, regular in their religious duties, and that you are always in my heart, in my thoughts and in my prayers. Khanavadan, Khanavadan, Khanavadan.”
- Her Highness Begum Salimah attended separate public functions while Mawlana Hazar Imam conducted religious ceremonies. Her visit to the Overlea Secondary School received extensive coverage in various newspapers. Writing for “The Mirror” Valerie Dunn said, “The Begum reflected the Aga Khan’s deep interest in education by stressing its importance in the development of any society and urged Ismaili students to make the most of the opportunities available to them in Canada.”
- In welcoming the Begum, Alnoor Dhanani explained that the bouquet presented by Rozmin Mangalji included flowers from the five continents.
- An Eskimo carving, a uniquely Canadian gift, was given on behalf of Ismaili students. Afterwards, the Begum chatted informally with groups of awe stricken students and then proceeded to tour Overlea itself. This was the Begum’s first visit to a Canadian school. She was fascinated, especially, by the open classrooms and informal atmosphere.
- Begum Salimah also visited Toronto General Hospital’s paralysis unit where she had a chat with Lilly Ramji and her son Alnoor, who was paralysed in a car accident two months earlier in September 1978.
- Reporting on the banquet hosted by Ismaili Councils at the Harbour Castle Hilton Hotel, in honour of Mowlana Hazar Imam and Begum Salimah, Stef Donev of “Toronto Star” wrote, “Just as there is only one Pope, there is only one Aga Khan. He is Imam − spiritual leader − to the world’s 15 million Moslems” .
- The banquet was attended by Cabinet Ministers, bankers, businessmen and the media (see speech excerpts, below).
- Expressing his deep, lasting debt to Canada for accepting Ugandan refugees brutally expelled by Idi Amin in 1972, Mawlana Hazar Imam said, “Canada was one of the first to recognise the human tragedy this represented.”
- For three days, Toronto Ismailis put their daily routine aside to be with their Imam. Those who had to, took holidays from work to be in Mawla’s Holy presence. The volunteers helped organise dinners and laid out 80,000 square feet of red carpet from a factory outlet to the International Centre.
- As Mawlana Hazar Imam gave his last Mulaqat on this visit to Canada, his spiritual children beseeched him sincerely, Vela te karajo Mowla, avanaji. O Mowla! (We beg of you), please make your coming soon.
EXCERPTS FROM SPEECHES MADE AT THE BANQUET
1. Address by the Hon. Norman Cafik, Minister of State for Multiculturalism
“Before I make a few remarks I would like to read to you a letter that the Prime Minister of Canada handed to me two days ago to be read here tonight in honour of this occasion.
“I am most pleased to convey my warmest greetings to all those attending the banquet in honour or His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan The Fourth and Her Highness Begum Salimah. If Canada is to be thanked tonight by the Ugandans I am certain that this gratitude is reciprocal − for the members of the Ismaili sect of the Muslim religion have greatly contributed to the cultural richness of our society. Therefore, I would like to join in the homage paid to His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan The Fourth and Her Highness Begum Salimah and extend to all present my very warmest personal good wishes for a most memorable visit and evening. The Prime Minister of Canada. Pierre Elliott Trudeau.”
“It is my understanding that part of this evening’s celebration is to pay tribute to Canada and to Canadians because we in this country in 1972 received into Canada about 6,000 people from Uganda of Ismaili background after they had been very cruelly expelled from their former homeland by Idi Amin.
“We in Canada appreciate the gesture of gratitude that is being expressed tonight. But a simple fact of the matter is that gratitude is a two-way street. The 6,000 who came to Canada then contributed a great deal more than they ever received. On behalf of the Government and on behalf of all Canadians I want to really thank this community for all that they have done for this country. Indeed they have shared with us their culture, their background, their richness. their traditions, and they have enriched and benefited all of us as Canadians.
Speech continues after photo
“Secondly, I wish to thank His Highness the Aga Khan who has contributed a great deal to allowing these 6,000 people who are now Canadians to integrate into our society as quickly as they did. There is no doubt that the efforts that he and his organizations have made here in Canada to provide financial backing and resources to so many who came to a foreign and strange land to help them integrate and become full and proper Canadians along with the rest of us. His work has made their entrance into Canada so much easier and so much better and I want to thank him on behalf of the community in Canada and on behalf of all Canadians.
“I want to thank him further for the example of his words to those of the community in Canada when he said to them and to others who live in other lands and in other nations that they may hold onto their traditions and their values and their cultures but they must be first and foremost citizens of their new adopted land.
“Now I want to say in conclusion that your presence in Canada comes at a time of great change, a time of renewal, a time of national reflection, and a time when we as Canadians have got to learn to put our lofty principles into practice, into the practice of tolerance and human understanding between all of our people. It is a great challenge and I think that the lessons that you have learned in other countries before coming here are lessons that we ourselves can learn from. We look forward to you sharing with us those messages, and that lesson of understanding and to share it with all of us so that we may learn from your misfortunes in the past and be richer as a people and more united as a consequence. I want to thank all of you for making this your new home and to say that we are as proud to have you here as you are to be here. Thank you very much.”
2. Address by the Hon. Tom Wells Ontario Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs
Your Highness. I want to welcome you to this province. You’ll have an opportunity to meet our Premier Bill Davis tomorrow and he is looking forward to meeting you, because you are a world figure who has contributed much in your humanity and in your concern to affairs throughout the world. We would like to tell you that in this province we feel we are very fortunate that many, many people from many varied cultural backgrounds have come here and, they become citizens of this country and of this province, that they have kept those traditions, and those things that they brought with them, and have in doing enriched our multicultural heritage. We were very proud, and I was very proud, I want to say this as a Canadian. I was very proud that the federal government in 1972 quickly acted to make room in Canada for the Ismaili Muslims who were being ejected from Uganda. I was very happy that many of them have come to the province of Ontario. The contribution that they have made to the industrial and commercial life of this province has been significant.
3. Address by Mr. Mohamedali Lalani, President of The Regional Council of Canada
We, as a community greatly value the spirit of self-help, self-discipline and efficient organization. The history of Ismaili settlement in Canada takes me back in 1972 when the Ismailis started to arrive here in significant numbers. I can recall with deep gratitude the welcome extended by Canada to the members of our community. Not many of us had been exposed to the North American environment, however, we had brought with us three things − the willingness to adapt and integrate, the willingness to work hard, and the desire to fully identify ourselves with Canadians and to make Canada our home. With willing help and assistance from the various government departments and agencies and through the communal institutions especially created by His Highness, Ismailis became self-supporting and reasonably well settled in a very short time.
“His Highness the Aga Khan has always emphasized to his followers to maintain absolute loyalty to the country of their adoption and to identify completely with the national aspirations and policies of the countries in which they reside.
“Islam maintains that material progress without spiritual well-being is meaningless. It is the spiritual life that is eternal and therefore, much more significant.
“The Imam, as our spiritual leader, devotes a great deal of his time in guiding his followers towards spiritual well-being. His Highness has placed much emphasis on progressive spiritual advancement through self-discipline as on material progress through purposeful and responsible action.
“The Ismailis are extremely fortunate in having the Imam of the Time to guide them, to help them in both worldly and spiritual matters and help them remain a strong and united community. In Canada, our settlement has been a fairly recent one. We hope, however, that under your guidance, Your Highness, the Canadian Ismailis will develop deep roots in Canada and will become known as a progressive, civic-minded community that has a true loyalty to their new country of adoption.
“Finally, on behalf of all the Councils and the community, I wish to express our very deep gratitude to your Highnesses for visiting us in Canada and we sincerely hope that it will not be too long before we will have the privilege of welcoming you again with the entire family. To Your Excellencies, Your Grace, Your Honours, Your Worships and all distinguished guests here tonight, we wish to extend our very deep gratitude for accepting our invitation to this banquet and for honouring us by your presence. Thank you.”
4. Address by Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan
“Your Excellencies, Your Honours, Your Grace, Chief Rabbi, Honourable Ministers, Your Worship, Ladies and Gentlemen:
“I would like to begin by thanking the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Ontario for the extremely kind messages which they sent this evening. And to thank also the Honourable Lt. Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Minister for Multiculturalism, the Honourable Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and His Worship, the Mayor of Toronto for their very generous and their very kind words about the Ismaili Community and about my wife and myself.
“For my wife and me, this has been a very memorable evening as well as a most moving one. We are almost at the end of our tour of your country which has taken us from coast to coast and back again. We have been greeted everywhere with immense kindness and warmth by your government and your civic leaders. This has been our first extensive visit to Canada and we have enjoyed the experience immensely and We express to you this evening our deep thanks.
“The tributes which have been paid to the Ismaili Community this evening have been generous indeed and I am extremely happy to know how well the Ismailis are regarded and how quickly they have established themselves as good citizens of your country.
“You have heard from the first speaker tonight that we take pride in being an organized community. This characteristic has served us well in Canada, where the great majority living here today arrived just six years ago having been expelled from Uganda almost overnight by President Idi Amin.
Most Ismailis came here stateless, destitute and almost literally with only the clothes they stood up in. Canada was the first of several countries to recognize this as the immense human tragedy it actually represented.
“Spontaneously, you opened up your arms to our people, you welcomed them and made it possible for them to start a new life in a new world. It was a gesture we shall never forget. We are not a large community, but in the six years since the Ismailis left their country on the other side of the world, with a totally different social and economic environment, they have adjusted themselves to new customs, new laws, new institutions and a new way of life. They have done this in the best of our traditions of self-reliance, free enterprise and good citizenship.
“Equally important, I think, we are fortunate in that the majority of immigrants were well-equipped both physically and intellectually for such a sudden transformation. In Uganda, as in Pakistan, India and elsewhere our schools fortunately, were among the best.
“Many of our boys and girls who attended our schools in Uganda also went on to leading universities and colleges in Europe and North America. They arrived here, therefore, with skills to offer. And today you will find them in a wide range of businesses and professional activities. There are doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, engineers, insurance brokers, pharmacists and nurses. Many more have started their own businesses on their own account.
“Not all Ismailis who came to Canada were university graduates. Some of our older people and others who were less well-educated, had a much more difficult period of adjustment. Here again however, the specialized facilities which Canada was able to offer us, through private as well as official channels, married well with our own internal community programs from which we have gained experience from other parts of the world. Without the active participation and encouragement of our Canadian friends, however, we could never have achieved so much in such a short time.
“Under our own lending programs, for example, and with the ready and good assistance of two of your leading banks the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, special loan facilities have been organized for small businesses. Nearly a thousand of these have been started and the failure rate is less than 10%. I believe this compares quite favourably with the national average.
“I am happy and honoured to see among our many distinguished guests this evening, a number of representatives from African and Asian countries. I travel a good deal and often visit different parts of Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Your Excellencies, I feel sure, will agree with me that Canada is regarded very highly by the developing world.
“She is welcomed diplomatically everywhere in the world and her influence extends far beyond her natural size and wealth. The foreign aid administered by the Canadian International Development Agency illustrates very well what I mean. Canada is not among the largest international donors, but her programs are extremely well administered and reach the ordinary people whom they are intended to benefit. That is a rare accomplishment today. Foreign aid is but one facet of Canada as an international power who takes her responsibilities seriously and whose policies have never in her history been tainted by the cruder forms of colonialism, racialism or isolationism. I believe it is this great tradition, more than any other, which prompted your country to help my people in their hour of need.
“On behalf of my wife, my family and the Ismailis all over the world, I thank you from my heart. Thank you.”
Date posted: December 11, 2018.
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