By ZAHIR DHARSEE
I wish to record with deep sadness the demise of William (Bill) Davies, Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985. He died at his Brampton home on August 8, 2021 at the age of 92.
The Premier’s accomplishments are best summarized by Sam Roberts, the obituary reporter for the New York Times, who wrote in the paper’s August 20th edition that Premier Davis “expanded the province’s education system, created an environmental ministry, imposed rent controls and was instrumental in striking a compromise that established Canadian sovereignty from Britain.”
Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, who has once again led his party to a victory in the Federal re-election held this week (September 20, 2021), commented after the death of the Premier, that he was a “skilled statesman who set aside partisanship and worked with his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to bring forward concrete change and uphold our shared values, like diversity and human rights”.
Ismaili Muslims began settling in Canada in large numbers in the early 1970’s. Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, first visited the community in Canada in November 1978, and again during his Silver Jubilee in April 1983. I was already in Canada and recall the two visits well.
On November 21, 1978, Premier Davis welcomed Mawlana Hazar Imam at his office in the Legislature Building, which is referred to as Queen’s Park, while Begum Salimah met the Premier’s wife Mrs. Kathleen Davis for lunch at the Sutton Place Hotel. Speaking at a banquet dinner held at the Harbour Castle Hilton the night before, Tom Wells, Ontario’s Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, noted that “Premier Bill Davis 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”.
The Premier’s steps in the 1960’s, when he was the Ontario’s Education Minister, to expand the province’s education system of community colleges and universities, greatly aided in improved education, accessibility and employment prospects for thousands of immigrants, and their children, who would come to Canada in the 1970’s and later years. The first large scale migration of Ismailis to Canada and the Province of Ontario from East Africa, began taking place in 1972 after the Ugandan crisis. In response, the Government of Ontario, under Premier Davis, established the Ontario Welcome House. This reception centre helped support the settlement of thousands of Ugandan Asian Refugees and other immigrants in the Province.
By the time of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Silver Jubilee in 1982-83, the new Ismaili immigrants to Canada had made the country their permanent home. The Silver Jubilee Darbar was held at the International Center in Toronto on April 27, 1983. A large gathering of 15-20,000 Ismailis was present at the Darbar Ceremony, where Mawlana Hazar Imam was accompanied by Begum Salimah and Prince Amyn Mohamed.
“Your Highness, while I do not know all of those who are your followers, I have met some and I have to tell you that they are devoted, loyal, very faithful, but I also think, as I sense it, they understand their obligations, sensitivity and commitment to their country, Canada. They are Canadians your Highness and we welcome them because they are important to each one of us.” — Premier Bill Davis, Silver Jubilee Visit of His Highness the Aga Khan, April 27, 1983
Later that evening, the Ismaili Council for Canada hosted a Gala Banquet Dinner in honour of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Silver Jubilee. The Government of Canada, was represented by the Honorable Roy MacLaren, MP and Minister of State (Finance). In his address he brought a message of welcome and greetings from Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Maclaren paid tribute to the contributions of the newly settled Ismaili community in Canada and mentioned the benefits of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s economic and social activities for peoples around the world irrespective of race, religion or creed.
In his keynote address, on behalf of the Government of Ontario, Premier Bill Davis paid glowing tribute to the achievements of the newly established Ismaili community in the Province and in Canada, and the resolve and benefits of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s socio-economic endeavors around the world. He also acknowledged the establishment of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, and the role of the Industrial Promotion Services (IPS) group of Companies in promoting economic development in the developing world. He added:
“Your Highness, while I do not know all of those who are your followers, I have met some and I have to tell you that they are devoted, loyal, very faithful, but I also think, as I sense it, they understand their obligations, sensitivity and commitment to their country, Canada. They are Canadians your Highness and we welcome them because they are important to each one of us.”
The Jamat’s settlement in Canada, and the Province of Ontario, was new — the majority of the Jamat had been in the country for just over a decade, since their arrival in the early 1970’s. The Premier’s remarks were indeed reassuring words and important to Mawlana Hazar Imam and the members of the Ismaili community. They helped reinforce the guidance given by Mawlana Hazar Imam, during his historic 1978 first visit, to the newly settled Jamat to make Canada their permanent home.
In his address at the Silver Jubilee banquet, Mawlana Hazar Imam acknowledged the warm and generous welcome that Canada had given to the Ismaili Community. He noted that the main Silver Jubilee project in Canada was the construction of the Ismaili Jamatkhana (prayer house) and Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia. He also mentioned the contribution of Canadian Universities — McMaster in Hamilton and McGill in Montreal, to provide technical assistance and support for the new Aga Khan University School of Nursing and Medical College as well as the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, England. Mawlana Hazar Imam importantly noted that with Canada’s fundamental vision to recognize the dignity of man, the country was uniquely placed to help build a better understanding and bridges for the various issues facing the world.
We are indeed grateful to the late Premier, William Davis, for the welcome he accorded to our Imam and for programs he launched to make the immigrant experience comforting for Ismailis as well as other immigrant communities. The Premier was a gentleman and statesman. His accomplishments as Premier were of significant benefit to the Ismaili community and everyone who decided to make Ontario their home.
In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the late Premier William Davis supported the constitution repatriation and Charter of Rights initiatives of the then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the mid 1980’s. The Charter among many other important matters accorded all Canadians, regardless of background, fundamental human rights, and the rights of religious freedom. These rights ensured the protection of religious minority communities like Ismaili Muslims and others.
Date posted: September 23, 2021.
About the author: Zahir Dharsee came to Toronto, Ontario, Canada from East Africa in 1974. The Honorable Bill Davis was then the Premier of Ontario (1971 to 1985). The article is a small tribute of his recollection of Honorable Premier who passed way last August. Zahir is a retiree from the Federal Public Service. He is currently pursing a Masters of Arts degree in History, at York University in Toronto. His area of specialization is researching the British Empire and its Colonization, De-Colonization and Immigration policies and objectives. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario. His previous pieces published on Barakah’s sister website, Simerg, can be read by clicking on Memories of Nairobi’s Majestic ‘Town Jamatkhana’, and 13th-14th Century “Avatar” Discourses.
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