Saskatchewan·Point of View

'Love for All, Hatred for None': What an Imam learned visiting 50 Sask. First Nations in 2 years

Three years ago I was one of many Canadians who have never stepped foot on a First Nations reserve. Now I have visited more than 50 different First Nations across this province.

Zeeshan Ahmed is an Imam for the Regina Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Canada

'Every elder that graced me with their humble presence gave me words of wisdom that I will long cherish," says Zeeshan Ahmed (centre), who visited more than 50 Sask. First Nations over the course of two years. (Rizwan Ahmad)

Three years ago I was one of many Canadians who have never stepped foot on a First Nations reserve. Now I have visited more than 50 different First Nations across this province.

In a province that seems as divided as the rest of the world, it is often difficult to find a common denominator that brings us together from our different walks of life. On my travels I have witnessed commonalities that shape and mold the dynamic fabric of our society.

I moved to Saskatchewan to work as an imam in 2016, fresh out of eight years of theological study. Being a young, recently-graduated imam in North America might sound like a daunting task. The current climate of hostile rhetoric towards Muslims can be disheartening to some.

Before I knew it, I was developing bonds of friendship across the province.- Zeeshan Ahmad

My vigour as an imam was rejuvenated in 2016 when His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, visited Saskatchewan in 2016.

I was revitalized with a strong sense of responsibility to connect with and empower communities in my province, particularly remote First Nations communities. This led to hours of contemplation and discussion on how to approach such a daunting task.

State-led persecution infringed many members of my community from basic human rights and religious freedoms in their respective native lands, much like we witness the effects of persecution within our own province even today. This motivated my aspiration to carry out such an extensive mission.

'It is my duty to build strong relationships'

On my first visit to a remote reserve in northern Saskatchewan, I was excited but unsure of what was to come. Any expectations my team and I had disappeared at the band office.

We introduced ourselves and said we sought friendship between our communities. I'll never forget the reaction from the chief. He was stunned and amazed that we came all that way.

He had tears in his eyes as he spoke.

"Our people have inhabited these lands for generations and I have been a chief for years, yet no one has ever taken such a step," he told us.

That moment gave perspective to my mission. That day I understood that, as an imam and a Saskatchewanian, it is my duty to build strong relationships with broader communities. To not do so would be a disservice to my faith and to the people of my province.

My mission had become greater than I could have imagined. A sense of responsibility had set in. My ambitions to contribute to a Saskatchewan where we all could build such connections with people from all walks of life grew stronger. Before I knew it, I was developing bonds of friendship across the province.

Chief Roger Redman of Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation (right) presented Zeeshan Ahmed with a Star Blanket. (Supplied by Zeeshan Ahmed)

'Simple gestures can have such profound effects'

I attended my first powwow and saw much more than just dance and festivities. I witnessed a gathering that gave individuals a purpose. I saw a spiritual people and a nation that took pride in its traditions, values and heritage, just like me.

This powwow was a time of deep reflection for me as an individual. I received a star blanket, a symbol of honour and appreciation in the Indigenous community. I remember thinking of how relatively simple gestures can have such profound effects.

The importance of our work was highlighted when an elder approached me and offered to tell her story. I sat in silence as she recounted the terrors of residential schooling

Afterward, she told me our efforts had shown her that, "our children and future generations are heading into a better direction than us. Promise me you will keep doing what you are doing."

My goal during my travels was to foster bridges of mutual understanding and to extend my trust to the elders and leaders of other communities.

Every elder that graced me with their humble presence gave me words of wisdom that I will long cherish. Every chief I engaged with understood that building a better community for us all is a difficult task, but the work needs to start today.

'Love for All, Hatred for None'

Volunteers from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at worked into the late hours of the night erecting a new playground for Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation. (Rizwan Ahmad)

It's not difficult to find commonalities between two distant communities. In Saskatchewan, this was highlighted by the bridges built between my Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation during a 12-week long project.

Through powwows, smudge walks and peace conferences, we've built lasting relationships and a realization of what our communities share.

Volunteers from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who two years prior were responsible for constructing Saskatchewan's first purpose-built mosque in Regina, banded together once again to construct a new playground for the youth of Standing Buffalo.

On the day the playground officially opened, a child who looked no more than nine approached me holding a sign he and his classmates had made. It said, "Love for All, Hatred for None" in bright and colourful letters. He gleefully said, "you have made our school beautiful once again."

The finished playground for the school on Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation. (Rizwan Ahmad)

Even our children inherently desire and appreciate mutual respect and compassion. Though construction of this park was a small gesture, it showed how our nation needs to move forward.

I would like to challenge every Canadian citizen and all of our leaders to join us on this pathway to peace, to embrace our similarities, value our differences and internalize the message of "Love for All, Hatred for None."

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About the Author

Imam Zeeshan Ahmed was born in Pakistan in 1989 and moved to Canada at the age of one with his parents, who were fleeing religious persecution. He lived in the Greater Toronto Area until 2016 when he was appointed as the missionary and spokesperson of the Regina Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Canada.