How ISNA-Canada's 1st female chair hopes to overcome a major scandal

Katherine Bullock, ISNA-Canada's first woman chair, says the organization's brand has suffered due to scandal, but with the revival of its senior forum and several other initiatives, the newly minted chair says change is coming.

Katherine Bullock was named ISNA-Canada's chair in January of this year

Dr. Katherine Bullock is ISNA-Canada's first female chair. (Facebook)

When Katherine Bullock converted to Islam 24 years ago, the political science professor and mother of three teenage boys says she wouldn't have believed it was possible.

But now, she's the first woman to lead one of Canada's largest Muslim organizations —  the Islamic Society of North America - Canada (ISNA-Canada) —  at a time in its 50-year history when it needs to regain the trust of the community after a major scandal.

One of her first acts: encouraging seniors in the GTA to become more active and socially connected. It's a small step, but Bullock says it's a crucial part of the effort to reconnect with Muslim Canadians.

"People are really looking for an organization that can be their voice in the wider Canadian public. They feel like ISNA has the potential to be that voice, but it's not," Bullock told CBC Toronto.

ISNA-Canada has some of the nation's most diverse mosques, attracting Muslims from around the world. It offers a private school, runs a Halal meat certification agency, hosts marriages and funerals and even provides services for Syrian refugees. 

But in 2013, its members were shocked when a Toronto Star investigation revealed that the Canada Revenue Agency had revoked the charitable status of an affiliate organization, ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Development Foundation, after discovering it had sent some $280,000 worth of donations to the Hizbul Mujahideen — a Pakistani group with connections to violent militants in Kashmir. ISNA-Canada was also audited when this was discovered.

"The people that made those decisions are not ISNA. They don't speak for us," Bullock told CBC Toronto.

"ISNA's brand has been damaged."

Bullock, who teaches the politics of Islam at the University of Toronto, became ISNA-Canada's chair in January.

With the election of Khajida Saidi and Burhana Bello-Ayorinde, the board is also the first gender-balanced, most ethnically diverse and youthful board the organization has ever had.

Eid is one of the busiest times at ISNA-Canada. Morning prayers at its Mississauga mosque are attended by hundreds of people from around the GTA. (ISNA-Canada/Facebook)

Senior forum aims to forge connections

The revival of a seniors' group that was disbanded after the scandal hit is just one of several initiatives the organization is leading to earn back the community's trust.

The Muslim Senior Forum, which launches Friday, aims to create a space where seniors can participate in physical activities and an educational program that focuses on topics relevant to them, such as health and changes in technology.

Seniors, along with Bullock, are gathering at ISNA-Canada's headquarters, located near 2200 South Sheridan Way in Mississauga, to kickstart the program with a discussion on how seniors can be positive contributors to society and to the community.

Members of the ISNA-Canada community angered by scandals say the election of Katherine Bullock gives them hope. (ISNA-Canada/Facebook)

A new ISNA-Canada

Aside from the revival of a seniors forum, community members say other changes are being made.

ISNA-Canada has participated in various focus groups as a part of a campaign called ISNA Listens, which has heard from women's groups, social service groups, imams, youths, civic activists, and think tanks in the Islamic community, according to Bullock.

"This is incredibly important. The ISNA brand has suffered for the last few years, so this is a way to ask the community what is important to you, what challenges do you face, what solutions do you want to see," Bullock said.  

Arshia Lakhani, 25, a marketing adviser for Islamic Relief Canada and a long-time member of the ISNA-Canada community, says Bullock's election has made her confident that the organization can address these concerns in its mosques.

"I remember going there for prayers with my mom during Ramadan and she would force me to sit quietly while we prayed. There was never any programs for women during Ramadan," Lakhani said.

"Women were often seen around the mosque, but never in leadership positions. They were doing the grunt work, the babysitting program, the clean up, but never decision-making power."

Lakhani says Bullock's election means that the needs of the community in the mosque will be more adequately heard and met.

"It represents what Islam means to me, what being a Muslim woman means, and it shatters all stereotypes of women in leadership," and Islam, Lakhani said.

For Bullock, the Muslim Senior Forum is just the beginning for ISNA-Canada.

"Because Muslims are so talked about in the media and in public spaces, and because we're the subject for so much hatred, there needs to be a voice that addresses the needs of the community and the perspective of the community."