Aga Khan brings deep ties to Canada in address to Parliament

When the Aga Khan addresses a joint session of Parliament today, it will be the latest link in a connection to Canada that goes back more than four decades.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets the Aga Khan at a ceremony establishing the Ismali Centre and Aga Khan Museum in Toronto in 2010. The Aga Khan, who was named an honorary Canadian in 2010, will address Parliament on Thursday. (Aga Khan Development Network)

When the Aga Khan addresses a joint session of Parliament today, it will be the latest link in a deep connection to Canada that goes back more than four decades.

The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam to the world's 15 million Shi'a Imami Ismaili Muslims, and became an honorary Canadian citizen in 2010.

In 1972, when Ugandan President Idi Amin expelled Asians and Ismailis, thousands found refuge in Canada. The community has grown ever since, with a population in Canada of around 100,000 today.

The Canadian government in 2006 announced a partnership with the Aga Khan in establishing the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. When the CBC's Peter Mansbridge asked him why he chose Canada for that project, the Aga Khan pointed to Canada's unique track record in building a diverse society.

"Few countries, if any, have been as successful as Canada has" in that regard, he explained.

The Aga Khan was last in Canada in November, when he received an honorary degree from Trinity College at the University of Toronto for humanitarian work done through the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). 

The AKDN's group of agencies is active in 30 countries and employs 80,000 people. The private development agencies concentrate efforts in the areas of social and economic development as well as culture.

For example, the Aga Khan Hospital in Tanzania launched its first oncology program earlier this year, which the hospital says is designed to meet the needs of the 35,000 new cancer patients reported each year in that country. The Canadian government partners with AKDN agencies on some projects, particularly where maternal, newborn and child health are concerned. 

And while the AKDN works well beyond the Ismaili community, the Aga Khan explains that Islam informs its goals and values.

Islam works on a premise of "helping to render the individual capable of governing his or her destiny," he said in a 2012 discussion with Peggy Dulany, founder and chair of Synergos, an organization dedicated to solving the problems of poverty and inequality based in New York.

"When you educate, when you help in health care, when you give access to credit, you are not looking at just helping the individual survive, you are trying to reposition the individual and the family in society."

Toronto is the site of what will be the world's sixth Ismaili Centre, a major complex nearing completion in the north end of city and expected to open later this year. The centre, which includes a worship space, shares the same grounds as the Aga Khan Museum, which will house objects and artifacts from various parts of the Muslim world, and will offer the public the opportunity to engage with Islamic civilizations.

When the Aga Khan visited Canada in November, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada also awarded him its 2013 Gold Medal for his achievements in using architecture as an instrument for development. 

The Aga Khan says about Ismaili Centres, "(w)e saw them as structures where we could receive other communities and institutions in a dignified manner, and where we could demystify our faith — which was sometimes badly misunderstood.

"They would be symbols of new hope, replacing past pain."

Shelina Jaffer is a fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and an intern at CBC Radio's Tapestry.


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