Aga Khan's Global Centre for Pluralism moves into heritage digs after decade of delays

A think-tank founded by the Aga Khan with $30 million from taxpayers has moved in to its permanent home in Ottawa after 10 years of delays, as well as changes to its lease. The changes allow the Global Centre for Pluralism to sub-lease space in a prime heritage building for which it pays a dollar a year.

Ismaili spiritual leader spent millions renovating historic building for Canada-backed think-tank

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, congratulates the Aga Khan after his address to Parliament in 2014. The spiritual leader's Global Centre for Pluralism, created with the backing of Harper's government, is finally moving in to its Ottawa home. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A think-tank founded by the Aga Khan with $30 million from taxpayers has finally moved into a prime heritage building in Ottawa 10 years after the federal government gave it a 99-year lease.

The Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP) pays the federal government $1 a year to use the building at 330 Sussex Dr., formerly the Canadian War Museum. The agreement also allows the GCP to lease out office space in the building at commercial rates.

And it already has a tenant: the Royal Canadian Mint, a Crown corporation.

The centre's opening comes after a decade of false starts and missed deadlines.

It also highlights the close relationship successive Canadian governments have sought to foster with the Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims and a well-known philanthropist.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill last May. Trudeau, who has known the Aga Khan personally for many years, has been dogged by questions about his vacation at the spiritual leader's private island in the Bahamas. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been forced to defend his recent visit to the Ismaili spiritual leader's private island in the Bahamas. Trudeau, who through his father has a long personal relationship with the Aga Khan, has said the visit and a similar one in 2014 were personal.

But the Aga Khan and his charitable organizations have a long-standing relationship with the government of Canada, which sees their development work as aligned with Canada's objectives and has contributed money to their projects for decades.

The Global Centre for Pluralism got its start in 2006, when the government of Stephen Harper gave $30 million to establish an operating fund for the think-tank, which is supposed to spread Canadian values of pluralistic democracy around the world.

In return, the Aga Khan committed $10 million of his own money and pledged to pay for the necessary renovations to the heritage building, which sits between the Royal Canadian Mint and the National Gallery. 

Although the National Capital Commission finalized the lease transfer in 2007, the centre didn't set up a board of directors until 2010. For several years, it has operated out of temporary offices in the Ismaili Imamat, the Aga Khan's diplomatic mission in Ottawa.

Deadline pushed back

The centre had an agreement with Canada to be up and running at the new site by December 2014, but as that deadline approached, it asked for an extension. Government records obtained by CBC show it got a new deadline of September 2016, but when that date arrived the building still wasn't ready.

The Global Centre for Pluralism signed a 99-year lease for $1 a year in 2007, and later negotiated the right to sub-lease part of the property at market rates. (Global Centre for Pluralism)

The GCP hosts an annual lecture and awards ceremony, as well as an annual roundtable discussion. It has also produced some reports and papers, with a focus on Kenya and Kyrgyzstan. 

Its next scheduled project is a report on "the economic dimensions of pluralism in Canada," based on research by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

It's like buying an old house. Once you move in, you find things that need fixing.- John McNee, director of the Global Centre for Pluralism

GCP director John McNee says neither Conservative nor Liberal governments have ever questioned whether the centre is producing value for Canada's investment.

"These things take time," he says. "In the initial phase it's been important to build up an analytical framework to understand these ideas" of how pluralism can benefit societies.

"The business plan is that over the long term the centre will expand to occupy the whole building. This is the end of the initial phase, and over the next 10 years we'll learn what our needs are. And then we'll see."

The GCP's corporate report shows its original endowment has grown to $54 million.

Lease conditions changed

The construction delays were partly due to the fact the building was in worse condition than expected. The work included asbestos removal, McNee says.

"It's like buying an old house. Once you move in, you find things that need fixing." He says the work cost the Aga Khan approximately $35 million.

"The building was made available at a time when no government department or agency had expressed an interest in occupying it. Here you have a global philanthropist putting a very large amount of money into restoring a piece of Canadian heritage and infrastructure."

In 2013, the Aga Khan Foundation asked the government to allow it to rent out office space in the building. It wanted to be able to sub-lease 2,800 square metres, or more than half of the total floor space.

The Ottawa-based Global Centre for Pulralism is just one of several projects in Canada sponsored by the Aga Khan or his organizations. Many of them, such as the Aga Khan Museum, which opened in Toronto in 2014, are known for their impressive architecture. (Zulekha Nathoo/CBC)

In briefing notes obtained by CBC News through access to information, public servants with the National Capital Commission raised concerns the property "would be in direct competition with the NCC's rental space in the Byward Market, and given that the GCP's lease is at a nominal rate, the NCC could potentially suffer financially."

Despite the warning, the NCC granted the right to sub-lease, which required a municipal zoning amendment that cost the foundation $10. 

The NCC did turn down a GCP request to grant 20-year subleases, limiting them to 10 years and insisting it be consulted about potential tenants.

PMs seek closeness to Aga Khan

The requests for deadline extensions and leasing authority came as the Harper government was looking to draw closer to the Ismaili leader.

A 2013 "memorandum for action" prepared for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suggests "options aimed at moving toward a strategic partnership with the Aga Khan." 

The memo notes the Aga Khan had already been made a member of the Order of Canada and an honorary citizen and received privileges normally reserved for foreign heads of state and heads of government, including the right to enter and leave the country through Ottawa's Hangar 11. The memo suggests "extending additional courtesies," but they are blacked out in the document released to CBC.

In January 2014, International Development Minister Christian Paradis announced an additional $150 million for the Aga Khan Foundation, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote to the Aga Khan at his estate in Aiglemont, France, inviting him to make an official visit to Canada, where he would be given the rare privilege of addressing Parliament.

The government earmarked the extra money for the Aga Khan without a clear idea of how it would be spent, and officials were aware their minister could face questions about it.

Under the heading "Defensive Lines," they provided Paradis a response to any tough questions on the matter: "We are still in the process of determining precise allocations for the additional $150 million."

Video of the Aga Khan's appearance in Parliament, as well as an invitation-only speech he gave at Massey Hall in Toronto, was posted on stephenharper.ca.

In order to view it, visitors had to give an email address and were soon hit with emails from the Conservative Party, in which Immigration Minister Chris Alexander described the Aga Khan and Harper as "two great world leaders."

'Influential communities'

The episode provides an insight into why both Conservatives and Liberals have shown a desire to be close to the Aga Khan, whose estimated 80,000 Canadian Ismaili followers make up one of the country's most generous — and most coveted — donor communities.

That point wasn't lost on anyone involved in the GCP negotiations.

A briefing note drafted for Baird as he prepared to sign off on the think-tank's 2014 annual report, and obtained through access to information, reminds the minister that Ismailis "live in every part of the country, with large and influential communities located in urban centres of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

"If they can, Ismailis donate about one-eighth of their income as a tenet of their belief."

Aga Khan's address to Parliament

9 years ago
Duration 44:56
The 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims speaks at a special joint session of Parliament


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.