Canada 'exemplary leader' in unity and pluralism, Aga Khan says

The Aga Khan encouraged Canadians to continue embracing diversity Thursday morning in Parliament, in a speech espousing the need for an improved global civil society.

77-year-old Aga Khan is hereditary spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims

Aga Khan's address to Parliament

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

The Aga Khan encouraged Canadians to continue embracing diversity Thursday morning in Parliament, in a speech espousing the need for an improved global civil society.

“One key to Canada’s success in building a meritocratic civil society is your recognition that democratic societies require more than democratic governments,” the spiritual leader said before members of both houses.

The hereditary spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims spoke at length about improving societies through institutions outside of government.

“The sad fact behind so much instability in our world today is that governments are seen to be inadequate to these challenges. A much happier fact is that, in the global effort to change this picture, Canada is an exemplary leader,” he said.

The Aga Khan said the world needs to look beyond the government and private sector. He spoke of the Ismaili community's Aga Khan Development Network, which has been supporting economic development, education and health care, among other things, in countries around the world.

“Increasingly, I believe, the voices of civil society are voices for change – where change has been overdue. They have been voices of hope for people living in fear,” he said in his speech.

Politics to blame for religious clashes

He praised Canada for the country’s emphasis on education, as well as the government’s creation of the Office of Religious Freedom.

The spiritual leader spoke of the “harsh reality” of the rise of religious hostility and intolerance, particularly in countries such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Myanmar.

The Aga Khan also addressed the wide variance of Muslim cultures and misconceptions about how Muslims view the world.

"Essential among them is that they do not share some common, overarching impression of the West. It has become a commonplace for some to talk about an inevitable clash of the industrial West and Islamic civilizations. But most Muslims don't see things this way," he said in his speech.

The Aga Khan blamed clashes between Islam and other faiths on political circumstances and economic ambitions of governments, rather than deep religious divides.

“Sadly, what is highly abnormal in the Islamic world often gets mistaken for what is normal. Of course, media perceptions of our world in recent years have often been conveyed through a lens of war,” the spiritual leader said.

The Aga Khan switched over to French in the midst of his address to proclaim that, despite existing misconceptions, harmony is possible. He said a constitutional approach could be used to correct the inadequacies of existing state policies, especially when societies are still developing.

This is an essential topic that my duties prevent me from ignoring, he said.

The Aga Khan’s words come as the province of Quebec is embroiled in a fiery debate over the proposed charter of values, which would prevent public servants from wearing religious symbols — including crucifixes, hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes.

The proposed charter is carving a deep divide in a province that’s long struggled with identity politics and secession attempts.

Deep ties with Canada

Before beginning his address, the Aga Khan congratulated Canada on the gold medal performances of its hockey teams in Sochi.

"I was hoping you would require your honorary citizens to join your team," he said, explaining that he was an ex-player himself. "I am convinced that the Dalai Lama and I would have been a formidable defence."

The Aga Khan was made an honorary citizen of Canada in 2010, a distinction he shares with the Dalai Lama.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave the Aga Khan a warm welcome in his introduction. 

"When you are in Canada, you are home," Harper said.

He also spoke of the deep ties between the Imamat — the entity that represents the succession of Imams — and Canada, especially with regards to diversity.

"Canadians are strongest when we have the support of those who share our values."

There was a large audience to hear the Aga Khan speak in the House of Commons, including Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Following the speech, the spiritual leader and Harper signed a protocol of understanding to strengthen ties between the Imamat and Canada. 

 "Our partnership in Canada has been immensely strengthened, of course, by the presence — for more than four decades — of a significant Ismaili community," the Aga Khan said in his speech. 

The agreement commits both sides to regular consultations on a range of global issues, including foreign policy and regional trade, as well as appointment of representatives.

Currently, Canada is involved in 13 development projects with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, which is a major fundraiser for the Aga Khan Development Network, with a total government commitment of more than $216 million. 

Opposition MPs not invited to Toronto event

The Aga Khan also met privately with opposition leaders while in Ottawa.

He is expected to head to Toronto on Friday for a speaking event at Massey Hall. 

NDP and Liberal MPs said they were not invited to the engagement, which was organized by the Prime Minister's Office.

The event will be taking place in Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland's riding of Toronto Centre. She calls the situation "ironic." 

"One of the messages of the Aga Khan is understanding, working with pluralism, being tolerant, living in a world of diversity," she said. "To meet that message and to receive a person who's come here to talk to us about that with this hyper-partisanship, I think it's just wrong."

New Democrat MP Craig Scott agrees.

"If the Aga Khan had his way and knew this was the approach to how his event is being handled, I can't imagine he'd be all that happy about it," he said.

In response to a CBC News query, a representative of the Aga Khan Council for Canada said that the spiritual leader was not aware of who would be attending.

"The event is organized entirely by the Prime Minister's Office and we do not have access to the invitation list."

The only Ismaili parliamentarian, Liberal-appointed Senator Mobina Jaffer, was also not invited to the Toronto event. 

"But I'm just as happy to be here and to welcome him to my home. Parliament of Canada is where I work, it's my home, so I'm happy."

The 77-year-old Aga Khan is a regular visitor to Canada, with his most recent trip coming last November following visits in 2008 and 2010.

The Aga Khan became the 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in 1957, when he succeeded his grandfather.


  • This article is edited from a previous version which incorrectly stated that Mobina Jaffer is a Liberal MP. She is a senator belonging to the Senate Liberal caucus.
    Feb 28, 2014 8:59 AM ET

With files from Julie Van Dusen