Rewind

1972 Ugandan Refugees: An Honourable Place in Canada

In 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin banished Asians from his country, even though many had lived there for generations. Canada opened its doors to 7 000 of the displaced. A look back at the first group of non-European refugees to call Canada home- Uganda's Ismaili Asians.
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      Not long after Ugandan leader Idi Amin came to power in 1971, he said he had a dream that Allah had told him to expel people of Asian descent from the country. Many of them were Ismailis.

      The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Nizari Ismaili branch of Islam represents about 15 million people and advocates tolerance and pluralism. When Amin's decree came, the Aga Khan called then prime minister Pierre Trudeau asking him to help. More than 7 000 Ugandan Asians came to Canada. It was the first time in Canadian history that Canada accepted a large group of non-European refugees.

      There was a long tradition of trade between Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, General Amin insisted that "Africa was for Africans."His expulsion order affected at least 80,000 people, many who had lived in Uganda for generations. 

      "I am a fourth generation African. I couldn't be any more African than I was when I was there, but I wasn't accepted. We did not have the right colour. We were not black enough to be African."

      ---Muslim Harji, Asian immigrant to Canada 

      The expulsion of steady migration of Asians from Uganda had dire effects on the economy. The country lost doctors, technicians, business owners, and engineers. Railways were compromised, there were food shortages and prices skyrocketed. The economic foundations of the country started to crumble. 

      "Before Amin, Uganda had such a great government -  the best civil service in Africa, the best health care. Life was good. Amin was known and feared before he came to power, so imagine what happened once he did. Very soon things started falling apart. I'll tell you straight: at least Asians, by and large, we escaped. The Black Ugandans who stayed paid with their lives. It was a really troubling time."

      ---John Nazareth, Asian Ugandan


      Most Ugandans who came to Canada because of Amin's expulsion prospered. The Aga Khan met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last May. The Aga Khan Foundation sponsors charitable works around the world and has an office in Ottawa. The new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto promotes tolerance and understanding through art and culture.