By Sheema Khan
December 30, 2017
Agnes and James Love, Muslim émigrés from Scotland, settled in Ontario in 1851. They represent the first record of Muslims in Canada.
More than 150 years later, more than one million Muslims call Canada home. Roughly half are born here; the remaining hail from at least 30 countries. While the mosque has served as the primary community institution, in the past two decades there has been an explosion of home-grown organizations committed to the integration of Muslims into the Canadian landscape. Three stand out for their unique emphasis on gender equality, the arts and scholarly research.
Established in 2003, Noor Cultural Centre was the vision of Hassanali Lakhani, who wanted to establish a prayer facility with absolute equal access and space for women. Then, and now in some places, women's prayer spaces were either absent, or inferior in quality and separate from the main prayer hall. At Noor, male and female congregations sit by side by side, separated by an aisle. Women also call the Adhan, deliver the Friday sermon and officiate marriages. The centre is under the visionary direction of Mr. Lakhani's daughter, Samira Kanji, who asserts that "the Centre's work on gender equality is inextricably connected to other areas of social activism, such as anti-Islamophobia, anti-racism, environmental justice, animal ethics and economic justice." In addition, the Centre has partnered with York University to establish the university's first chair in Islamic studies and to sponsor a series of public lectures on contemporary topics.
In 2013, the Silk Road Institute was founded in Montreal by an eclectic group of community activists dedicated to creating a space for Muslim Canadians to explore, develop and share artistic expressions. Since then, the Institute has hosted performing artists, authors and cultural contributors in Montreal and Toronto. As an example, musical performances have been inspired by the Levant, Mali and Miles Davis – a testament to the richness and diversity of Muslim Canadians.
Founding executive director Mohamed Shaheen says that "art is a powerful tool that transcends cultures. We want to ensure that Muslim Canadians are part of Canada's collective and diverse cultural narrative. Our goal is to support the next generation of artists, and to establish a community arts space where Canadians can gather, explore the arts and build cross cultural bridges." This year, the Institute partnered with the Michaëlle Jean Foundation to launch the "Combating Hate, Advancing Inclusion" exhibit, which featured the works of young Muslim filmmakers at Toronto's Nuit Blanche. The Institute also launched a bursary for Quebec Muslim students pursuing an arts degree.
During the Ontario Sharia debates, University of Toronto political science lecturer Katherine Bullock found public discourse around Muslims to be misinformed. Yet there were no institutions dedicated to research on Canadian Muslims for policy makers and the public. In 2007, she, along with colleagues, established the Tessellate Institute to fill the gap. Ten years on, it has done an admirable job.
Their first project was an oral history of Toronto's first mosque – founded by Albanian Muslims in 1961. Subsequently, the Institute completed film projects about Canadian Muslim youth identity and about the extraordinary volunteerism of seniors. It partnered with the Environics Institute for the 2016 survey of Muslims in Canada (which found a higher proportion of Muslims to be very proud of their Canadian identity than non-Muslims). Research projects include young Muslims' perceptions of political participation; Muslim women as peace builders; and Islamophobia in Ontario's schools. The Institute also runs café-style public lectures that address underexplored issues, such as anti-black racism within Muslim communities. It also participated in a conference to explore multi-faith perspectives on basic income.
For Prof. Bullock, "Muslims are much spoken about, but little heard from. Our research helps to establish their historical presence and their integral contribution to the Canadian story. Our projects, whether through the arts, workshops, focus groups or research, bring to the fore different Muslim perspectives on issues of importance to them."
These institutions are a snapshot of a dynamic community that is forging new identities in the Canadian landscape.