Can a timeline tell a story? As a born and bred Albertan, who happens to be Muslim, it seems surreal to be watching a part of my identity being portrayed as the “other” in recent debates in Quebec and elsewhere about values and the place of Muslims (and others) in Canada. In that light, the years 1867, 1938, 2012 speak to me.
1867: We live in the greatest country on earth and you just have to pick-up this newspaper or any other on any given day and read what’s happening in other parts of the world to remind us. But this didn’t happen by accident. While nowhere near perfect, especially with regards to the treatment of first nations, the founding of the country in 1867 that carved out a place and space for both the English and French cultures and their predominant religions is unique. In modern history, it’s hard to find countries where past conflicts were not allowed to fully define the future character of a nation; and where minority rights were both protected and promoted.
1938: My great-grandfather and the early Canadian Muslim community he belonged to built the first mosque in Canada (and likely North America) in 1938 in Edmonton. It was not built in isolation by an insular community, but with the support and generosity of non-Muslim Albertans. It really was the first little mosque on the prairie. Growing up in Alberta with such deep roots, with this great Canadian heritage, it never was in reality – nor ever in imagination – a question of whether we were fully integrated. That mosque is now literally a part of history, as it was preserved and relocated to Fort Edmonton Park as a testament to its historical significance. Of course, the Canadian Muslim community is not the only one to benefit from the generosity and inclusiveness of Canada, as successive pools of immigrants were welcomed; this is but one powerful example.
This year happens to be the 75th anniversary of that mosque, which is why it was particularly hurtful to see, in the wake of the debate in Quebec about a charter of values, that a Quebec mosque was sprayed with pig’s blood and the message “integrate or go home”. But what if you’re already home? In my mind, the vandal is the one who needs to integrate. That person is compromising the Canadian values that originally preserved the ability for all of us to practice our faiths and cultures in the past and today make this such an extraordinary place. This person may think they are not acting out of hate because they are “protecting” their idea of Quebec culture (which in my experience is one of warmth and life). However, from what I’ve observed elsewhere, sectarianism is often not born out of the heat of hate but the passions of cultural pride that can seduce one to exclude and marginalize. Canada was and will hopefully never be a place where who you are determines what you can really be. If so, Canada, including both my home province of Alberta as well as Quebec, would be a very different place.
2012: About 85 years after my great-grandfather came to Canada to make a life for himself and future generations, I got to watch my son – his great-great grandson – have the honour of carrying the Canadian flag in the opening ceremonies of the 100th Anniversary of the Grey Cup on behalf of ALL Canadian youth. As a dad from Edmonton, who grew up loving the CFL and this great country, I thought of my great-grandfather and the immense embrace Canada had shown him and shows all of us. I also thought, God Bless Canada. My family’s experience may be different but not unique. After 146 years, it seems we’ve collected plenty of evidence that Canada works for all of us and my historical timeline is only one proof. I hope history doesn’t have to start all over again in 2013.
Born in Alberta, Dany Assaf is a Toronto-based lawyer