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Guests gather at the inauguration of the Aga Khan Garden at the at the University of Alberta’s botanical gardens in Edmonton, Alta. on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.

Jeff McIntosh

With 25,000 plants, 120 fruit trees, 12 water features and more than 650 tonnes of granite and polished limestone, it is far from your typical garden. Then again, that was the point – to make it something distinctive, a place for contemplation.

The Aga Khan Garden, part of the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, was formally opened Tuesday afternoon with the 81-year-old spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims overseeing the completion of his $25-million gift to the university.

The garden is a 4.8-hectare expanse located southwest of Edmonton and is designed to highlight the architecture and feel of an Islamic garden. Of the many projects the Aga Khan Development Network has undertaken to promote peace and well-being, the Aga Khan Garden is the most northerly based, a tribute to the U of A’s continuing relationship with the Aga Khan.

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His appearance for Tuesday’s official introduction drew a supporting cast that included Alberta Lieutenant-Governor Lois Mitchell, Premier Rachel Notley and U of A president David Turpin.

“[This] seemed an unlikely dream to many,” the Aga Khan said. “The symbol of the garden as a spiritual symbol goes back to the holy Koran itself."

He also spoke of his friendships and affection for Canada. In 2009, he was dubbed “a beacon of humanitarianism” and made an honorary Canadian citizen by then-prime minister Stephen Harper. He was awarded the first Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship in 2016. He previously approved the construction of the Aga Khan Museum and Park in Toronto.

The man who helped deliver on the AKG assignment is Lee Foote, the U of A Botanic Garden director and transplanted Louisiana native who has spent the past 22 years in Edmonton. Mr. Foote and the Aga Khan hiked up a Botanic Garden deer trail in 2012 and were captivated by the view. The Aga Khan asked if his garden could be switched from its original location to this one. Without consulting the university, Mr. Foote agreed.

"These gardens are built with such fine materials; we’re talking [about it being] a 300- to 600-year-old garden,” Mr. Foote said. "The people who worked on it said they’d never had the opportunity to work on this level of detail before. It’s a heaviness and permanency you rarely get to see in modern architecture.”

The AKG opened to the public in late June and was greeted with rave reviews for its Woodland Bagh reflecting pool, stonework, outdoor amphitheatre, fountains and sunken floral beds. The garden’s motto is: No one leaves unchanged. It’s a sentiment not lost on its director.

“When I walk through that garden,” Mr. Foote said, “I see someone in a sari talking to someone in a sweatshirt, someone with a cowboy hat sitting there with somebody wearing a turban. I can see pluralism in action.”

While visiting Western Canada, the Aga Khan is set to receive honorary degrees from the University of Calgary, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.

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