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Celebrating 60 years of the Aga Khan - and a special relationship with Canada

Adrienne Clarkson was Canada’s 26th governor-general (1999-2005), is the co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and a board member for the Global Centre for Pluralism.

There are two living world leaders who have celebrated their Diamond Jubilee – 60 years in office. One is Her Majesty The Queen and the other is His Highness Aga Khan. Both assumed their duties at an early age – the Queen at the age of 26 and the Aga Khan at the tender age of 20, while still an undergraduate at Harvard University. John Diefenbaker had just become prime minister of Canada.

The Governor-General of Canada, Julie Payette, is hosting a dinner at Rideau Hall on Wednesday to mark this anniversary and the occasion of His Highness’s official Jubilee visit to Canada.

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In 2005, when I was Governor-General, I appointed him an Honorary Companion of the Order of Canada, our highest civilian honour. At the time, I said that he brings to everything he does “a generosity, curiosity, intelligence and deep compassion for human beings.” In 2010, during Stephen Harper’s government, His Highness accepted honorary Canadian citizenship.

For 60 years, His Highness has been the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismailis throughout the world. His teachings emphasize human reasoning, the acceptance of racial, ethnic, cultural and intra-religious differences, and social justice. The Ismailis are the only Shia Muslim community led by a living hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.

The Aga Khan is, in effect, a head of state without a geographic territory. In the past, Ismailis had a 200-year empire in Egypt but, since the 11th century, have existed as a diaspora.

Canada is home to more than 100,000 Ismailis. Since first arriving in 1972 as a group of mostly penniless refugees fleeing persecution and dispossession in East Africa, Canada’s Ismaili community has been able to not only prosper, but to give back to the communities in which they find themselves.

Ismailis volunteer fervently – both in their own community and in civil society at large – not just because it helps to create a more compassionate society in which everyone is more spiritually comfortable, but because they believe that making the effort to do so leads toward enlightened self-fulfilment.

For example, to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Ismaili Civic 150 Initiative was created, in which community members volunteered as mentors and coaches to build the younger generation’s skills, delivering employment and settlement-support services to new Canadians, providing care for the elderly, supporting anti-poverty initiatives, and maintaining natural and public spaces. The Civic 150 goal was set at one million volunteer hours. The actual amount came to a remarkable 1,127,549 hours.

The Government of Canada has always recognized the importance of the Aga Khan as a world leader. In 2002, when I was Governor-General, I was able to turn the sod of the Ismaili Imamat building with His Highness.

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In 2006, the Conservative government partnered with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN)to establish the Global Centre for Pluralism, headquartered in the refurbished War Museum, which recognizes that pluralism is as important as human rights to ensure peace, democracy and a better quality of life for all.

Canada’s development agencies have partnered with the AKDN in initiatives all over the world: The AKDN’s health network alone has 325 centres in Asia and Africa. Their educational initiatives include 240 schools from preschools to secondary levels, which attempt to diminish the obstacles to educational access and achievement. There are Aga Khan Academies that offer curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate. The Aga Khan University, with a primary campus in Karachi and others in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, emphasizes the importance of education for the betterment of humanity.

His Highness has always pointed out that diversity is a gift of the divine. He often quotes the verse from the Koran: “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” In other words, if God had wanted to, He could have made us all alike. Instead, He chose to make us all different so that we could learn from one another. He underlined the Islamic truth that diversity does not dilute our identities, but helps to enrich our knowledge of ourselves and of each other.

In 2014, Stephen Harper’s government invited His Highness to address the joint houses of Parliament. The then-speaker, now-Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addressed the Aga Khan as “a clear beacon and an example to follow … changing the world and making it a better place for those who are most in need of our assistance.”

Because of the far-reaching supranational activities of the Aga Khan Development Network and the Global Centre for Pluralism, the Aga Khan finds himself in Canada frequently. Hopefully he feels, as former prime minister Stephen Harper said to him in Parliament, that “when you are in Canada, you are home.”

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