Naheed Nenshi is the mayor of Calgary.
On the occasion of the Aga Khan’s visit to Western Canada marking the Diamond Jubilee of his imamate, as a proud Ismaili Muslim, I have been reflecting on his 60 years of service to humanity, but particularly to Canada.
Much has been said this year about his extraordinary record: about the remarkable success of the anti-poverty initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network; about the advances in the treatment and success of women and girls of every faith where the network operates; even about the light the Aga Khan has shone on the architecture of the Islamic world.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper, with unanimous consent of Parliament, bestowed on him the very rare prize of honorary Canadian citizenship. (Only been six people have received this honour in the modern era, including Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama and Malala Yousafzai.) The Governor-General called him a “beacon of light for the world.”
Beyond his own incredible achievements, what is truly remarkable is how he has inspired so many others to build community wherever they live.
When my parents came to Toronto in 1971, there were few South Asian people and almost no Ismailis. They found a small handful of families, and on Fridays they would gather to pray in someone’s basement. My mother, heavily pregnant, would rise early and strip the only sheets from the bed and wash them at the laundromat. She’d hang them to dry (since there was no dime for the dryer) and hope they’d be ready in time.
She and dad would then bundle up the sheets, hop on the subway and go to the home of these people they’d only just met in this strange land. The sheets would be used to cover some low tables, lending a bit of dignity to that basement where they would pray in their small congregation.
Why did they do this? They certainly had enough to do: trying to make their way in a new country, finding out exactly what winter was. Part of it was to find a sense of community and to chase away the loneliness that comes with being a newcomer. But it was also about finding that grounding in faith – a faith that spoke of perseverance, of the need for service and the requirement to uphold the dignity of every human being.
Just a few months later, Canada opened its arms, hearts and borders to Asians from Uganda made refugees by a murderous regime. Among them were many Ismailis, and my parents and their little ragtag group found themselves looking after thousands of newcomers. They had so little they barely knew how to navigate this new country, but these newcomers had even less. My parents knew they had to help.
Fast-forward to 2017 – Canada’s 150th anniversary – and those same families that came to Canada all those years ago were inspired to take part in the Ismaili Civic 150 initiative. In total, they gave back more than 1.1 million hours of service to the community.
My family’s story and the gift of community service given by Ismailis last year, in my mind, speak to the impact the Aga Khan has had in inspiring a sense of service and community-mindedness in this country.
As I grew up in Calgary, my family and my faith continued to push that message. Life is about service. Even when you have little, there are others who have less. It’s our job to improve the communities in which we live, even if those communities are hostile to us.
Years later, after I became mayor of Calgary, I met the Aga Khan for the first time. He had just given a speech on pluralism and the Canadian example of inclusion and diversity. He mentioned that he chose Canada as the headquarters for the Global Centre for Pluralism because Canada had much to teach the world.
My father had recently passed away, and I was wearing his watch: a 1974 Seiko that he had saved up for. As I nervously waited my turn to speak with His Highness, I kept looking down at the watch. When I got the chance, I mentioned my parents’ story and how, when I ran for office, my faith was not at all an issue – that, growing up in Canada, I never thought there was any job I could not do because I was a Muslim (well, except maybe be a Rabbi).
He smiled and talked about how pluralism is his life’s work and how pleased he was that Canada had become such an exemplar since the Ugandan refugees came. I got the sense that this wasn’t just an observation, but a discussion of cause and effect.
In my faith tradition, a common prayer roughly translates as “may God accept your service, and may the community be blessed by it.” Indeed, this country, and many around the world, have reaped the blessings of the service of Ismailis and ultimately that of the Aga Khan. For that, all of humanity can be deeply grateful.