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New chapter in Canadian Ismaili story set to unfold in the Don Mills neighbourhood of Toronto
Tamizan Esmail
Nikhat Ahmed
24 May 2010
  • Over the decades, the Toronto neighbourhood of Don Mills has opened its welcoming arms and helped many new immigrants make Canada their home, including Ismailis and other Muslims. On 28 May, Mawlana Hazar Imam will lay the foundation for three important new projects that will invite Canadians – Muslim and non-Muslim – to explore their connected heritage and celebrate their unique backgrounds.

  • Image An aerial view of the Don Mills neighbourhood, looking towards the future site of the Ismaili Centre, the Aga Khan Museum and their park. The Foundation Ceremony for the three projects is due to take place on 28 May. Moez Visram

    The Toronto neighbourhood of Don Mills is one of the city's most diverse neighbourhoods – indeed, it is counted among the most diverse in Canada.

    “This is a very unique place,” says Mohamed Dhanani. “It's incredible to see families and communities from so many parts of the world come together here.” People from a range of ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds call the neighbourhood home. A microcosm of Toronto and Canada's multiculturalism, it is a place where dozens of languages are spoken, and people from all walks of life live and work together.

    Access to affordable housing, the close proximity to the Don Valley Parkway (the major north-south highway that snakes its way through the middle of the city) and the cultural ties that new migrants find in the neighbourhood, make the area a sort of “gateway for new Canadians,” explains Dhanani, a Toronto resident since the late 1980s.

    Ismaili roots in Canada

    Image Some of the first Ismaili immigrants to Canada settled in apartment buildings like these ones, along Thorncliffe Park Drive. Moez Visram

    Over the decades, Don Mills has opened its welcoming arms and helped many new immigrants to make Canada their home – including Ismaili Muslims.

    “This is the area – the Don Mills and Flemingdon Park area – where a significant number of Ismailis coming to Canada in the early 1970s settled,” says Nizar Sultan, former Chief Executive Officer of the Ismaili Council for Canada. “This is also the area where the first [Ismaili] Council for Eastern Canada offices were established.” For several years now it has also been home to the Ismaili Council for Canada.

    Ismailis live throughout the Greater Toronto Area and Jamats can also be found in significant numbers in major cities and small towns across the country. Many who are former residents of Don Mills still feel a strong connection to the area. The roots they created here when they first moved to Canada run deep.

    “I didn't realise it while I was there, but I learnt so much from that place growing up,” recalls Fhareen Jamal-Esmail. “I left the area to go to the University of Toronto, and that's when I saw how much exposure I had had to different cultures that other people don't normally have. It's something I will pass on to my kids too.”

    Image Members of the Thorncliffe Jamat gather at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute for mehndi and celebrations during the commemoration of Mawlana Hazar Imam's Golden Jubilee. Moez Visram

    All through grade school, Jamal-Esmail lived in the Thorncliffe neighbourhood and was exposed to the different traditions and languages of her friends, while also sharing her own.

    “When we would hear about racial or religious clashes elsewhere, it didn't make sense to me and my friends. Where we lived everyone got along. Everything was focused on the community. We thought it was normal to know so much about different cultures,” she says.

    Jamal-Esmail has fond memories of her childhood and is grateful for the experience: “We talk of Canadian values such as social acceptance and the ability for people to keep their values and traditions from their home countries, instead of turning into a melting pot – Don Mills exemplifies this perfectly.”

    Welcoming and inclusive neighbourhood

    Image Volunteers from the Ismaili community and the Islamic Society of Toronto with Rev Helena-Rose Houldcroft, Director of the Flemingdon Park Ministry, at the food bank. Moez Visram

    Neighbourhood residents come together willingly, and are always ready to help those in need. Some 80 per cent of the food bank's recipients come from ethnic communities – including Muslims. The local Flemingdon Park Food Bank receives generous support from donors and volunteers, many of whom are also Muslim. “It's all about looking after your neighbour – immediate and long-range neighbour”, says Abdulsultan Madhani, a volunteer social worker and Board Member of the Flemingdon Food Bank.

    In fact, the riding of Don Valley West has one of the highest proportions of Muslims in Canada. According to 2001 census data, almost 14 per cent of residents claimed Islam as their faith, but a local neighbourhood association says that figure has since more than doubled. Over the past three decades, the area has been favoured by many Muslims settling in Toronto, and holds the distinction of having elected the first Muslim politician in Canada, former Ontario MPP Murad Velshi.

    Image Ismaili Seniors from the Don Mills area take part in an exercise programme at a local Jamatkhana. Moez Visram

    “This is really a unique riding,” says Dhanani. “There are stark differences in people's realities. When you drive five minutes in any direction, you find something new.”

    With a mixture of lower-end rental apartments, new high-rise condominiums, industrial buildings, offices, retail shops, lush greenery and large wide open spaces waiting to be developed, the area is envisioned becoming a prime location, where people can live, work and play, all the same area.

    Laying foundations – fostering pluralism

    And soon, an important step will be taken along the journey towards that vision.

    Image An aerial view of the Wynford Drive site, which is being developed into a park where the Ismaili Centre, Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum will be situated. The site is clearly visible from the adjacent Don Valley Parkway thoroughfare. Courtesy of Imara Wynford Drive

    On 28 May, Mawlana Hazar Imam will lay the foundation for an important new development that will include a museum of Muslim culture and a centre for religious gathering and cultural outreach, all of which will be surrounded by a large landscaped park. The two buildings, which have been designed by architects of international renown, will be situated within a 17-acre plot along Wynford Drive.

    The Aga Khan Museum will be a museum of Muslim culture that will seek to address the gap of knowledge about Islam and create opportunities for dialogue and understanding between peoples and cultures. The first of its kind in North America, it will bring together visitors locally and internationally, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to explore their connected heritage and celebrate their unique backgrounds.

    Standing tall next to the Museum, the Ismaili Centre, Toronto will be a new representational building for the Ismaili Muslim community, and a place for spiritual contemplation and reflection. The sixth such centre in the world, and the second to be situated in Canada, it will be part of a global network of Ismaili Centres found in London, Burnaby, Lisbon, Dubai and Dushanbe. Architecturally unique, each one incorporates spaces for social and cultural gatherings, hosts intellectual engagements and serves as an ambassadorial hub, while representing a balance between faith and modern life.

    Image Following an Olympic Truce dialogue hosted at the Ismaili Centre, Burnaby, Presidents Mohamed Manji and Samira Alibhai, of the Ismaili Councils for Canada and British Columbia, present a gift – the Bismillah Raven by Sherazad Jamal – to the Governor General. The gift represents a multiplicity of expressions and the coming together of two cultures. Aziz Ladha

    The Ismaili Centre, Burnaby for example, was the venue of an Olympic Truce Dialogue led by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada in the run-up to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. In November, the 2009 Lisbon Forum – an annual event of the North-South Centre that was organised in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the Aga Khan Development Network – took place at the Ismaili Centre, Lisbon. The focus of the gathering was the “creation of a culture of human rights through education.” Similarly, the Centre in Toronto will also be a place of friendship, gathering and exchange that will bridge cultures, build on common values and enhance relationships among faith communities, government and civil society.

    A new and important chapter

    “These projects are going to be a catalyst for change,” according to Dhanani. “It's really going to become a destination to visit the park and see the architecture and the museum. It's going to bring some much needed exposure to the area.”

    Image A view of Don Mills Jamatkhana from Overlea Boulevard. Moez Visram

    Having been established in the Don Mills neighbourhood of Toronto since Ismailis first arrived in Canada some four decades ago, the Jamat will have a space to celebrate and share its own unique background, with the wider community who have become family. The Centre will be a symbol of the permanence of the Ismaili community as part of the Canadian fabric.

    Jamal-Esmail looks forward to the day when the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum and the Park open their doors. “There is a lot of opportunity here,” she says, “for students, for everyone, to gain a different perspective. What is Islam, how do Muslims give it expression in everyday life?”

    And in many ways, that is what these projects represent. The history of Don Mills and that of the Canadian Ismaili community are tightly bound, and the foundation ceremony along Wynford Drive this week represents a new and important chapter.