Being an Ismaili Muslim woman is a very important part of my identity. On numerous occasions I have spoken in the Senate Chamber, on conference stages and in media interviews about my Ismaili heritage. I do this because I have an immense debt of gratitude to the community and His Highness the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of more than 15 million Ismaili Muslims around the world. I believe I owe my success, honours, awards and milestones to the values instilled in me as an Ismaili Muslim.
Recently, the Ismaili Muslim community in Canada marked the 50th anniversary of its substantial presence in Canada. In August 1972, then-Ugandan president and military dictator Idi Amin announced that the 60,000 South Asians in the country were to leave Uganda within 90 days. Thousands lost their lives or endured unspeakable trauma under his brutal regime. My father Sherali Bandali Jaffer, a former member of Parliament, had to flee earlier as his life was in danger. The Aga Khan and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, came to our rescue with the aid of many countries.
Along with 6,000 other South Asians from Uganda, my family and I were able to seek asylum in Canada. Despite our struggles, it was the kindness and openness of Canadians that provided us with a chance at building a new life.
I was privileged to be able to turn that adversity into success. I became the first practising female South Asian lawyer in Canada, I was appointed as Queen’s (now King’s) Counsel, and I was privileged to be appointed the first Muslim member of the Senate of Canada, the first African-born senator and the first senator of South Asian descent.
But I was certainly not the last. The story of struggle, hard work and progress is that of thousands of Canadian Ismailis, and of many others who chose to call Canada their home.
But the story of generosity is not unidirectional. Over the last 50 years, Ismailis from all walks of life have worked tirelessly to give back to this country that has given them so much: former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi; broadcast anchors Omar Sachedina and Farah Nasser; novelist M.G. Vassanji; Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani are but a few. Inspired by the guidance of the Aga Khan, thousands of Canadian Ismailis have been strong and active contributors to the civic, cultural and social lives of the communities in which they live.
The notion of giving oneself for the betterment of others is also quintessentially Canadian – one that helps to reinforce a strong national psyche of connectedness and mutual responsibility.
The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam-of-the-time (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. As part of the mandate of his role, he has been a significant contributor to improvement in our quality of life: showcasing Muslim art and intellect through the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, bringing together East and West at the Aga Khan Garden in Alberta and Aga Khan Park in Toronto, working to alleviate poverty through the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, and building societies of mutual respect and understanding through the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, in partnership with the federal government.
Recently, members of the Aga Khan’s family including his brother, Prince Amyn, and his children, Princess Zahra and Prince Rahim, were in Canada for ceremonies to commemorate the Ismaili community’s 50-year anniversary and to launch initiatives for the next 50 years. In Toronto, the Aga Khan received the key to the city for his contributions to Toronto and his global humanitarian work. In Edmonton, the new Diwan Pavilion supports the Aga Khan Garden’s mandate of providing a venue for dialogue and engagement. In Vancouver, an Agreement of Co-operation between the Government of British Columbia and the Ismaili Imamat solidifies a partnership with a focus on addressing climate change issues in B.C. and around the world.
The significance of these events goes beyond the buildings, the agreements or their ensuing accolades. What is truly to be celebrated is that, in a world wracked with insular and sectarian thinking, there are reassuring forces propelling us in kinder, gentler directions.
I am lucky to be in a position where my two greatest blessings, being Canadian and Ismaili Muslim, are not only able to peacefully co-exist but can actively interact and build upon one another. Today and every day, I am grateful for these multiple identities, and also for the acceptance and deep commitment to equal opportunity that this country continues to expound. May Canada continue to serve as a beacon of hope for all.
Senator Mobina Jaffer represents British Columbia in the Senate.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of the Ottawa Citizen.