In these tragic times when being a visible Muslim in Canada may kill you, Murray Hogben’s book about stories of early Muslim settlers in Canada is a relevant and timely reminder of the history of Muslim presence in Canada and the challenges and achievements that have accompanied this ongoing journey.
From the story of Alex Hamilton — originally named Ali Ahmed Asiff Abouchadi — and of Sine Alley — born Hussain Ali Abougoush — who settled in 1905 in Lac La Biche, to the story of Hilwie Jomha Hamdon, who emigrated from her Lala village in today’s Lebanon to join her husband Ali Hamdon who had a trading post in Fort Chipewyan, Hogben transports us through time and space in his examination of the early Muslim-immigrant experience.
In the early years of the 20th Century, those who used to be called Syrians (from today’s Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) arrived in small numbers as they fled the mandatory conscription imposed on them as subjects of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and searched for better economic opportunities.
Many of those Syrians worked as peddlers selling goods to remote and isolated communities. Most of them went to northern Alberta where they collaborated with First Nations, who traded furs with them in exchange for the goods they were selling. This wave of Muslim presence was remote and invisible. Many of these early settlers anglicized their names. Peter Baker — born Ahmed Ali Ferran — worked as a trapper and trader would later become the first Muslim politician elected in the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories in 1964.
These early Canadian Muslims tried to keep their faith and language alive by going back to their homelands, bringing their young brides to join them, and confining their “Islamness” inside their homes.
In those times, “Moslems” or “Turks” — as other Canadians used to call them — were a strange entity that many Canadians weren’t aware of. If they were, they thought of them pejoratively.
Survival for Canada’s early Muslim population came at a high cost. Many of these early generations were “assimilated,” forgetting their mother tongue and religion.
But with better economic opportunities and increasing numbers of families came community building initiatives.
It isn’t a coincidence that the first Mosque in Canada, Al Rashid, was built in 1938 in Edmonton. With the help and solidarity from more established faith groups, Muslims were able to build a place of worship where they could meet, and their children could receive a religious education.
In a nutshell, the Muslim presence, as told to Murray Hogben by several Muslim men and some women is a succession of stories of building mosques and schools so families could gather during the religious holidays and teach their children the basics of their faith.
Those stories are told candidly to readers in the oral tradition. Hogben’s interviews with these “pioneers” are worth reading and cherishing as great testimonies for all Canadians.
The early places of worship brought many communities together: Muslims and non-Muslims but even within the Muslim community, it brought diverse ethnic groups and religious practices, including Albanians, Pakistanis, Guyanese, and Fijians, as well as Sunni, Shia, Ismaili and Ahmadi.
For years, the immigration system in Canada was racist and favoured white European immigration, thus, engineering a “cohesive” society and creating a sense of entitlement for the majority of European settlers. When the immigration levels from the European continent stalled after World War II, new horizons opened for other countries: several students, medical doctors and engineers chose to immigrate to Canada from countries like Pakistan and the Middle East.
The new Muslim presence shifted from its early Northern direction to the Eastern provinces of Quebec and Ontario.
The face of the Muslim presence in Canada reflects the international conflicts and wars around the globe.
For instance, when Albania became staunchly communist, Albanians traveled to Canada looking for a place where they could preserve their faith and found their families.
After the partition of India, many Muslim Indians found refuge in Canada. During the apartheid in South Africa, some Muslims immigrated to Canada looking for justice and better lives.
The stories of these conflicts are interwoven in the walls of many mosques built in Canada. Before becoming an official Canadian policy, multiculturism was lived and experienced by the Muslim communities across Canada in building their faith and education institutions.
These co-habitations between different cultures and opinions were not always without some tensions and disappointments. In later years, the immigration of younger generations who were influenced by some fundamental religious schools created frictions between the old and the new generations, between the less visible to the more visible approaches to religion. New mosques were built to reflect this diversity and some bitterness came to taint the feelings of some early Muslims.
Hogben’s book is crucial reading for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For Muslims, it will help them understand their own history in this land where their experiences can be added to the chapters of the colonial past of Canada. It will help the new generations to build a better sense of their belonging and learn from the resilience of their ancestors.
For non-Muslims, this book is the proof that Islamophobia isn’t a new phenomenon.
Hogben recounts how a young Muslim boy in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, was once called a “Turk” by his teacher (a pejorative name for Muslims) who “drew her finger across her throat” which made his schoolmates move away from his seat.
This book also emphasizes the collaboration and solidarity between Muslim and non-Muslims in building their mosques and their first institutions.
This is the cooperation we need to continue today to move forward, seriously fight Islamophobia and undo the wrongs of previous years.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog.
Image: Minarets on the horizon: Muslim pioneers in Canada book cover