History of Muslims in Canada reminds us all of who we are

By Amira Elghawaby and Hassam Munir
Ottawa Citizen | July 1, 2017

There’s nothing like a birthday to inspire introspection.

For Canadian Muslims, the opportunity to commemorate and celebrate our history since pre-Confederation comes at a critical juncture. Those who hold bigoted and racist views have become more vocal – emboldened by populist politics that can fuel fear of the “other” and engender the disillusioned to turn against minority communities. If ever there was a time to fully acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of various communities to the prosperity and richness of Canada, it is now.

The presence of Muslims in Canada dates back to 1854 with the first recorded birth of a Muslim, to Scottish parents James and Agnes Love. From then on, history shows a small, diverse and widely dispersed community making noticeable impacts from right around the turn of the century and beyond. Neither modest size, nor vast distances, seemed to deter Canadian Muslims from contributing to the betterment of their communities. There is no better moment to recognize this unsung history than during Canada’s sesquicentennial.

The first Muslim contribution to the fields of literature and history belongs to Mahommah Baquaqua in the mid-1850s. Baquaqua was of West African origin and was enslaved in Brazil before attaining freedom in the United States and making his way up to Canada through the famous Underground Railroad. In 1854, while living in Ontario, he orally narrated his story, a project that culminated in an autobiography which remains the only known slave narrative from Brazil. Such slave narratives eventually helped to abolish slavery in the Unites States and elsewhere.

As for many of the earliest Muslim immigrants to Canada, they were successful entrepreneurs. For instance, Ali Abouchadi arrived from Lebanon with his uncle in 1905, at the young age of 13. He achieved impressive success in the years that followed as a pedlar in Manitoba, a farmer in Saskatchewan, a fur trader in Alberta, and an explorer in the Northwest Territories. Based mostly in Lac La Biche, Abouchadi ran a general store, a gas station, a sawmill and a grain harvester. He also worked with the government on Northern Alberta Railways. He became fluent in the Cree language due to his extensive involvement in the fur trade and his deep ties with the Cree-speaking First Nations of Alberta. He explored and traded along the Mackenzie River, all the way up to Inuvik.

Bedouin Ferran, also known as Peter Baker, arrived in 1910 and slowly made his way to the Northwest Territories, where he too worked as a fur trader, and would eventually contribute to the fields of literature and politics. He authored Memoirs of an Arctic Arab: The Story of a Free-Trader in Northern Canada, which offered a rare glimpse into life in Canada’s far north in the early 20th century. In 1964, Ferran became one of the first Muslims to be elected to public office in Canada, representing a mostly Indigenous riding in the Northwest Territories.

During the Great Depression, Hilwi Hamdon led the initiative to establish Canada’s first mosque, a contribution to Canada’s diverse heritage. She approached Edmonton mayor John Fry with the idea and brought different communities together to build the Al-Rashid Mosque – which is now a heritage site. The first Qur’an teacher to teach at the mosque, Ameen Ganam, would later become an award-winning musician and is still known to this day as “Canada’s King of the Fiddle.”

Husain Rahim, an Indian Muslim, was an early interfaith leader and activist based in Vancouver. He ran his own newspaper, The Hindustanee, for the budding Indo-Canadian community, in 1914, making him Canada’s first known Muslim journalist. He brought attention to the discriminatory laws against South Asians, as he was put on trial once for migrating to Canada and the second time for allegedly voting in an election. During the infamous Komagata Maru incident, Rahim strove to have the migrants from South Asia allowed into Canada.

Today, Canadian Muslims continue to contribute and thrive in all parts of our society, striving for excellence in business, academia, law, government, education, health care, social sciences, human rights and the arts. It is the legacy left to us from those who came before us, one we will cherish for years to come.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). Hassam Munir is the Editor-in-Chief of iHistory.