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Unexpected Canadian Connections

Unexpected Canadian Connections

So I'm on the elliptical, listening to NPR's Fresh Air. First up - a fascinating interview with author Brian Alexander about his new book Glass House. It details the demise of his Ohio hometown, Lancaster. I'm riveted as the author describes how his  beloved all-American town transformed from a tight-knit, successful community to one besieged by under-employment and high rates of opioid use. As Alexander explains, the root problem was corporate greed - financiers who used the town's glass company and major employer as a pawn. And yes, today, the town's citizens are a bit dazzled by Donald Trump, because they really just want their town to be the way it was before. It's a timely, worthy listen. 

I'm ready to stop exercising when the show switches to an interview with author Bharati Mukherjee. I didn't think I'd heard of her, or read her books. I should have - she won awards and was celebrated for many books including The Middleman and Other Stories, and Desirable Daughters. It turned out I'd read, and really enjoyed New Miss India, published in 2011.  

She wrote about many things including the experience of being an Indian woman who was meant to enter an arranged marriage.  Instead, she studied at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop (where she was awarded her PhD) and one lunch hour in 1963,  married Canadian writer Clark Blaise. She passed away at age 76 on January 28th in New York. In her honour, NPR replayed her conversation with Terry Gross in 2002. 

The conversation is gripping. Mukherjee asserts her independence and new-found freedoms early in America. She announced her marriage to her parents by telegram. "I sent a cable to my father saying by the time you get this, I'll already be married."  I love her insights into womanhood, 1960s feminism and the immigrant experience. 

Then, the unexpected. It turns out Mukherjee lived in Canada for 14 years with her Canadian husband. And here's where many modern-day connections start to snap together for me.

They begin speaking of her time in Canada.  Terry Gross sets the scene and describes the period in 1972 when Canada accepted several thousand refugees of Asian descent who were being expelled from Idi Amin's Uganda. These people had deep roots in Uganda as many of their families had immigrated there in the 19th century when the British needed more hands to build the railway and fill administrative roles. Over time, they became a successful merchant class.  When Idi Amin decided to expel them, they suddenly became stateless.  

Here's the transcript that follows copied directly from the NPR website: 

MUKHERJEE: And they had British passports, which Britain did not honor. And so the Canadian prime minister of that time, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, very kindly offered them residence - green cards. And that caused a sudden, really unanticipated - at least by me - backlash against brown immigrants. And the government didn't react to control that backlash in the way that it should have.

GROSS: Why do you think there was a backlash? And how did it directly affect you?

MUKHERJEE: Oh, dear. It meant that anyone with a brown face in cities like Toronto, Vancouver was fair game for physical harassment as well as verbal harassment on the street. And so, you know, there were incidents every day.

And I was a victim of many such incidents of not being served in stores or being roughed up by teenagers in blue jeans overalls in subway - on subway platforms or being, you know, thrown out of lobbies of fancy hotels if my white husband wasn't near me or being given secondary examination in airports or - racial profiling.

And there was no - in the Canada of those early '70s to late '70s - in fact, through the '70s, there was no constitution in Canada. The constitution hadn't yet been repatriated. And so there was no Bill of Rights. There was no legal agency of redress against race-based hate crime.

They talk more about Mukherjee's own upbringing as part of an elite in Calcutta, and the way that attacks on her brown skin startled her own assumptions about class and race.  The conversation continues: 

MUKHERJEE: Yes, it was totally, totally devastating to me to be seen as, you know, an unwanted Canadian, as a smelly immigrant, a potential burglar and con artist and so on. And it made me reassess my status, my own attitudes towards minorities in India, while I'd been growing up, how unconsciously racist or ethnicist (ph) I may have been myself in relation to Indian minorities.

And having been an elite in Calcutta brought up to believe that my ideas matter meant that I had the gutsiness to take on government officials in Canada, and say you can't do this. This is not right. And I know what's right, and I'm jolly well going to tell you how to set it right.

It didn't work. But, you know, I was caught in two simultaneous roles. One as someone who's very confident of herself and knows right from wrong and feels very strongly about civil rights, human rights and the other, who feels impotent, that there'll be no change in the way that the country thinks. I'm so glad though, I - over the years I've been proved wrong and that Canada is a very habitable place. 

There is so much here that's relevant to today, isn't there? There is a dictator who suddenly decides to expel an entire population of citizen on the grounds of race. There is overt and even violent racism - in now multicultural Toronto - at a time when Canadians were still mostly white. There is a Canadian Prime Minister - Pierre Elliot Trudeau - who made what would have been a controversial and unpopular decision to "let in" new people who didn't look like most Canadians of the time. There is a woman who suffers attacks for her skin colour, and also, a woman who stands up for herself. She persisted. But, there was no Canadian constitution, or Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

All of this leads the mind down so many tracks.  

First, what of the Ugandan immigrants?   Ugandans of Asian descent, about 7,500 of them, came to Canada. Pierre Trudeau made arrangements for them to come - and it was the largest resettlement of non-white, non-Christian refugees to Canada.   Many of those at risk in Uganda were Ismailis - a denomination of Islam which recognizes the Aga Khan, their spiritual leader, as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. 

If you look further into this- as a PhD student named Shezan Muhammedi has - you'll see that those who came represented many faiths. The majority were Ismailis, and there were also many Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and non-Ismaili Muslims as well. If you want to find out more, take some time to read Muhammedi's blog posts - where he generously shares a lot of his research. This includes a letter from Pierre Trudeau to Idi Amin that cleverly, diplomatically and directly offers to bring the besieged Ugandans to Canada.  

So what did the Aga Khan have to do with it? The Aga Khan,  His Highness Shah Karim, is an 80-year old billionaire who is the spiritual leader of the world's Ismailis - about 15 million people living in 25 or so countries. He is a remarkable man, presiding over successful businesses (horse breeding and racing amongst them) that in turn fund a network that spends hundreds of millions of dollars supporting development around the world including in health, education, infrastructure, parks and cultural preservation.  Vanity Fair offers some rare insight into his life.

In 1972, he offered to help financially support the relocation of the people being expelled from Uganda. The reports say that he personally called Pierre Trudeau and asked him to support the immigration of the Ugandans.  In Toronto, he offered 1 million dollars for the Ismaili community.  Once again, all credit to Shezan Muhammedi, who wrote this piece describing the Canadian response to the Ugandans, and the Ugandans' success settling into Canada. He also quotes Pierre Trudeau, who said that "we would not have been Canadians if we had turned our backs on them."  

Pierre Trudeau and the Aga Khan: This requires more research. Many news clippings describe them as friends. The Aga Khan was an honorary pall-bearer at Pierre Trudeau's funeral. A news snippet from an Ismaili website notes that the Aga Khan was:  a close friend of the family for 30 years, he also represents a slice of Trudeau's Canada.

Trudeau vacationed twice on his yacht, once with Margaret. As prime minister, he single-handedly decided to open Canada's doors to Ismaili Muslims. How it came about was once related to me by the prince: " Pierre and I were friends and there was an informal understanding that if there was a racial crisis, Canada would intervene. So when Uganda's Idi Amin decided in 1972 to expel Asians, I picked up the phone, and Trudeau affirmed then and there that Canada would wish to help. His response was magnificent." Canada immediately opened a special diplomatic mission in Kampala. The doors were kept open from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Good stuff. But it's difficult to find more information - at least in a web search. I'd love to know how the two of them met. Does anyone know?

The Aga Khan, Canada and the World: The Aga Khan joins just a handful of people - Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama amongst them - as an honourary Canadian citizen. When then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper bestowed the honour in 2010, he noted that "As you yourself have said, your Highness, and I quote, “We cannot make the world safe for democracy unless we also make the world safe for diversity.” If I may say so, sir, you sound like a Canadian. And in fact, you are."  (Stephen Harper let us down with his anti-Muslim rhetoric in the last election. He knew better.) 

In Toronto, the Aga Khan recently opened the first Aga Khan Museum - an architectural marvel dedicated to offering new insights and perspectives into Islamic civilizations. It's meant to act as a catalyst for mutual understanding.  The Museum is currently hosting an exhibition about the living history of Syria.  It sounds like a must visit for any Canadian. 

The Aga Khan has also recently established a Global Centre for Pluralism in partnership with the Government of Canada, located on Sussex Drive in Ottawa. The Centre aims to "advance global understanding of pluralism and positive responses to the challenge of living peacefully and productively together in diverse societies." Wonderful. 

Then there's the Aga Khan Foundation, which has its own projects and also  partners with the Canadian government on development programmes in Asia and Africa, including in building civil society, improving rural development, health and education including education for girls. 

In September 2016 the Aga Khan was awarded the first-ever Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. In his acceptance speech he spoke about the benefits and challenges of pluralism and diversity. The speech is worth reading in full as he pinpoints current threats and solutions germane to our world today. Here's an excerpt: 

Who am I? Qui suis-je? We all must pose that question. Answers will grow out of basic loyalties - to family, faith, community, language, which provide a healthy sense of security and worth. But if the call for pluralism seems to dilute those old loyalties, then that new call may not be effective. Embracing the values of Global Citizenship should not mean compromising the bonds of local or national citizenship. The call of pluralism should ask us to respect our differences, but not to ignore them, to integrate diversity, not to depreciate diversity.

The call for cosmopolitanism is not a call to homogenization. It means affirming social solidarity, without imposing social conformity. One’s identity need not be diluted in a pluralistic world, but rather fulfilled, as one bright thread in a cloth of many colours.

Pluralism is perhaps in the Aga Khan's blood. His great grandfather was born in India. His father, born in Italy. His mother was British. He was born in Geneva, raised for some time in Kenya and studied at Harvard in the U.S. He currently lives in France and as we know, has other residences including that island in the Bahamas. 

After Justin Trudeau was criticized for taking a ride in the Aga Khan's private helicopter to his private island, some writers said he should have taken the opportunity to celebrate the decades-long relationship with the Aga Khan and the benefits that has brought to Canada and the world. After spending much of today reading about the issues,  I agree with them. 

Indeed, an NPR podcast sent me into a rabbit warren of information - and the more I read, the more I wanted to learn. But yes, this post must end! Before it does, some points to consider: 

First, Canada has come a long way since 1972. The idea that people of colour were routinely verbally and sometimes violently abused in Toronto came as a bit of a shock (and yes, call me naive). Trudeau and the Aga Khan had a great idea. The Ugandans came, were brave, took that abuse, put on their winter boots and toques (many for the first time) and helped to build Canada. 

Second, established in 1982, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms is relatively new. Trudeau had a vision of a diverse Canada where citizen's rights were protected. I'm glad Bharati Mukherjee was able to see that. The Charter is a treasure to cherish.  

Third, the recent murders of six men at their mosque in Québec, the existence of white nationalist groups and continued reports of harassment and violence towards Muslims show how far we still have to go. 

Fourth, the Aga Khan is using his powers for good. It's worth taking the time to learn more about him and the work he and his network do to peacefully bring people together.  

Times are tough now. In an age when a belligerent  US President is closing borders and threatening to kick people out based on race and religion - kind of like Idi Amin did - the story of the Ugandans who came to Canada in 1972 is especially instructive. 

I want to thank Bharati Mukherjee - a talented and brave American writer, an Indian woman, married to a Canadian - really, a fine global citizen - for opening my eyes to this whole story.

You never know what you'll learn from a podcast while using the elliptical.  

We cannot make the world safe for democracy unless we also make the world safe for diversity.
- Shah Karim, the Aga Khan
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