By Kim Nursall
Special to SAF
A few hundred people gathered in Toronto’s Massey Hall on Friday, Feb. 28 to listen to one of the world’s best-known and respected religious figures: the Aga Khan.
Alongside Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the hereditary leader of the world’s Shia Ismaili Muslims helped announce a $100-million joint venture between Canada and the Aga Khan for development aid in Africa and Asia.
“It is a particularly happy day for me that we are extending this partnership, strengthening it, giving it new opportunities, in areas of development need that are essential: young children, isolated peoples, post-conflict situations,” he told the crowd, which included members of the Ismaili community as well as business, charitable and government leaders.
In Canada “we have a partner, a wonderful partner, who works with us not in the easy and the comfortable parts of the world, but who works with us where there are challenges, where there are difficulties, where people fight, where people seek to develop just a simple life of survival,” he said in a speech frequently interrupted by applause.
Fresh off a speech in Parliament on Thursday, the Aga Khan also remarked on Toronto specifically, in light of the soon-to-be built Ismaili centre and museum.
“In the next months, Toronto will come up on a radar screen of great cities around the world,” he said.
The spiritual leader’s brief address was deeply inspirational to some in the audience, who could barely hold back tears.
“I can’t even speak too much, because I’m so emotional already,” said Mehrun Velji, 57, who hopes to retire soon and do volunteer work for the Aga Khan. “He cares about the whole world, and he’s working so hard day and night to bring everybody into one big family,” she said.
The Aga Khan became the 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in 1957, when he succeeded his grandfather. Canada is home to about 100,000 Ismaili Muslims.
Harper focused on the “shared values” between Canada and the religious figure’s philanthropic work and ideals.
“His Highness is likewise dedicated to pluralism, (a) foundational principle of Canadian governance,” Harper said. “I’m not speaking here of the food and festival multiculturalism of recent decades. Rather I refer to a much older consensus born on the frontier, in which your character mattered more to your neighbours than your lineage.
“This is not to deny that our ancestors sometimes failed to live up to these ideals,” he continued. “It is to remind ourselves that … Canada itself has been a means to peacefully unite, under one flag, very different cultural and religious groups.”
On the topic of the $100-million joint venture, of which Canada will fund 75 per cent, Harper said the government’s investment “will strengthen education and health systems in a least seven countries. It will also develop their civil societies, and in Canada lead to greater awareness of development issues.”
Countries targeted for aid include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania.
— Torstar Network / With files from The Canadian Press
By Kim Nursall