You Are Welcome; You All Matter

 

I had the experience of my lifetime when I visited Ottawa’s main mosque on February 3, 2017, to offer Friday prayer. I saw a chain of local residents around the four walls of the mosque to express their feelings that Ottawa Muslims are part of a larger community and are under the protection of fellow community members against any threat.

This act was deeply touching and a heartwarming response to the mass shooting on the evening of January 29, 2017, near the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in a mosque in the Sainte –Foy neighborhood. Six people lost their lives in this tragic event and nineteen others were injured when a lone gunman opened fire shortly after evening prayers.

I was in for an even bigger surprise when I entered the mosque the next day.

A distinguished group of parliamentarians, leaders of various faith communities and the Minister of the Environment Catherine McKenna had gathered inside the mosque to share the grief of Canadian Muslims and assure them that they were not alone in these anxious moments. Members of Parliament Chandra Arya, Anita Vandenbeld, Yasir Naqvi, Karen McCrimmon addressed the meetings and a message was sent from two prominent rabbis in the community, Rabi Bulka and Rabbi Scher.

There was a big wall size poster where students of Saint Elizabeth Elementary School had shared their feelings about the event. A young student had written, “You are welcome. You all matter”. There could be nothing more eloquent, substantive and profound than this simple statement. It captured the Canadian spirit.

It does not mean that there have been no rough patches in inter-community relations in Canada; quite the contrary. Canada has had troubled relations with immigrant Indian and Chinese workers in the past century, and it is still trying to overcome major challenges in relation to the people of The First Nation. There is a long way to go, but the direction is clear and support for this cause is overwhelming.

It reminded of my first sojourn to Canada in1979. I sought admission at Queen’s to escape persecution by Zia ul Haq’s military regime due to a treason case registered against me in Pakistan. Queen’s University provided a breath of fresh air. It was home to many starry-eyed young revolutionaries from as far away as Chile, South Africa, Bangladesh, Ireland, Turkey, Pakistan, and Canada. The International Centre provided excellent opportunities to meet like-minded students and activists from organizations like the Kingston Solidarity Committee, Amnesty International, Catholic Church and others.

My main interest was in Development Economics, as I had cited in my application for seeking admission at Queen’s. I was lucky to have Professor Marvin McInnis as my course instructor.

Early on, he told me “Let me be very blunt. There is no interest in development economics in our department”. That meant that I had to set sail and anchor at a new port. However, the university could not transfer my credits without the clearance of my pending dues.

I sought the help of Frank Flatter, the Graduate Chair. Frank succeeded in getting a waiver for me. When I asked him how, he said, “I told the committee, if Fayyaz succeeds in finishing his degree, he will land a good job on his return home. In that case, he will be able and willing to pay us back. If not, we don’t stand any chance of recovering the dues”. I was amazed at his kindness, brilliance and sensitivity.

This was the strength of a humanist Canadian culture and values.

 

By: Fayyaz Baqir, O'Brien Fellow, McGill University.

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