Many people believe the first Muslim people came to Canada in the 1950s, but this is not true.
The community’s real history in this country actually begins 150 years ago, said Hassam Munir, an Islamic history researcher and founder of iHistory.
Munir recounted this “forgotten chapter of history” during a talk at Hamilton City Hall Saturday, an inaugural event marking the start of Islamic Heritage Month. He wove together stories of the first settlers, many from Lebanon and Syria, who came to Canada at the turn of the century.
Some of the stories showcased remarkable triumphs and others harsh discrimination.
“Think about how they must have felt?” Munir told the crowd.
First Munir told the story of Mahommah Baquaqua, a Muslim man from West Africa, enslaved as a young man in Brazil and shipped to the United States. As a free man Baquaqua eventually made his way to Chatham, where in 1854 a local man helped him document his life in a biography.
Munir said Baquaqua’s journeys also saw him move to Haiti and eventually the United Kingdom. It’s not known if he ever made it home.
The first known Muslim (or Mohonadens at the census at the time called them) to arrive in Canada came in 1851. James and Agnes Love were believed to have converted to the religion in Scotland before emigrating.
According to records there were four Muslims in Canada in 1854. By 1871 that grew to 13, then 47 in 1901 and 478 in 1921.
During those years many of the migrants came from the collapsing Ottoman Empire looking for work with many heading west where land was cheaper and labour needed. Lac La Biche, Alta., became a community where Muslims would settle. In Ontario the oldest community was in London, Munir said.
Ali Abouchadi came as a teenager with his uncle from Lebanon in 1905. He worked as a pedlar and fur trader, before opening a general store in Lac La Biche.
Munir said many of the first Muslim immigrants who came out west developed good relationships with the Indigenous peoples, often putting them at odds with the Hudson Bay Company. Abouchadi married a Cree woman and traded along the Mackenzie River.
Another man from Lebanon, named Bedouin Ferran but who was known in Canada as Peter Baker, came in 1910 and became a successful fur trader, despite facing discrimination.
Under pressure from the Hudson Bay Company the interior minister made it law that they couldn’t go into Indigenous communities to trade, but had to stay in cities. He fought this and eventually became a politician himself.
Munir recounted the story of Hilwi Hamdon, a Muslim woman who led the call to see the first mosque built in Canada, in Edmonton.
Munir also pointed to darker chapters in history, including during the First World War where Muslims were sent to an internment camp in Kapuskasing. Despite this, there are a recorded 22 Muslims who fought for Canada in that war.
Over the years the population continued to grow with 645 Muslims recorded in Canada in 1931. After 1965 there was a “boom” that saw the population grow to 33,000 by 1971. Today there are more than one million.
Outgoing Coun. Matthew Green, who was recently appointed interim executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI), remarked how much of what Munir shared he had never heard before and said he would like to see this history taught in schools.
Munir replied that absence of this history in his own education — he grew up in Scarborough — propelled him to study Islamic history.
By understanding the long history of Muslims in Canada it shows: “yes, we are just as Canadian as someone else,” he said.
Munir said the work for Muslims in Canada is not done. Just two weeks ago the first mosque opened in Whitehorse, Yukon. Marking the first time there has been a Muslim place of worship in every province and territory in Canada.
“We have to have the same spirit, the same vision as those who came before us,” he said.
The event also included remarks and messages of welcome from community members, and a song from local children who waved flags from around the world as they spoke. There are many other events and talks happening at venues across the city to mark Islamic Heritage Month.
Imam Hosam Helal, who gave a welcoming address to the crowd where he spoke about the Pillars of Islam and its values of peace and submission to God. He also spoke about the power of learning from the experiences of others.
“Muslims can learn from other people, in the same way many people can learn from Muslims,” he said.
For the full calendar of events for Islamic Heritage Month visit the Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton at mcgh.ca.