Fifteen years ago, amidst civil war in Afghanistan and dislocation in Pakistan, the story of Afghan settlement in Canada began to unfold. Learning of the plight of their brothers and sisters, the Canadian Ismaili community reached out to assist Afghan Ismailis to migrate to Canada – a country that had welcomed its first Ismaili immigrants in the 1970s when they were faced with political upheaval and had been uprooted from their homes.
In 1992, the Province of Quebec had a smaller Ismaili population than many other Canadian provinces, and little was known in Canada about Afghan history and culture. However, Quebec had a strong reputation of support for immigration and refugee settlement.
Driven by an ethic of care and responsibility towards the disenfranchised, the Ismaili Council for Canada initiated its first protocol agreement with the Quebec government in September 1992. Under this agreement, the Council sponsored 350 Afghan refugees to come to Quebec over a one year period.
Based on the success of this initial agreement, the Quebec government and the Ismaili Council signed five additional protocol agreements between April 1994 and August 2001. Over 1 600 Afghan refugees settled in Quebec under these agreements, and the community has since grown to 5 000 through family-sponsored migration and new births.
On 3 April 2008, the Ismaili Council for Canada hosted Gala Reconnaissance to commemorate 15 years of this important partnership between government and civil society. Three hundred distinguished guests gathered at Montreal's Windsor Hotel, including Quebec Premier Jean Charest, former federal minister Bernard Valcourt and former provincial minister John Ciaccia. The occasion afforded Jamati leaders an opportunity to celebrate with the Province of Quebec, and to express gratitude to the province for extending a warm welcome to the Afghan Jamat.
President Mohammed Manji of the Ismaili Council for Canada, thanked the Premier for the province's generosity. “Premier Charest, today, on behalf of the Ismaili Community, particularly the 5 000 Ismailis of Afghan origin who have made Quebec their home, I want to express our most sincere gratitude to the government and people of Quebec for opening your hearts and home to us,” he said. “Your generosity, your hospitality, your compassion and your warm welcome that allowed Ismailis to become part of the culturally rich Quebec family will be remembered for generations to come.”
Premier Charest noted that the celebration of Mawlana Hazar Imam's 50 years of Imamat coincides with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec. “For you… this story started 15 years ago, but for us, for Quebec, it started 400 years ago. And it's a great story and a beautiful story. And I want to add your story to our stories.”
The incredible courage, resilience and determination of the Afghan Ismailis – a community that survived a quarter century of civil strife, as well as religious and political persecution that affected many communities of Shia and Sunni Muslims – was recounted in a mini-documentary produced especially for the Gala. The film presented the human face of immigration and resettlement, attesting to the incredible resurgence of the Afghan community and the indomitable human spirit.
Today, more than 5 000 Afghan Ismailis have made their homes across Quebec in Montreal, Brossard, Laval, Sherbrooke, Granby, and Quebec City. The group has become an important, economically independent segment of Quebec's multicultural society.
The Gala was a testament to the successful settlement of Afghan Ismailis in Quebec, and their ability to overcome many challenges through cooperation between the Ismaili Council, the government and other civil society organizations. The ongoing partnership between the province and the Ismaili community, rooted in shared values, provides a model for effective future collaboration between government and civil society.