Go to page content

By Dr. Jennifer Selby

Muslims have lived in Canada for more than 150 years, since before Confederation.

The first Canadian census in 1871 documented eight Muslims, who lived in Northern Alberta and worked as merchants and fur traders.

Reason to be invisible

But there were surely more. Canadian Muslim minorities have long had reason to not be counted or to be invisible.

Ali Abu Shehadi, for one, who arrived in Lac La Biche with the Klondike as his destination, changed his name to Alexander Hamilton. Historians suggest that an immigration officer who struggled to pronounce his name made the switch.

Still, Muslims have a long history of settlement and political participation in the Canadian prairies, despite evidence of challenges. Fatima Shaben describes in her journal her voyage from what is now Lebanon to Montreal by boat and then to Edmonton by train. She noted a “1907 blizzard [that] drove the mercury down to 48 degrees below zero.”

Fatima went on to fund raise for Canada’s first official mosque (its Orthodox-styled domes evidence the contractor’s Ukrainian heritage) in Edmonton in 1938. Fatima’s grandson, Larry, went on to serve as a Conservative Cabinet minister and MP in Alberta for 14 years, becoming a citizenship judge in his retirement.

Recent welcome

While it’s nice to think Canada has always welcomed migrants, our current Prime Minister’s discourse of welcoming immigrants and refugees is recent.

In 1914 and again in 1939, the Canadian federal government invoked the War Measures Act, which meant that certain groups — including Muslims — were closely monitored and more than 8,000 so-called enemy aliens were interned as prisoners of war in remote camps across the country.

“The community in this province can be traced back to 1964 when Dr. Muhammad Irfan joined the physics department at Memorial University.”

In this heightened climate of securitization and incarceration a number of Turkish Muslims returned to Turkey. Until 1952, the immigration policy stated a clear preference for British Protestants. The “points system” that removed ethnic and religious preference for immigrants began in 1967; in part, this change was in response to regret and shame following the refusal of Jewish and other refugees throughout the Second World War.

Primarily owing to this change in our immigration policy, most religious minority immigrants to Canada are highly educated English and French-speaking professionals.

Today Muslims make up about 3.2 percent of the Canadian population, and approximately 0.2 percent of Newfoundland and Labrador. The community in this province can be traced back to 1964 when Dr. Muhammad Irfan joined the physics department at Memorial University.

“Memorial University has remained a focal point for the community, also reflecting the higher than average educational attainment of Canadian Muslims.”

Eighteen years later in 1982, the Muslim community established the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, which built the first and only mosque in the province in 1990, the Masjid an-Noor.

Memorial University has remained a focal point for the community, also reflecting the higher than average educational attainment of Canadian Muslims. The campus’s Muslim Students’ Association was inaugurated in 1976 and is the university’s largest and most active student group.

Today Newfoundland and Labrador Muslims are an integral part of our unique province in the North Atlantic. I imagine given the terrorist attack that took place Sunday evening at an Islamic cultural centre in Québec City and President Trump’s Islamophobic executive order barring entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries the day before, that some of our fellow citizens are rightfully scared and worried. Unfortunately, Islamophobic incidents like these are neither new nor uncommon.

Show your support

There are a number of ways you can show solidarity against these hate crimes and discriminatory policies. You can make a financial donation to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which is working on overturning the now-called “Muslim Ban” and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has also filed a constitutional challenge.

Equally important, you can show your support to your neighbours, colleagues and friends who are, or who are perceived as Muslim. Most Muslims who attend congregation prayer at a mosque meet on Fridays in the early afternoon.

These incidents of violence affect us all. Do not remain silent.


To receive news from Memorial in your inbox, subscribe to Gazette Now.