BU professor illuminates Islamic History Month with look at Muslims in Manitoba

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When Ahmed Awid moved to Brandon in the early 1900s, he was at the vanguard of what is now a thriving Manitoba Muslim community.

Brandon University (BU) professor Dr. Alison Marshall says that Awid’s story is both an example of early Muslim immigration to Canada and also a window through which to consider the social history that made it difficult for newcomers to enter and stay in Canada through much of the 20th century.

“At the time, fewer than 1,000 Muslims resided in Canada. He was a Sunni Muslim drawn to the prairies by stories of successful Syrians who had moved here before him,” she told a group of people assembled at Winnipeg’s United Way last week to mark Islamic History Month.

Awid, who had met and married Brandon woman Mary Blonarowiz by 1908, opened a dry goods and jewelry store on Rosser Avenue and became a successful local businessman and respected member of the community for two decades.

Drawing on her years of academic research into marginalized early-Canadian populations like Chinese immigrants, Marshall said that early Muslim immigrants like Awid faced barriers both legal and social.

“At least once he was denied a shave by local barber Morris Backman, possibly because of his race,” Marshall says. “He was understandably enraged by the snub and reportedly assaulted Backman, for which he was later fined.”

In 1928, Awid and his growing family relocated to Edmonton, which had a more robust Syrian and Lebanese community and was seen to be more welcoming to Muslims than Manitoba was. A decade later, he helped found Canada’s first Mosque in Edmonton.

By that time, Muslim immigration to Canada had been almost completely barred, under legislation that, until its repeal in 1956, forbade “Orientals” from entry to the country.

Then, when a new point system introduced in 1967 eliminated many discriminatory aspects of previous immigration legislation and made it easier for migrants to come to Canada, Marshall says that the Muslim population in Manitoba began to rise.

“In 1969, the Manitoba Islamic Association had formed to serve Winnipeg’s 25 predominantly Indo-Pakistani families and others,” she said. “Beyond Winnipeg and by 1970, five Muslim Indo-Pakistani families resided in Brandon. Among them were Haroon Siddiqui, a Brandon Sun reporter and later an editor, and his wife Shella, a high school teacher.”

By 1976, Manitoba’s Muslim community was large enough to open the province’s first mosque: the Hazelwood Mosque in St. Vital, Winnipeg, which was renamed the Pioneer Mosque last month in honour of the pioneers who founded it.

The mosque cost nearly $116,000. Manitoba’s community rallied together and marshaled their resources to establish their place in the province. Needing more money to complete the project, they wrote to the leaders of various nations with large Islamic populations. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia notably sent them a cheque for a large amount which allowed them to build. The simple building provided a home away from home. With a main floor worship area, a basement kitchen and a gathering space, it became a significant hub through which newly migrated and longtime Muslim men, women and children could connect, belong, and grow.

Its significance cannot be understated, Marshall says.

“The Pioneer Mosque enabled Manitoba’s Muslim community to become recognized as part of a bigger whole,” she says. “Consider that in much of 1970s Manitoba, church bells still rang out throughout the day, distracting and drowning out a migrant’s solitary call to prayer that set the sacred rhythm of each day. The Pioneer Mosque offered a powerful reminder of the necessity and efficacy of religious community in daily Manitoban lives. Muslims in Winnipeg, throughout rural Manitoba, Saskatchewan and even the United States took part in events and benefitted from programming provided by the Pioneer Mosque. It linked Muslims in time and space. It helped Muslim live and make a place for themselves and their families in Manitoba.”

These days, she notes, Manitoba has several multi-purpose mosques, including ones in Brandon and Thompson, as well as the Grand Mosque on Waverly. Muslims are free to practice their religion in public and on university campuses and hospitals. As well, the province’s Canadian forces bases have multi-faith rooms available for religious use.

But there are still challenges for the Muslim community in Manitoba.

It was only in 2007, Marshall points out, that Winnipeg allowed for traditional burials in shrouds, rather than Western caskets. And not until 2016 did the City of Winnipeg provide dedicated space in the Transcona Cemetery for Muslim burials.

“The community continues to need a body-washing facility,” she says. “Members of the Islamic community are exploring options, though to date there is no dedicated space for this function.”

Ending her talk on a positive note, Marshall says that cultural outreach between Manitoba Muslims and the rest of the province are beginning to make strong bonds.

“Today, thousands of Muslims call Manitoba home,” she says. “The Winnipeg Grand Mosque on Waverley Street has welcomed numerous federal, provincial and municipal politicians and acted as a conduit to the city’s inter-faith religious activities. Many Muslim groups offer religious, marital, funerary, financial, sport, seniors, youth, newcomer and other programming throughout the province.”

She also cites the mosque’s monthly “Foodorama” as a meaningful and demonstrable way to bring people together over a shared meal.

“By hosting this event, Manitoba’s Muslim community has demonstrated itself to be part of mainstream society,” she says. “Food has linked cultures, and customs, and nourished memories and understandings, while raising awareness about the diversity of Islam.”

Marshall’s full talk can be viewed on the Manitoba Islamic Association’s Facebook page. It is also linked from the United Way Winnipeg website.

“Dr. Marshall is a well-respected and widely-published scholar of Early-Canadian marginalized populations, especially Chinese immigrants. Her recent talk in Winnipeg provides valuable information and understanding of Muslim immigration to Manitoba,” said Demetres Tryphonopoulos, BU’s Dean of Arts. “The information and perspective she provides contribute substantially to improving interaction with Muslim Canadians and recently arrived Muslim immigrants to Canada and their families, while also helping build an inclusive environment for all Manitobans.”


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