His Highness the Aga Khan Addresses the Canadian Parliament
By Dilzayn Panjwani
February 27 was a red letter day in the history of Canadian Parliament, as His Highness the Aga Khan, founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, delivered a historic address to the Canadian Parliament at the invitation of The Prime Minister of Canada, The Right Honourable Stephen Harper.
His Highness the Aga Khan is the first faith leader and one of the few distinguished leaders who are not a head of state or government to address a joint session of Parliament.
The Prime Minister welcomed and introduced His Highness the Aga Khan as “a great friend and partner of Canada,” adding that when “you are in Canada you are home.” His Highness the Aga Khan was granted Honorary Canadian Citizenship in May 2010 for his leadership “as a champion of international development, pluralism and tolerance around the world.”
His Highness the Aga Khan spoke in the presence of the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Speaker Kinsella, Speaker Scheer, Members of the Senate and House of Commons, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Members of the Diplomatic community, faith leaders, leaders of the Ismaili institutions from different countries and invited guests. In the packed House of Commons Chamber and galleries, everyone eagerly listened to the wit and wisdom of His Highness, paused only by many standing ovations that echoed within the House of Parliament.
His Highness the Aga Khan spoke eloquently on many important issues, including the subject of pluralism and civil society. He praised Canada’s role as a global leader in reducing instability across the world. His Highness underscored the role of resilient civil society, education and respectable governance in nurturing development of societies and in alleviating conflict, citing Canada’s civil society as exemplary. “In sum, I believe that Civil Society is one of the most powerful forces in our time - one that will become an increasingly universal influence, engulfing more countries, influencing, reshaping and sometimes even replacing ineffective regimes,” said the Aga Khan. “And I also believe that Civil Society around the world should be vigorously encouraged and wisely nurtured by those who have made it work most successfully - Canada first amongst all,” he added.
In his address, the Aga Khan praised Canada’s leadership in advancing pluralism in the world. He also expressed grave concern about the rise of extremism and intolerance in some parts of the world. “In fact, one harsh reality is that religious hostility and intolerance seems to be on the rise in many places - from the Central African Republic, to South Sudan, to Nigeria, to Myanmar, the Philippines and other countries - both between major religious groups - and within them,” he said.
The spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims urged the West to heed the diversity of Islam and to communicate with both Sunni and Shia opinions. “To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants - or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities,” he said.
The Aga Khan cautioned that lack of understanding of Islam’s diversity and external interventions have exacerbated religious conflict in some areas. “It has increased massively in scope and intensity recently and has been further exacerbated by external interventions. In Pakistan and Malaysia, in Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon and Bahrain, in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan - it is becoming a disaster,” he said.
Later that day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and His Highness the Aga Khan signed a Protocol of Understanding, a rubric committing both sides to regular, high-level consultations on a range of global and regional issues, thereby consolidating the Government of Canada’s commitment to enhancing relationships with key partners in order to further promote issues of common interest.
“Canada and the Aga Khan Development Network enjoy a long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship that covers a wide variety of activities, with a focus on development and social issues. I am pleased today to sign a Protocol of Understanding with the Ismaili Imamat to formalize our relationship. By committing to regular, high-level consultations on a range of global and regional issues, we are helping to solidify the important partnership that we have developed over many years,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Protocol of Understanding aims to provide a clear framework and strategic direction for Canada’s multi-faceted and strong relations with the Ismaili Imamat. More specifically, it provides for enhanced collaboration through the reciprocal appointment of representatives. It also creates a formal dialogue process that allows for in-depth exchanges on countries and issues of common interest. By committing both sides to regular, high-level consultations on a range of pressing global issues, it aims to solidify the important partnership that Canada has developed with the Aga Khan and his institutions over many years.
The Prime Minister also hosted an event at Massey Hall in Toronto on February 28, when the partnership for advancing human development in Africa and Asia was announced by His Highness the Aga Khan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A five-year CAD $100-million partnership between the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the Government of Canada, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development will provide new opportunities to over a million people living in Asia and Africa.
“Partnerships are essential for accelerating development results and ensuring that we maximise the effectiveness and reach of aid dollars,” said Prime Minister Harper in a press release announcing the partnership. “Canada is pleased to partner on this initiative with Aga Khan Foundation Canada, a trusted ally who continues to do remarkable work around the world under the leadership of His Highness, a true champion of international development, pluralism and tolerance.”
According to His Highness the Aga Khan, “Most of our AKDN activities have been born from the grassroots of developing countries, reflecting their aspirations and their fragilities. Amongst the great common denominators of the human race is a shared aspiration – a common hope – for a better quality of life.”
For the full version of the speech of His Highness the Aga Khan, visit the website: http://www.akdn.org/Content/1253 and for details of the Protocol of Understanding, visit: http://pm.gc.ca/eng/news/2014/02/27/protocol-understanding-creation-strategic-partnership