On a cold day in November 1989, 11 members of the world champion West Indies cricket team and 11 other top international players staged an exhibition match at SkyDome in Toronto. Despite the improbable indoor setting, the absurd time of year, and the unfamiliarity of the game to many Canadians, 45,000 people turned out to see the match, raising a net $650,000 for the United Way.
That night was fundamental in changing the hierarchy of the United Way, according to Bahadur Madhani of Richmond Hill, Ontario, and one of the organizers of the match. The agency recognized the new faces of Toronto and grasped that it had to be as relevant to them as to anyone.
It was also a turning point for Madhani, an Ismaili Muslim brought up, as are all Ismailis, “to volunteer from the time we can walk and talk.” Born in Tanzania, then living in London before emigrating to Canada, he was accustomed to lending a hand to causes in the Ismaili community. From the cricket match on, he turned his considerable skills to the wider community of the country he has called home since 1982.
In 1990 the United Way invited him to join its campaign cabinet. He stayed on as a volunteer leader for a decade, including chairing the board of directors. He joined the Toronto Community Foundation board, then led Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund for four years. He recently finished two terms with the Royal Ontario Museum board and is currently Vice Chair of the YMCA of Greater Toronto. For his efforts, Madhani was named to the Order of Canada.
“I have no time for any mischief,” he says, “and my wife is happy with that.” Married for 34 years, the couple has an adult son and daughter who are also active volunteers.
Flipping pancakes for fellow citizens on Canada Day, inviting neighbours to join them on a walk for international development projects or organizing fundraisers for early childhood projects,Ismaili Muslims bring skill, organization, and strong religious convictions to their charitable projects.
“The volunteerism ethic really stems from the ethics of our faith,” says Vancouver physician Iqbal Amed, a spokesman for His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Canada, known colloquially as the National Council. “At the end of the day, our injunction is to leave the world a better place than we found it.”
As they grow up, he says, Ismaili Muslims are taught that giving is more than monetary—that it involves skills, education and time.
The Ismaili community “is known to be a successful community, with many entrepreneurs and professionals,” says Madhani. “By and large, (Ismaili) people are well established, very much into the mainstream.” One reason for their success, he believes, is that they want to do better so they can give more to others.
A recent survey found that 41% of Canadian immigrants said they volunteer, compared to 48% of native-born Canadians, but immigrants who did volunteer said they put in about the same number of hours annually as non-immigrants.
The 2004 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating defined immigrants as those who are or were at one time landed immigrants. The group who immigrated before 1984 tend to volunteer the most—as do native-born Canadians. Those who arrived during or after 1995 volunteer the second-highest number of hours. A group in the middle – those who arrived between 1984 and 1994 – volunteer the least.
The survey also found that as a group, immigrants contribute a larger proportion of their volunteer hours to Religious organizations and a smaller proportion to Sports and Recreation than do native-born Canadians.
Immigrants and non-immigrants tend to give to Health, Religious and Social Services organizations. But immigrants are more likely than non-immigrant donors to give to Religious organizations (44% vs. 38% of non-immigrants) and less likely to give to Health organizations (49% vs. 60%).
Immigrants are almost as likely to donate as native-born Canadians (85% compared to 86%) and made annual donations averaging $462 compared to $394 for native-born Canadians.
It may take new Canadians awhile to get established and to start making charitable donations, but once they do, they are almost as likely to make a donation as native-born Canadians – and their average annual donation is larger.
Altogether, immigrants contributed 20% of the total value of all donations. Predictably, immigrants who live in Canada longer tend to give more than newcomers. Ninety-four percent of those here before 1967 donated an average of $644 with participation and donation rates descending until those arriving in 1995 or later, 77% of whom donated an average of $278.
A first wave of Ismailis came to Canada from the United Kingdom and Europe in the 1960s, with a second arriving from East Africa in the 1970s. These immigrants also attracted family members to Canada. Today more than one in 10 Canadian Muslims is Ismaili.
Because many Ismailis have succeeded in Canada’s pluralistic society, they have the means and desire to give back, according to Edmonton MP Rahim Jaffer.
A high value is placed on education, and Jaffer says the drive to succeed arises from a mix of family influence and spiritual advice.
“When families lost everything overnight, as they did in the 1970s in Africa, this can happen anywhere. There’s a need to ensure that youth is prepared. You can lose your business, lose your home, but if you’re educated no one can take that away.” For Canada’s 75,000 Ismaili Muslims, much of the impetus toward charity, generosity, and volunteerism derives from the leadership of the Aga Khan, according to Jaffer. “He is the Imam of the community.”
Ismaili Muslims, in common with other Shia Muslims, believe that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his cousin Ali became the first Imam or spiritual leader. Through the hereditary line of Ali and his wife Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, the current Prince Karim Aga Khan is the 49th Imam.
He chairs the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of agencies, institutions and programs dedicated to improving living conditions primarily in East Africa and Central and South Asia. His speeches often focus on international development. Ismaili Canadians hear his messages through the media and through networks, including the National Council and local councils in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The messages are published in an Ismaili magazine and shared at mosques. “Spiritually and practically, this is taken very seriously and to heart,” says Jaffer.
When Ismaili Muslims take on a cause in Canada, the extent of voluntary effort and the excellent organization can be impressive.
Last year, when the Aga Khan was installed as an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada, he toured Canada and met the Ismaili communities in Toronto and Vancouver. “A lot of people commented on the dedication of the volunteers. I don’t know how many thousands gave up time and effort and that was a big part of the success of the visit,” says Jaffer.
The same high level of organization powers the Partnership Walk, organized by the Aga Khan Foundation and held in 13 Canadian cities each year. Funds raised for programs in Africa and Asia receive matching grants from the Canadian International Development Agency.
For the past 20 years on Canada Day in Edmonton, the Ismaili community has hosted a breakfast for their fellow citizens. Ismailis pay for the grills and feed up to 10,000 people, from inner-city needy folks to their wealthier neighbours. They’re also involved in organizing the Mayor’s Canada Day breakfast in Ottawa.
“Now they have it down to a fine art,” says Amed. “It gives us a lot of pleasure to benefit people and to celebrate Canada Day. We recognize we are part of this country and we want to give back. We feel very strongly in the concept of community, at a time when individualism is on the rise.”
For the last four years the Ismaili Walk for Kids has partnered with the United Way of the Lower Mainland in British Columbia.
“It’s an incredible eye-opener working with them,” says Michael Becker of the United Way’s marketing and communications department. “They are so geared up. They bring such a work ethic and a desire to give back to the community in which they live.”
The Ismaili Walk for Kids supports United Way’s “Success by 6” a provincial school readiness program. Researchers at the University of British Columbia developed ways to identify the one in four children who aren’t ready for school because of physical, language, emotional or cognitive problems. These findings help agencies support families and children by investing in early childhood development.
The goal at the United Way is to work on the root causes of social problems, says Becker. In September 2006, the event raised $340,000 to benefit Success by 6. That brings the total raised by this annual walk for United Way’s Success By 6 initiative to more than $740,000.
Talking to some of the children who took part, Becker was impressed and moved. “They all wanted to help other kids.”
In 2005, one four-year-old girl, “although her mother did the talking,” raised more than $2,500.
Before their relationship with the United Way, the Ismaili community in British Columbia partnered with hospitals, the Vancouver Food Bank, the Crisis Centre of Greater Vancouver and the BC Cancer Agency. Six months ahead of time, a team from the beneficiary organization and the Ismaili community begin planning each year’s Walk together. “The bonds that develop are amazing,” says Amed.
By working with people from the crisis centre, Amed gained a new appreciation of what they do. Today he takes satisfaction from seeing “a number of things put in place” thanks to the funds raised. On the 10th anniversary of the Walk, previous beneficiary organizations were invited to Stanley Park to put up tents and display their work. For his part, Madhani has come to believe that multiculturalism, while valuable in giving everyone freedom to preserve cultures, is passé. He would like to see pluralism encouraged, so that individuals from all backgrounds come together with nonprofits, government and business for nation building, and to improve the common good.
Lillian Newbury is a freelance writer from Mississauga, Ontario.