How the Summit Series shaped Canada: It’s not what you think

Photo: iStock

Rahim Mohamed, The Epoch Times, June 29, 2024

This Canada Day, reflecting on what it means to be Canadian, I want to take you back to the 1972 Summit Series. But not for Canada’s victory over the Soviets, but its indirect impact on an even more high-stakes drama playing out in… Uganda.

In early August, the Ugandan government ordered the expulsion of some 55,000 Ugandans—mostly, Ismaili Muslims—on the accusation of siphoning the nation’s wealth from the black majority population. They had 90 days to leave the country, abruptly ending eight decades of Asian settlement in the East African nation.

Coinciding with a weakening global economy and rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the West, few countries were willing to welcome any of the thousands of soon-to-be refugees.

The Aga Khan—spiritual leader of the global Shia Nizari Ismaili Muslim community—had studied at Harvard with Trudeau decades earlier, and travelled to Canada at the height of Summit Series fever, to visit his old friend and personally advocate for the stateless Ismailis.

The timing proved fortuitous. Legend has it that a pivotal reception for the visiting dignitary coincided with the penultimate final game of the series.

According to one of the attendees, the venue’s head waiter was instructed to give Canadian officials regular updates on the game’s score using his fingers—left hand indicating the tally of Russian goals, right hand the Canadian tally.

Serendipitously, the Aga Khan made his ‘big ask’, pressing for a firm number of refugees, just as the USSR tied the game at three goals apiece. Seeing the waiter flash three fingers on each hand just as the question finished, the lead Canadian official put down six fingers of his own to relay the score to the other officials present.

The Aga Khan, who wasn’t privy to this signaling system, took his host’s gesture to indicate that Canada would welcome 6,000 refugees. Rather than insult his guest, the official agreed.

A handful of Canadian pilots also volunteered to evacuate the stranded. One volunteer, Captain Gordon Moul, later recalled a horrific scene on the tarmac in Entebbe.

“The refugees were only allowed to take $25,000 out,” Moul recounted. “If you tried to take anything out of the country other than what you were told you could take, there was no hearing, (military police) just shot you.”

Canada would end up taking in more than 7,000 Ugandan Asians, mostly Nizari Ismailis, between 1972 and 1974. They would make a remarkably smooth transition, with 89 per cent employed within a year and fewer than 150 needing long-term financial assistance.  

The Ugandan emigres, who had been one of the most well-educated populations in Africa, wasted no time making their mark in professional circles. Over time, the community became especially well-known for its business acumen. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien quipped during the 1990s recession that his economically depressed hometown of Shawinigan, Que. was in desperate need of “a dozen Ismaili entrepreneurs.”

The next generation, children of the exiled Ugandans, would make its own mark in cultural and political circles. Rahim Jaffer, an infant when his family fled Uganda in 1972, became the first Muslim elected to the House of Commons in 1997 at 25 years old. Other notable Ismaili Canadians of Ugandan extraction include lead CTV news anchor Omar Sachedina, federal Minister of Justice Arif Virani, and G(irls)20 founder Farah Mohamed.

There are roughly 100,000 Ismailis in Canada today, with recent waves arriving from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Members of the jamaat (community) can be found in the upper echelons of virtually every profession and cultural institution. The community also maintains a sizeable civic presence, hosting major community events like Vancouver’s World Partnership Walk and an always well-attended annual breakfast at the Calgary Stampede.

Much of the Ismaili community’s success, in Canada and elsewhere, is attributable to the Aga Khan’s forward-thinking version of Islam. Regularly emphasizing the importance of education, charity, and respect for others, he is one of the few Muslim leaders to call for the recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

The Aga Khan also spearheaded the creation of a number of important Canadian cultural landmarks, including Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, North America’s only museum dedicated to Islamic Arts, and Ottawa’s Global Centre for Pluralism, a world-renowned research institute housed in the former Canadian War Museum along the capital city’s historic Sussex Drive.

All told, the remarkable story of Canada’s Ismaili community represents the very best of Canadian pluralism, generosity, and opportunity. Their story is also a poignant reminder that, for all the country’s challenges, Canadians still have much to celebrate.

Rahim Mohamed, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. He holds a doctorate in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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