Written by Humaira Saeed
There is an important connection between the first wave of Pakistani immigrants in Toronto and one of the earliest Islamic Centers in the city, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto (IFT). The story of this landmark mosque and school in North-East Scarborough provides insight into the growth and development of the Pakistani Community as it settled into Toronto.
For the first waves of Pakistani migrants, the 1960s were full of excitement and opportunity. These new Canadians were looking forward to a new life in Toronto after escaping the insecurity and economic instability that followed the partition of British India into the modern countries of Pakistan and India. With hopes of an enhanced quality of life and greater economic opportunities, many well-educated Pakistani professionals – doctors, lawyers and engineers, among others – adjusted well to their new homeland and were often able to find stable and consistent employment. They were joined by young men who came to Toronto in pursuit of higher education and graduate studies, some of whom decided to stay, have families and plant roots. Together, they laid the foundations of the Pakistani community and set the stage for the development of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto.
As with other newly arrived immigrants, starting a new life was very challenging and presented its own series of obstacles. For the first Pakistanis in the city, there was almost nothing familiar to hold on to. Most of them had left their families and friends back home in order to immigrate to Canada. Feeling isolated and lonely, they gradually found others in the city from Pakistan, exchanged phone numbers and invited each other over for weekend dinners. In other instances, community organizations and centres of faith began to make up for the lack of close acquaintances amongst this small but growing community. In the absence of extended families, such institutions provided essential services and much needed avenues for socialization.
Islam has played an essential role in the history and culture of Pakistan. Most Pakistanis in Canada are Muslims and have a close connection to a local mosque or Islamic centre. Aside from serving as a sanctuary where one can offer prayers, Islamic centres in Toronto have provided a space where Pakistani immigrants can celebrate, learn, socialize, share their struggles and receive comfort. For many of them, the local mosque is a second home. It is a place that connects the community to important religious holy days, festivities, weddings and funeral services. At the same time, Islamic centres function as schools for people of all ages, covering subjects like Arabic, Quran studies and Islamic history. Attendees have the opportunity to meet new people and make friendships that often last a lifetime. These new bonds are essential for the well-being of the entire community and are especially helpful for newly arrived immigrants looking to renew their identity in the Pakistani Diaspora.
The Islamic Foundation of Toronto is an excellent example of the multi-purpose centre described above. It was one of the first mosques established in the city and has a long standing connection to the history of the Pakistani community in Toronto. It started when some members from the Muslim Society of Toronto and the Muslim Students Association at the University of Toronto, decided to branch out from a mosque located at 3047 Dundas Street West, just west of Keele Street. Some of them were moving to the newly acquired Jami Mosque in High Park, while others organized gatherings in the Orange Hall, located at 182 Rhodes Avenue, south-west of Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue. This was originally a meeting place for the local lodge of the Orange Order, a Protestant, fraternal organization with a long history of opposition to Roman Catholicism in Toronto. In this new space, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto was formed to serve a religious function and to address the cultural and social needs of the broader and diverse Muslim community within the city.
In the 1970s, Orange Hall was officially converted into a mosque for Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds. The main floor was transformed into a spiritual sanctuary, while the upper floor became an assembly hall for weekend classes and community events. The first board of directors featured an eclectic mix of adults from Eastern Europe and South Asia. A collection of dedicated individuals planned further extensions and renovations to the property as the attendees began to grow. Along with these functions, one of the most important roles that the Islamic Foundation of Toronto played during its early, formative years was allowing newly arrived immigrants to meet and help each other. Pakistani, Yugoslavian, Indian, Turkish and Guyanese migrants all shared this space, praying together, eating together and helping each other adjust to their new lives in Toronto.
Gradually, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto outgrew its location on Rhodes Avenue, whose facilities became inadequate to serve the rising number of Muslim immigrants to the city. The board of directors and members of the mosque decided it was time to find a more spacious and practical location. In 1984, a 2.3 acre site was purchased on the corner of Markham Road and Nugget Avenue in Scarborough and construction began on the first multi-purpose mosque in Canada. It was a three story, white-stoned, copper domed structure which cost around six million dollars to build, half of which was raised by the local Muslim community. By the early 1990s, this new facility was in use, becoming a recognizable fixture of the local landscape, and having an immediate impact on its surroundings.
Urdu-speaking Muslims and other Muslim newcomers to Toronto began to settle in North-East Scarborough in order to be close to the Islamic Foundation and to other friends and family in the area. During the 1990s, a large wave of Pakistani migrants came to Canada, with many of them settling in Toronto. For some, the choice to find housing was deeply influenced by the presence of the Islamic Foundation. The houses and apartments in the north-east block of Markham Road and Sheppard Avenue East gradually changed ownership. When first built in the 1970s, this small residential community featured a mix of West Indians and Italians. As time progressed, there was a greater influx of South Asian immigrants in the area, which stimulated more housing and construction projects.
Currently, a significant portion of apartments and houses in North-East Scarborough are inhabited by Urdu-speaking immigrants who are affiliated with the IFT. This influx of Pakistani immigrants, and by extension, the construction of IFT in North-East Scarborough also impacted local businesses. As the Urdu-speaking community grew near the turn of the millennium, South Asian grocery stores and restaurants established themselves around the IFT. Within walking distance, a member of the IFT could purchase halal (Islamically permissible) meat, enjoy a plate of butter chicken, and pick up an Urdu drama on DVD.
The arrival of Pakistani immigrants in Toronto and their role in the establishment of IFT as a multi-dimensional, community service and religious organization have deeply impacted Toronto’s heritage. In addition to establishing a notable architectural landmark in Scarborough, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto and the Pakistani community have shaped settlement patterns, businesses and social service organizations. Along with other immigrant communities, Torontonians of Pakistani origin have made the city a more vibrant and inclusive community that many feel proud to call home.
Interview with Yousuf Khan
Interview with Shakil Akhter (June 2012)
Interview with Khlaid Usman
Interview with Mrs. Kausar Saeed
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.