Pakistani Heritage in Toronto: Faith and Family

[ٹورانٹو میں پاکستانی ورثہ
فیتھ اینڈ فیملی]

Written by Tyson Brown

With cultural roots in Toronto half a century deep, Torontonians of Pakistani origin have carved out a secure place for themselves in the historical narrative of the city. They have done so through a vital combination of faith, family, community and heritage.

Eid prayer at Exhibition Place. MHSO Collection, PAK-3155-7

Prior to the formation of Pakistan as a modern nation state, the area had a long tradition of civilization which had been influenced by Hindu, Persian, Islamic, Afghani and other cultures. Various dynasties, empires and centres of power had gained influence over the region, including the British and their East India Company. The British colonial period ended with an independence movement at the beginning of the 20th century and the eventual division of “British India” into the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan in 1947. That division would result in tensions, and even open conflict, between Indian and Pakistan in the coming decades. In addition, a civil war in 1971 resulted in the eastern part of the country becoming the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh. That conflict and its remaining tensions would create the conditions that convinced many Pakistanis to emigrate.

The Crescent newsletter, March 23, 1973. MHSO Collection, PAK-0207

Through the 1950s, immigration quotas allowed only 100 people from Pakistan to immigrate to Canada each year, and only a very few of those came to Toronto. Since British institutions and the English language had been established in Pakistan under British rule, the well-educated, English-speaking Pakistanis who came to Canada in this period found familiar elements in their new country.  When quotas were abandoned in the 1960s and replaced by an immigration system based on points for meeting selection criteria, immigration to Canada from Pakistan became an option for many young, well-educated, English-speaking professionals seeking to leave the economic and political instability at home in order to find working opportunities in “The West”. With the doors open, many arrived in Toronto and found work or attended schools.

By the 1970s, the growing Pakistani community began to have an impact on the cityscape.  No better example can be found, perhaps, than that of “Little India” on Gerrard Street East, a story that begins with the Eastwood cinema, built in 1929. The theatre’s surrounding neighbourhood was originally settled by English, Irish and Scottish immigrants who arrived in Toronto prior to World War One. The Eastwood Theatre, like many other neighbourhood theatres across the city, had, by the early 1960s, seen better days.  Closed in 1966, it was rented in 1972 by Gian Naz, a recent immigrant from India, who started to show Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali-language films. Within a short period of time, the theatre became a major draw to the area for migrants from India and Pakistan, and new businesses and restaurants, including Lahore Tikka, were opened around the theatre to capitalize on its audiences. By the early 1980s, Gerrard Street East had been transformed into Toronto’s “Little India”, or the Gerrard India Bazaar.

During this same period, the predominantly Muslim Pakistani community in the city would play an important role in the establishment of the first mosque in Toronto. Located on Bousted Avenue in the High Park neighbourhood is the Jami Mosque. It was originally constructed in 1910 as the High Park Presbyterian Church to serve a congregation rooted in the surrounding neighbourhood. That neighbourhood’s demographic change, combined with changing patterns of religious adherence, led to the Presbyterian congregation’s decision in the early 1960s to relocate and to sell the church building.

In 1969, the small but growing Muslim community in Toronto, then compromised largely of migrants from the Balkans, purchased the property and transformed this Christian church into the city’s first dedicated Islamic centre of worship. As Pakistani migrants arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them joined the Jami Mosque – an important place for the expression of their faith in an overwhelmingly Christian society.

The Islamic Foundation of Toronto, originally located on Rhodes Avenue in the east end of the city and now located in Scarborough at Markham Road and Sheppard Avenue, was established in the same period.  These and other centres of Islamic faith and community, in which Torontonians of Pakistani origin continue to play an important role, have been major building blocks in the move towards a city that celebrates cultural and religious diversity. The construction of mosques, sacred centres of faith that are not to be moved, sold or destroyed, has been an important signifier of the city’s developing diversity. Mosques are often not only important landmarks and centres of faith, but also places that host schools and cultural centres. They can represent the fusion of faith, international identities and heritage within a Canadian context.

Naaz Center, Gerrard Street East. MHSO Collection, IND-0001

Along with faith, language has been critical to the Pakistani community in its adjustment to Canadian society. Urdu is an ancient dialect with a long tradition of literature and poetry which is fundamentally interwoven into the Pakistani identity. Pakistani students at the University of Toronto formed the Urdu Society of Canada in the 1970s as a means of celebrating that language. Their goal was to find a synthesis between Canadian and Pakistani cultures and to help Pakistanis in Toronto adjust to a new sense of identity. In collaboration with the Ontario Government and the University, they held the First Canadian Conference on Urdu in 1982, a successful event attended by dignitaries from Pakistan and well-supported by the Pakistani community in the city. It became a pivotal moment that served as a rite of passage for this cultural group that has now become a fundamental part of Toronto’s cultural mosaic.

Islam in Toronto, Muslim Society of Toronto, MHSO Collection
Silvia D’Addario, Jeremy Kowalski, Marsye Lemoine and Valerie Preston, “Finding A Home: Exploring Muslim Settlement in the Toronto CMA”, Retrieved from:
Harald Bauder and Angelica Suorineni, ‘Toronto’s Little India, A Brief Neighbourhood History’, Retrieved from:
Haiden Moghissi, Diaspora by Design ‘Muslim Immigrants in Canada and Beyond’, (University of Toronto Press, 2009).
M.H.K Qureshi, ‘Urdu in Canada’, Polyphony, Vol.12, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1990), pg. 35-41.

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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