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‘Everyone is welcome’

The motto of one of Canada’s early Muslim leaders is no less important today

By Carolyn Pogue

In this crazy time of fear, violence and hatred, some of us are unsure that we want the Muslim label,” Brenda Hamdon Dushinski recently told me. She’s a Calgary nurse, healer, interfaith community leader — and a friend. She continued: “Our faith has been hijacked by twisted, radical agendas and by a media thriving on negativity and sensationalism. I wonder how my Sitty Hilwie would deal with the challenges of being a Muslim in Canada today?"

Brenda was referring to her grandmother, Hilwie Hamdon, one of the leaders of the Muslim community in  Alberta at the turn of last century. Hilwie and her female friends were responsible for the first mosque in Canada.

I had learned about this Canadian pioneer from one of her other granddaughters, Karen Hamdon, at an Edmonton meeting of the North American Interfaith Network. Hilwie, she said, was born in Lebanon — then part of Syria — and was a warm, strong, faithful grandma. She would have needed all of those strengths in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. in the 1920s. I wrote about her in World of Faith: Introducing Spiritual Traditions to Teens.

Brenda Hamdon Dushinski
Brenda Hamdon Dushinski

When she married a trader bound for northern Canada, this teenaged bride didn't know what she was getting into at first. Temperatures that dipped well below zero, northern lights and neighbours who spoke Chipewyan, English, Yiddish and Cree were all new to her, as was the isolation from family. But Hilwie settled into Fort Chipewyan and created a new family of Canadian friends. Her home became a centre for people to gather, eat, and share stories and their faith. Hilwe's motto seemed to be, "Everyone is welcome."

After the family moved south to Edmonton, Hilwie decided that there should be a mosque where people could pray, feast, marry and hold funerals. So she gathered with women and they set to work.  This was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with high unemployment and drought-riddled farms. But the women were determined, and they began by asking Edmonton's mayor for land on which to build the mosque. Thereafter, they fundraised and asked business people for donations. Jews, Muslims, Christians gave what they could. And slowly, the fund grew to $5,000.00 — just enough. The mosque finally opened in 1938.

For 50 years, Al Rashid Mosque was a gathering place in the heart of the city. The community grew; a bigger mosque was needed. But when it was announced that the little mosque on the prairie would be torn down to make way for a parking lot, Hilwie's grandchildren, Karen and Evelyn Hamdon, gathered the women and went to work, raising awareness and funds needed to preserve Al Rashid Mosque. And then, one summer day, this piece of Canadian history was raised from its foundations and moved slowly down the hill to Fort Edmonton Historic Park, where it joined other notable religious buildings.

"My grandmother was no expert in geopolitics," Brenda reflects, "but if she were alive today, Sitty Hilwie would want her grandchildren and great grandchildren to be judged by who they are as humans . . . not by some convoluted idea of Islam. She would expect us to move through our lives, practicing our faith principles of unity, integrity, kindness and compassion, while refusing to be strangers or enemies. If she were here, Sitty would open her heart and her home and pray that Canadians, especially her family, would make, 'everyone welcome.'"

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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