Walking Toronto through its Muslim history
A Sunday Jane’s Walk will take participants through the west end, touring the site of city’s first mosque and other Islamic touchstones.
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The muggers who attacked a woman outside her son’s school, yelling “Go back to your country,” need a geography lesson, according to Himy Syed.
More than one million Muslims call Canada home, eight per cent of Torontonians practice Islam, and if by country they meant neighbourhood, that would be the Junction.
“We have fifth-generation Torontonians who happen to be Muslim descent, Muslim heritage. They’ve been here 50, 60, 70 years,” he said of the west-end neighbourhood’s Islamic roots.
An “armchair urbanist” and community activist, Syed is leading a Jane’s Walk on Sunday entitled “The History of Muslims in Toronto.”
The 2.5-hour walk will includes stops at the site of the city’s first mosque, established in 1961 in a Dundas St. W. storefront and where one of the city’s first halal butchers set up shop on Roncesvalles Ave.
Though Syed has led dozens of Jane’s Walks since the project’s inception in 2007, this walk is brand new.
But it’s one he could have done before, with many of the stories he plans to share accumulated over iftar dinners. Since 2011, Syed has broken his Ramadan fast with a different congregation every night and documented the stories on his blog.
“I’ve learned more that way about Toronto’s Muslim history than any other book or website or videos.”
He hopes the walk can recreate that experience of learning from talking and sharing the stories of people’s lived experience.
Though the walks usually take place over the first weekend in May, to coincide with project inspiration Jane Jacobs’ birthday, dozens of additional tours are held throughout the year.
Denise Pinto is the global director for the project. She calls walks the “most human format” to discuss cultural issues such as Islamophobia.
“We need space to talk about this kind of thing, and we want to see the faces of these stories,” she said. “It helps people empathize with citizens who live with them.”
Study after study has shown that the more people interact with people of the Muslim faith, the more positively they tend to view Islam, according to Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“It gives an opportunity to break down these stereotypes that people hold and to also educate people about the history of Muslims in Canada,” he said.
That history dates back more than 100 years, he said, to the first recorded Muslim presence in the country — a couple of Scottish immigrants, Agnes and James Love. Their son, born in 1854, was the first Muslim born in the country, 13 years before Confederation.
Gardee calls the perception that most Muslims are new to the country understandable, given changing multicultural policies and waves of immigration. “But the perception is not entirely accurate because we’ve been here for a while.”
Syed chose the Jane’s Walk platform deliberately for its broad reach beyond the circles of the Muslim community in the city.
“It is urbanism. It is urban history,” he said. “It’s a Canadian walk; it’s not a Muslim walk.”
The Canadians he hopes to see on the walk are the very ones who inspired him to lead the tour in the first place, people like the muggers who told a woman to go back to her country.
“That’s who I hope comes, joins the walk, silently deconstructs their views,” he said. “That would be a dream because that’s a dialogue.”
“That might be a first step that they can take with my first step.”