He is the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims, a significant number of whom call Canada home. He is a diplomat, social innovator, global humanitarian and someone with an unshakable belief in the values of pluralism, diversity and equality.
The Aga Khan was appointed as the 49th hereditary Imam of the world’s Shia Ismaili community upon his grandfather’s death in 1957, when he was just a 20-year-old and studying at Harvard.
Since then, His Highness the Aga Khan has seen and guided his community through many challenges. He has met the challenges of political turmoil with calls for stability and sound governance. In a world plagued by ignorance he calls for education and in times of violence he speaks of peace. As a source of wisdom to the wise, and of advice to the advisers, he is, as our former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has remarked, “perhaps the only person in the world to whom everyone listens.”
In his work and words, he articulates a timeless language of values and ethics grounded in the rich history and heritage of the Muslim world. A belief in pluralism, a commitment to education for all, and a respect for the inherent dignity of humanity are values that also resonate strongly in Canadian society. As chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), he oversees one of the world’s largest private development agencies, which works to improve the quality of life for individuals and communities in some of the most remote and isolated regions on the planet.
The AKDN consists of a number of agencies that operate within the areas of economic, cultural and social development. It’s this holistic approach to development that marks the AKDN as unique among its many contemporaries. The scope of His Highness’s projects is matched only by the thoughtfulness with which he engages with them.
I had the opportunity to see, first-hand, the life-changing work that the AKDN does in parts of the world during my time as a member of the government of Canada.
My visit in 2005 to Hunza, in the northern most part of Pakistan, was a lesson in the power and potential of the human spirit. I met with young women, learning in a safe and secure day and residential school, built by the AKDN, furthering the Aga Khan’s lifelong commitment to education for girls.
I saw the power of partnerships, between the AKDN and Canada’s international development agency, in the micro-financing of women who were able to earn a living for themselves and their families. And I climbed the stairs of the centuries-old Baltit Fort, a restoration project of the AKDN that is a living demonstration of old traditions and modern conservation practices.
What I saw were lives transformed – the animating objective of the Aga Khan and the AKDN.
We, in Canada, have been longtime partners of the Aga Khan and the AKDN, and this partnership continues in the development of a new Islamic garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden. This public garden will soon welcome people of all ethnicities, races, languages and faiths, and be a place of peace, reflection, renewal and joy. We thank the Aga Khan for his generous gift to make this possible.
However one chooses to describe the Aga Khan and his years of service, he is, and has always has been, a person of foresight, peace, diplomacy and humility.
I welcome Your Highness to Alberta and I congratulate you on your Diamond Jubilee, 60 years of making the world a better place for all.
Anne McLellan is a former deputy prime minister of Canada.
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