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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Where to Live in Canada

Izzy Mo asked me a series of questions a few weeks ago, and I never got around to answering them. I promised her I would respond to one question each day until I've completed them all. Here's question #4.

What is the best place for Muslims to live in Canada and if it is Toronto I want to know why?

If Muslims are looking for the easiest and most convenient place to live, then big cities are the way to go.* Cities like Toronto boast an exceedingly multicultural demographic as more and more immigrants settle there. One does not feel alienated from the rest of society because there is little racism (relatively speaking) and many familiar faces.

At the same time, one must be wary of taking advantage of Canada’s tolerance. There is a tendency within multicultural cities for Muslims to seek out their own communities and create ethnic ghettos. This is a misguided move that wll only create misunderstanding and feelings of otherness between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Another tendency is to try too hard to fit in. Oftentimes this will mean sacrificing important religious values in order to assimilate. This approach can leave Muslims feeling empty and fragmented. The best strategy is to try to integrate while maintaining one’s Islamic values.

For the more courageous amongst us, I would recommend going to less multicultural areas – up north or to the smaller, less known cities. I once watched a documentary about a Somali man who had come to Canada as a refugee. In his search for work, he found himself travelling north. He and his wife settled in Nunavut so that he could teach there. It was quite moving to see a Somali Muslim refugee explaining the Canadian political system to college students who were native to Canada.

There are difficulties – I won’t deny that. Last summer, my family hit the road and ended up near James Bay on the northern tip of Ontario. It was an eye-opening to see how the native Cree people live. There are no roads – we had to leave our vehicle behind to take a train north, and then use boats to get to our destination. Snow arrives in September. During the winter, the river freezes and is transformed into a road, complete with road signs. Students go to school by airplane. Instead of ambulances, there are helicopters. One day we went to a pizza shop. The owner said he couldn’t help us; he didn’t have any tomato sauce. He said he wasn’t sure when it would be shipped in, but it would probably be in stock within the next few weeks or so. We went to another store and tried to buy fruits. But the prices were prohibitively expensive, because everything has to be flown in. A bag of milk cost $9. Fruits were three times the cost in Toronto. Nunavut, where the Somali man lived, is even further north than Ontario. It is almost always covered with snow and is quite underdeveloped and underpopulated. In some areas, for a number of months in the winter, there is continuous darkness. Likewise, for several months in the summer, there is continuous sunshine.

So yes, there are difficulties, but I think it is possible for a Muslim to live a very fulfilled life in the North. The Somali family had adapted in many ways to the aboriginal culture. It was quite overwhelming to see the family praying together and then going about their day-to-day business in Nunavut. I can only imagine how difficult it was to adjust to the constant cold after years of living in Somalia. No doubt one would have to be incredibly strong. Because the religious communal element is non-existent, one would have to struggle harder to maintain a Muslim identity. But one would be able to get rid of all the cultural impediments in one’s religious practice because there is really no room for it there.

And a Muslim can really make a difference there. Mind you, it can get uncomfortable to be the only Muslims in a strange new place, but often fears of discrimination and prejudice are unfounded. The aboriginal people are traditional themselves. And once they get to know their neighbours better, they embrace them – as was evidently the case for the Somali family. Muslims who have a special skill or expertise to share with the community are particularly welcome there.

So it depends on what one means by “best”. If “best” means easiest and most convenient for Muslims, then the big cities are best because they’re multicultural. If one would like to make a real difference, then living in other parts of Canada can be an enriching experience. Someday I think I’d like to live up North. At least for a few months or so. Yes, there may not be the modern conveniences that we’ve become so dependent on. And yes, some people find the North utterly depressing. But I find myself strangely attracted to that type of lifestyle. The forced solitude is a refreshing change. And the immensity and beauty of the harsh environs seem real and pure compared to the artificiality in our modern lives.

*Many people don’t realize how underpopulated Canada is. Canada is the second largest country in the world, but the population of Canada is less than that of California!


  • At 4/18/2005 01:53:00 a.m., Blogger Desiree said…

    OMG... I didn't realize how 'few' of us there were in Canada! Less than in California??? I'm so glad to be Canadian and have the space we do - and at that I find some places/events to be too crowded (I'd never make it as an American!)

  • At 4/18/2005 03:24:00 p.m., Blogger cncz said…

    Did i ever mention that Canada is my one true love?

    I am trying to get Nice Husband to move there but he can't get over the whole Cold thing. I told him Vancouver wasn't cold.

  • At 4/18/2005 03:25:00 p.m., Blogger cncz said…

    then again my idea of a good time is three weeks of day hikes in newfoundland and Nice Husband would never go for that.

  • At 4/18/2005 08:11:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The best place for muslims to live in canada?

    Saudia arabia.

    You can hate jews out in the open there...

  • At 4/19/2005 12:24:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Awww, poor baby. Always cwying. Want your widdle bottle? Or is it beddie time? Baby want precious blankie?

    Note to readers: Saudi Arabia is not in Canada. I suppose we can't expect the wee ones to get their geography right. But hey, even ignorant little Muslim kiddies know that.

  • At 4/19/2005 12:32:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Desiree: Yes, and most Canadians settle right along the border, which means that most of Canada's vast land is unpopulated.

    Cncz: I'm used to the cold, but I can imagine how difficult it is for those who haven't grown up here. There's some really cool stuff in eastern Canada though. I went there a few summers ago, and there was plenty of outdoor exploring to do. I did do some hiking, but not 3 weeks' worth! It was probably one the best holidays I've ever had.

  • At 4/19/2005 01:23:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hahaha! Good comeback, Saf.

  • At 4/19/2005 01:56:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    You mean my response to 'anonymous'? I wouldn't do this to anyone else, I promise you. It's just that I'm sick of his annoying comments. I'd be happy to entertain sincere questions or concerns.

  • At 4/19/2005 10:38:00 a.m., Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said…


    Good one.

    People like anonymous make me laugh. Or cry.

    People like you give me hope.


  • At 4/19/2005 10:32:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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