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Canada's oldest Muslim community finds solidarity in Edmonton

Richard Awid in the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton. Mr. Awid’s father, Ahmed Ali Awid, helped to build the Mosque in 1938.

In the city where Canada's first mosque was built nearly eight decades ago, the Muslim community and government officials reflect after the Quebec City mosque attack

Sun pours through tall, rounded windows and off the gleaming hardwood planks inside Canada's first mosque. Rugs where immigrants kneeled while they said their daily prayers nearly a century ago cover the floors.

The country's first house of worship for Muslims was not established in a major centre such as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. The Al Rashid Mosque was constructed in Edmonton in 1938. The city had fewer than 90,000 residents, and there were only about 700 Muslims in Canada at the time.

The cost of the project was $4,500, and it was imperilled by a cash shortage. Then others in the community, including Christians and Jews, pitched in to help raise funds. Right from the beginning, a special relationship was forged between people from widely different backgrounds, and it continues today.

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The Al Rashid Mosque was constructed in 1938, at a time when there were only about 700 Muslims in Canada.

When a forest fire swept through Fort McMurray, Alta., last summer, the Muslim community in Edmonton opened its doors to evacuees. And on Monday night, a large crowd gathered in bitter cold outside the Alberta Legislature for an impromptu vigil organized for the shooting victims at a mosque in Quebec City. Six men were murdered in the attack by a lone gunman during evening prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre on Sunday night.

"It is easy to become discouraged when something like that happens," said Aurangzeb Qureshi, a spokesman for the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council. "The support we have received gives us hope that there is goodness in the world. People from all stripes were there in solidarity with us."

It's a solidarity the Muslim community has felt since it first set down roots in the city. Immigrants from present-day Lebanon and Syria began arriving in Canada in the late 1800s. Christians among them largely settled in the East, while Muslims migrated more to the West.

A photo of Ahmed Ali Awid in a book by his son, Richard Awid. Ahmed arrived in Ontario from present-day Lebanon in 1901, and later helped with the planning and fundraising for the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton.

Unlike the Europeans, who were mostly farmers, the Muslims were mainly businessmen like Ahmed Ali Awid. After arriving in Ontario from present-day Lebanon in 1901, he moved to Manitoba, where he sold knitting needles and handkerchiefs door-to-door and then used his earnings to open a general store.

In 1927, Mr. Awid resettled in Edmonton and became a clothier, and then went on to help in the planning and fundraising for the Al Rashid Mosque. It closed in the early 1980s, and was replaced by a new, larger building better suited to accommodate Edmonton's growing Muslim community. The original little mosque on the prairie was moved to Fort Edmonton Park, a recreated pioneer village that serves as a tourist attraction.

The city's Muslim population had grown to 20,000 by then, and stands at more than 50,000 today. There are now more than one million Muslims across Canada.

Mayor Don Iveson and city councillors held an emergency meeting with members of Edmonton's Muslim community at the Al Rashid Mosque on Monday afternoon. In a hallway outside the boardroom where they met, a framed copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms hangs on the wall.

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Richard Awid, 78, until recently gave interpretive tours of the country’s first mosque at Fort Edmonton Park.

"I feel very sad," Raid Salim, a representative of another mosque in the city, the Dar Al Sunnah, told the mayor. "In Edmonton, we are scared."

Mr. Salim said there have not been any serious threats made against mosques in the city, but a handful have been targeted by vandals in recent years. Windows have been broken and ugly graffiti scrawled on walls. The shootings on Sunday have only increased a gnawing sense of fear.

"We need an open conversation between levels of government and the city, and we need to have an action plan," Mr. Salim said. "We don't want consolation; we want preventative measures.

"We have to increase our vigilance and the security presence at our mosques just in case something unforeseen happens."

Mr. Iveson said he believes the risk of an incident like the one in Quebec is low, but promised to take steps to protect the Muslim community.

"If the city needs to provide support we will help," he said. "There is a particularly disturbing trend of Islamophobia that needs to be challenged in no uncertain terms as un-Canadian."

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Plans were discussed about launching a social-media campaign that would make it awkward for anyone to target Muslims and indigenous people in Edmonton. The campaign would involve city officials and prominent residents.

"It has to be our main mission to make people know that racism is not acceptable and not cool," Mr. Salim said.

Aumer Assaf, a spokesman for the Al Rashid Mosque, was at a family dinner Sunday when he learned about the shootings in Quebec City.

Students from Islamic schools visit the Al Rashid Mosque on class trips and mosques use it for social functions.

"We talked in whispers so the children would not be scared," he said. "These were people seeking peace and guidance. It is heartbreaking. Six families were destroyed."

Mr. Assaf was born and raised in Edmonton. His father, Mohamed, a real estate broker, arrived from Lebanon in 1965. Today, Mohamed is a diehard Oilers fan and roots for the CFL's Eskimos.

"I was stunned and sad for the loss of those innocent people," Mohamed said.

After sitting in on the meeting with the mayor, and a closed-door town hall get-together with Premier Rachel Notley the same night, he felt reassured.

"I am prouder today than I was yesterday about being Canadian," he said. "Somehow, Canadians are always able to put their heads together and do the right thing."

At the beginning, the Muslims that immigrated to Edmonton focused their energy on establishing themselves in the business world. Once that was accomplished, they set about establishing the first mosque in Canada.

The Al Rashid Mosque was moved to Fort Edmonton Park in 1989. All of the bricks had to be removed to move it, and it took four years to put it back together again.

"They felt they were losing their culture and their religion," said Richard Awid, whose father, Ahmed, carried a trunk on his back and sold items door-to-door. Richard is 78, and until recently gave interpretive tours of the country's first mosque at Fort Edmonton Park.

The original Al Rashid Mosque structure was moved there in 1989, and is surrounded by other buildings of local historical significance, including a hotel that dates to 1846, a vintage movie theatre and an-old fashioned drug store. Built by a Ukrainian-Canadian contractor, with its soaring spires, the mosque is often mistaken for an Orthodox church by the park's 170,000-plus annual visitors.

Before it could be moved, the roof had to be taken off and all of the bricks had to be removed one by one. Then the wooden frame was placed on the back of a flatbed truck and transported through the city's streets at night. City workers rode shotgun, taking down power lines to make room and then reinstalling them once the building had passed by.

Once the mosque arrived at Fort Edmonton, it took four years to put it back together again, brick by brick. Improvements have been made, and the building stands as a treasured piece of Canadian history today.

Students from Islamic schools visit on class trips. Mosques use it for social functions. Pilgrims come and pray in the first house of worship for Muslims erected in this country.

It is a cold winter day, and there is a fresh coat of snow on the ground. The original mosque sits quiet on a piece of land not far from the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. It seems frozen in time, just like the river.

"I like the space because it is so incredibly peaceful," said Laura Nichol, the community outreach and volunteer co-ordinator at Fort Edmonton Park. "It just feels special."

"When we have a chance, we are excited to show it off."

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