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Global Centre for Pluralism looks to the future, with one foot in the past

The War Museum Building was designed well over a century ago by the great Canadian architect David Ewart. For its first half-century, it was the home of the Dominion Archives, and then, for another half-century, we knew it as the War Museum. For over one hundred years, all told, it was a place where the record of Canada's proud and confident past was preserved and honoured.

The past still speaks to us in this place. The architects, designers, engineers and so many others who have rehabilitated this wonderful Tudor Gothic building have taken enormous care to respect its distinctive historic character.

But even as we celebrate the past today, we are also looking ahead, with joy and confidence, to a particularly exciting future.

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That future has also been symbolized by those who have renewed this building in two compelling ways.

First, they created a new garden in the forecourt, a tranquil space for contemplating the past and thinking about the future. And then, secondly, they made a dramatic new gesture for the future by opening this building to the river.

Video: Aga Khan says to embrace differences at opening of Global Centre for Pluralism

When I first visited this site, I went across the Ottawa River to see things from the opposite side. From that perspective, I noticed that many buildings on the Ontario side had, over the years, turned their backs to the river. But as we began to plan, another possibility became evident. It seemed increasingly significant to open the site to the water.

Water, after all, has been seen, down through the ages, as the great source of life. When scientists search the universe for signs of life, they begin by looking for water. Water restores and renews and refreshes. And opening ourselves and our lives to the water is to open ourselves and our lives to the future.

In addition, the Ottawa River represents a powerful connection to other places, nearby and far away. It is not only a refreshing symbol, it is also a connecting symbol, connecting this site to the rest of Canada and the rest of the world.

Throughout the history of Canada, the Ottawa River has been a meeting place for diverse peoples, originally the First Nations, and then the British and the French, and, more recently, Canadians from many different backgrounds. It symbolizes the spirit of connection. And the spirit of connection, of course, is at the very heart of the Global Centre for Pluralism.

The new forecourt garden suggests that the centre will be a place for contemplation and reflection. And the opening to the river suggests that it will also be a place for connection and engagement.

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What happens at 330 Sussex Drive in the years ahead will radiate out well beyond its walls, to the entire world.

Let me emphasize a point about the concept of pluralism that is sometimes misunderstood. Connection does not necessarily mean agreement. It does not mean that we want to eliminate our differences or erase our distinctions. Far from it. What it does mean is that we connect with one another in order to learn from one another, and to build our future together.

Pluralism does not mean the elimination of difference, but the embrace of difference. Genuine pluralism understands that diversity does not weaken a society, it strengthens it. In an ever-shrinking, ever more diverse world, a genuine sense of pluralism is the indispensable foundation for human peace and progress.

From the start, this has been a vision the Ismaili Imamat and the Government of Canada have deeply shared.

My own close association with Canada began more than five decades ago, with the coming to Canada of many thousands of Asian Ismailis, essentially as the result of Idi Amin's anti-Asian policies in Uganda. That relationship has been re-enforced through the years as we have shared with our Canadian friends in so many great adventures, here in Canada and in other lands, including the Global Centre for Pluralism.

As we celebrate the progress we have made today, we also recognize the growing challenges to our mission, as nativist and nationalist threats to pluralism rise up in so many corners of the world. In responding to these challenges, the Global Centre for Pluralism has planned a variety of new initiatives. Among them are the new Global Pluralism Awards which will recognize pluralism in action around the world, as well as a distinguished series of new publications.

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As we look today both to the past and to the future, we do so with gratitude to all those who have shared in this journey, and who now share in our pursuit of new dreams.

This is a condensed version of an address delivered this week in Ottawa by His Highness the Aga Khan, on the occasion of the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism.

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