As an archivist for the Muslim Archives in Canada (MiCA) project, Moska Rokay doesn’t just preserve the past – it unearths it.
Rokay, a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information Masters of Information program, reaches out to Canadians across the country to collect stories, documents and images that bring to life the rich history of Muslims in Canada.
“For example, many people I spoke to remember going to a coed summer camp for young Muslims in the 1980s and 1990s, before 9/11,” she says. “It was fascinating talking to so many different people who each have fond memories of those times, like playing sports, learning to canoe, doing arts and crafts and of course participating in lectures on Islam.”
Although it has changed name and location over the years, the camp still exists as Ontario’s Camp Deen. Rokay reconstructed the camp’s history through photographs, postcards and other memorabilia.
This is just one example of material included in the MiCA project that sheds light on the stories of Muslim Canadians and how they fit into the larger Canadian historical narrative, says director of the Institute of Islamic Studies Antwerp Emon.
“Muslims have been in Canada since Confederation, but their stories are not told forcefully anywhere,” says Emon, who is also a professor in the Faculty of Law and the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Islamic Sciences. Law and History. “Not much is known about the early history of Muslims in Canada, or the current history they make every day alongside other communities.
The archive also helps recalibrate current conversations about Islam and Muslims. “Canadian Muslims have too often been victims of stereotyping, prejudice and rampant Islamophobia,” says Emon. “These biased portrayals won’t go away overnight, which is where MiCA comes in – responding to an Islamophobic narrative, one story at a time.”
Sadia Zaman, CEO of the Inspirit Foundation and one of MiCA’s partners, says collaboration with organizations from different sectors is important because the dominant narrative in public discourse is very powerful: “It forces us all to work together to create a different one”. she says.
“The participatory nature of these archives is crucial in helping to tell the complex, multifaceted and nuanced story of the Muslim presence in Canada. And its academic rigor is needed to help lay the groundwork for these stories so they can be disseminated and made accessible.
Supported by the Canadian government, the archives plan to expand their reach from Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador to the rest of the country (photo by Emily Moran)
In a 2019 environmental scan of Canadian archives, Rokay found that Muslims were not only underrepresented, but were often misclassified using ethnic groups instead of religion.
In the report, Rokay states: “[A]At best, the “Muslim” experience can only be inferred. At worst, it erases minority religious groups from Canada’s archival holdings at a time when religious identity has become a very public and political touchstone in the recent election.
“From Quebec’s attack on the headscarf to the right-wing extremism that culminated in the terrorist attack at a Quebec City mosque, being Muslim is often associated with national security and threat discourse that dehumanizes part of the Canadian population.
Documenting the voices of marginalized communities is key to supporting an inclusive and multicultural Canada, says journalist and editor Haroun SiddiquiChairman of the IIS Advisory Board and Senior Fellow at Massey College, an independent graduate college affiliated with the U of T.
“A great achievement of contemporary Canada has been to grant equality and equal dignity to all demographic groups. Our next challenge is to expand the equal dignity of representation,” says Siddiqui. “With digital archives like MiCA, Muslims across Canada can now follow the tradition of other Canadian communities that have enriched us all with their stories.
The Canadian government recently pledged $4 million in funding to MiCA and the project members’ goal of documenting the history of Canada’s diverse Muslim communities.
Emon says the funding will allow MiCA to expand its reach from Eastern and Central Canada (Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador) to the rest of the country. It will also support the final stage of the project: making the vibrant history of Muslims in Canada accessible to the public, using a curated digital storytelling portal.
“When you watch the news, it’s hard not to notice that from rural communities to small towns to big cities across Canada, we are all confronted with how an increasingly diverse population can share life, its history and still remaining in the political community,” Emon said.
“Telling stories together – regardless of your race, creed, ethnicity or culture – requires the ‘stuff’ with which we tell stories. As elementary school students, we used this “trick” when sharing with our classmates in show-and-tell. Historians use this “material” called primary sources to empirically ground their research. Artists could find inspiration in this “trick” to write a poem, compose a musical score or paint a canvas.
“As a step in systemic change, MiCA runs this ‘stuff’ with the belief that whatever it is, it is rich with storytelling possibilities – ones that allow Muslims in Canada to speak for themselves. “