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A History of the Baha’i Community of Canada and a Canadian Connection to the Faith

The Baha’i Community of Canada dates from 1898 when Edith Magee, a youth from London, Ontario, became the first member of the Baha’i Faith living in Canada. In 1902 the first Baha’i group was formed by May and William Sutherland Maxwell in Montreal.

Camera William Sutherland Maxwell (1874-1952) was a well-known Canadian architect. He designed such Canadian landmarks as the Château Frontenac Tower in Quebec City, the Legislative Assembly Building in Regina, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. In the Baha’i world, he’s known for his design of the well-known Baha’i shrine that graces Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel.

His wife, Camera May Maxwell, was an early Western Baha’i when she met her husband in Paris in the 1890s.

In 1912, the small band of believers that formed around the Maxwells had the honour of receiving Camera ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son and appointed successor of the founder of the faith, Baha’u’llah, during his tour of North America. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s speeches in Montreal attracted widespread attention from the press and the public. The Maxwell home where he stayed is today the only Baha’i shrine in the Western hemisphere.

As a result of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, Canada came to merit a mention in a Baha’i sacred text: “The future of Canada, whether from a material or spiritual standpoint, is very great,” ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote in a work called Tablets of the Divine Plan.

Following ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to Canada, small Baha’i communities took root in major urban centres and then in towns and villages throughout the country. Today, there are over 260 Baha’i communities in all parts of Canada, with elected administrative institutions called Local Spiritual Assemblies. Baha’is live in 1,200 localities in Canada.

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes that some 35 of the faith’s elected Local Spiritual Assemblies are on Native reserves, and others, with Inuit members, are in remote Arctic centres.

More than 15% of Canadian Baha’is come from an aboriginal background. A comparable segment of the community are first or second-generation immigrants. The community functions bilingually with its French/English monthly newsletter and national meetings that operate in both official languages. This cohesion and unity among the great cultural streams that make up Canada is a conscious and much prized feature of Canadian Baha’i community life.

Canada’s Parliament was the first sovereign legislature to formally recognize the faith by incorporating its governing institution, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada, by a special Act of Parliament in 1949, one year after the formation of that national Baha’i institution.

In 1937, the Maxwells’ daughter, Camera Mary, (1910-2000), married the head of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi. After the passing of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, Mary Maxwell, or Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, as she is known in the faith, wrote letters and books, wrote and directed two major film documentaries, and contributed to the consolidation and growth of the faith.

Earlier in the 20th century, the French-Canadian architect Camera Louis Bourgeois
(1856-1930) designed the “Mother Temple of the West,” the Camera Baha’i House of Worship, now protected as an American historical site, in Wilmette, Ill., just north of Chicago.

The remarkable architectural contribution of Canadian Baha’is continued in the last decades of the 20th century when Camera Hossein Amanat, a Vancouver architect, designed the seat of the Camera Universal House of Justice at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, along with several of the other principal administrative buildings there, as well as the South Pacific Camera Baha’i House of Worship in Samoa.

Canadian Camera Fariborz Sahba managed the enormous construction project that extended and completed the Baha’i World Centre complex, designing the magnificent garden terraces that cascade down the side of Mount Carmel. Sahba had previously designed the famous CameraLotus Temple,” the Baha’i House of Worship in New Delhi, India, reported to be the most visited building in the world.

As of this writing, work is proceeding on a House of Worship in Chile, which will serve as the “Mother Temple” in South America. The architect is another Canadian Baha’i, Siamak Hariri of Toronto.

The Baha’i National Centre is located in Markham, Ont., a suburb of Toronto. Developments in recent years in Canada include the operation of the Maxwell International Baha’i School on Vancouver Island, the opening of the Office of Governmental Relations in Ottawa, which is housed at the Centre for Baha’i Studies on the University of Ottawa campus, the conferences and publications of the Association for
Baha’i Studies, annual conferences of the Baha’i Medical Association of Canada, and the opening of the Baha’i Office for the Advancement of Women in Quebec City.

Canada has done much to assist the Baha’i community, notably by welcoming and helping to settle several thousand Baha’i refugees following the 1979 revolution in Iran, which brought to power a fundamentalist Islamic regime that turned with ferocity on the Baha’i community, Iran’s largest religious minority.

Canada’s government has continued to play a leading role in calling the world’s attention to the plight of the Baha’is, specifically by co-sponsoring resolutions at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly for more than 12 consecutive years.

Canada’s international development agency, CIDA, has worked closely with the Baha’i Community of Canada on international development projects in India, Central and South America, and several countries in Africa

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© The Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ottawa, Canada 2011