RICHMOND HILL, Ont–On Good Friday in a mosque on the outskirts of Toronto, former Ojibway chief Terry Nelson sat on a chair holding eagle feathers while around him hundreds of Muslim faithful knelt on prayer rugs listening to an imam preach about the “genocide” committed against Indigenous peoples in North America.
Nelson sat next to former Dakota chiefs Dennis Pashe and Kenneth Whitecloud, who were there representing current Dakota Chiefs Frank Brown and Orville Smoke, who were attending funerals in their home communities. The three sat together near the front of a spacious room in a building that was once a horse riding school before it was purchased in 1999 and converted to house the Islamic Society of York Region. The 33 acre compound in Richmond Hill, Ont., has a swimming pool, a softball diamond and a children’s playground. It sits down the road from a golf course.
The three were there at the request of one of the mosque’s imams, Zafar Bangash, who invited Nelson following media reports the former chief of Roseau River First Nation was hoping to travel to Tehran. Nelson, Brown and Smoke met with officials in Ottawa’s Iranian embassy in early March to begin preparations for a possible trip to speak to the Iranian parliament.
Several chandeliers hung from the ceiling in the mosque’s main room which resembled a large hotel banquet hall split into two sections by dividers. The floor was blanketed by prayer rugs. In the kitchen, behind a door with a taped sign saying, “staff only,” women prepared chicken biryani, along with a separate channa chickpea dish. Both dishes would later be sold in Styrofoam containers for $5 each, along with naan bread and pop.
Before the Jumah prayer session began, on a table with books for sale, Nelson placed several documents about murdered and missing women, RMCP surveillance of First Nations and a speech he wrote against the looming war against Iran. The available books featured titles like American authored In Defence of Iran, Inspirations for the Day, Hajj in Focus, The Stages of Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini: a leader of principle and purpose, and Hizbullah: Party of God.
After the melodious and iconic call to prayer sung by a man in the congregation ended, Imam Bangash stood at the front of the room to deliver a sermon that excoriated Western culture and wove the perceived campaign against Islam with the plight of First Nations people in Canada.
“The native inhabitants of this land, the First Nations as they are referred…looked after the European colonialists when they came and fell ill,” said Bangash. “And what did the European colonialists do in return? Four hundred years ago…there were about 100 million of them on this continent…How has their population gone down, so drastically reduced, that they are left to only a few million people on this land? Because genocide was perpetrated against them.”
According to academic estimates, there were between 57 million to 112 million Indigenous people living on what is now known as North America, Central America and South America, before Europeans like Christopher Columbus made initial contact.
Bangash said the same “people” that committed “genocide” against Indigenous peoplesÂ were now “occupying” Muslim lands.
“So what kind of values would people have when they perpetrated genocide against people who were their benefactors, not their enemies? To know a civilization and how it functions and the values they carry, then look at how they treat other people,” said Bangash. “And even now, when these European colonialists and American imperialists have gone to Muslim lands, what have they done in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Palestine and other places? They have killed millions of people in those lands.”
Bangash then linked the duties of the Muslim community to his reason for inviting the three First Nations leaders to the mosque.
“Unless and until we live up to the principles of Islam of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil…that honour will not come to us because we do not live up to the expectations of being the compassionate community, the caring community, the giving community, the forgiving community,” said Bangash. “Military power is no power at all. It can kill, but it cannot create. It can cause misery, but it cannot provide the healing touch. We are the people that are taught to provide the healing touch. Here is the opportunity, let’s take it, let’s reach out to people who are less fortunate than ourselves.”
And with that, Bangash asked Nelson to take the microphone and speak to a crowd of at least 700 people, all sitting and kneeling in their stocking feet on prayer rugs. The men occupied the front rows, the women along the back wall and children, sometimes fidgeting, other times listening intently, scattered throughout the assembled faithful, filling the space from wall to wall.
Wearing a ribbon-shirt and an otter fur-lined Ojibway headdress, holding the eagle feathers and cradling his father’s stone ceremonial pipe in his left arm, Nelson made a joke about camels and teepees before saying Muslim and First Nations people shared a common antagonizer.
“You are blessed today because people in the past thought about you and they resisted the Crusaders, people (who) believed that they and only they understood and owned God. Today you are blessed with the Quran,” said Nelson. “We too have met the Crusaders and they have told us and they tried to convince us that God came on a boat in 1492…Today we join with you in prayer and welcome you…to our lands.”
Nelson told the assembled congregation that chiefs from all across Canada would be gathering this July in Toronto to elect a new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Nelson said he would again be a candidate and asked for the Muslim community for support....Ladies and gents, I give you the AFN George Galloway! Can T shirts proclaiming the "Assembly of First Nations Spring" be far behind?