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May/June 2011 | by Victoria Gaitskell and Edward Atkinson

Northern Canada’s growing Muslim communities recently completed an ambitious construction project in order to build the first mosque (masjid) above the Arctic Circle. The plan entailed the purchase and transport of a 473-square-metre structure (delivered in two sections and prefabricated in Winnipeg, Manitoba) across western Canada and the North by tractor-trailer truck and barge.

Last September, the new pre-fabricated structure began its long journey; first hauled 2,400 kilometres by road (Winnipeg to Hay River) and then floated another 1,800 kilometres by river barge all the way down the Mackenzie River to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, accomplishing what is believed to be the world’s longest-ever move of any building structure. It wasn’t always easy, and occasionally problems were encountered such as bridges too narrow for the load and highway restrictions on the movement of oversized loads; even weather became a factor at times. Still, the two-piece structure did arrive safely in Hay River, fortunately just in time to make the last barge of the 2010 shipping season.

Funds for what is now named theMidnight Sun Mosque, came from the Zubaidah Tallab Foundation, representing the Muslim community of Thompson, in Manitoba’s far North. Inuvik community member, Amier Suliman, says that, owing to the high cost of northern labour and material, the initial bids from contractors amounted to close to a half million dollars. When Zubaidah Tallab Foundation’s Dr. Hussain Guisti calculated the costs associated with purchasing a prefabricated structure from a Winnipeg manufacturer instead, he found it would, in total, still be cheaper, even after adding all long-distance shipping charges.

Shortly after the structure’s arrival at Inuvik’s port on October 22, local engineer and project manager, Ahmad Alkhalaf, oversaw its permanent installation on a double- sized lot, which the local Muslim community had pre-purchased for $90,000. A 30-foot minaret tower, constructed entirely in Inuvik, was attached to its right front corner. Fateh Allah, a Toronto carpenter, volunteered to stay on in Inuvik for another two months to help finish the building.

For many reasons, including the uniqueness of the entire project and its obvious allure as a proud new symbol in support of the Canadian multiculturalism concept, the Inuvik Muslim community mosque project attracted considerable attention from international media, along with endless comparisons to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s long-running television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Suliman is of Sudanese extraction and moved to the Arctic seeking employment. Now, 14 years later, he has married there and runs his own security company. He says before the mosque’s arrival, Inuvik Muslims worshipped communally for the previous 10 years in a 50-year-old rented trailer, measuring 9 by 14 feet and holding 25 occupants at best. Their new mosque is spacious by comparison, consisting of a main prayer hall for men and another for women that doubles as a community centre, a library donated by a list of sponsoring organizations, a full kitchen, and small dining area.

On November 10, Inuvik Muslims held an inaugural all-day open house at their new mosque, followed by a dinner at the local arena to which they invited the entire town. “It’s a small place where people know each other and see each other a lot, and the Muslim cab drivers especially get to know everybody because of their job. Lebanese and Palestinian family members of one of the town’s restaurateurs brought supplies from Edmonton and arranged a Middle Eastern dinner that 500 or 600 people attended,” recalls Nilufer Rahman. “The day was filled with a lot of emotion. It was refreshing to see so many grown men cry,” she later wrote. One visitor travelled to the opening from as far away as Dubai, bringing with him a luxurious carpet for the mosque.

Muslims traditionally pray five times a day, including before sunrise (iftar) and after sunset (maghrib). But the prayer schedules of Arctic Muslims involve different lighting conditions, since 24 hours of sunlight accompany Arctic summers and only a sliver of sun appears briefly around noon in Arctic winters. Because their community is linguistically and culturally diverse, they hold services in both Arabic and English. In total, they have some 80 members with origins in such diverse places as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Somalia, Croatia, Pakistan, and Burma. Their future plans include summer religion and Arabic classes for the approximately 14 children of member families.

Nilufer and her sister, Saira Rahman, are Winnipeg filmmakers and the hijab-wearing daughters of Bangladeshi parents. After Dr. Guisti asked the sisters to produce a documentary film about Inuvik’s Midnight Sun Mosque, the two young women travelled twice to the community to film critical episodes and people connected to the building over a five-week period.

“In Inuvik we’re very much like a microcosm of Canada, very diverse and multicultural,” says Inuvik’s Newfoundland-born mayor, Denny Rodgers. “We’re an Aboriginal community first, one-third Inuvialuit and one-third Gwich’in, but we also have a large community of people from different regions of Canada and around the world.”

While in Inuvik, the Rahman sisters report observing similarities between aboriginal and Muslim culture, including respect for the environment, elders, extended family, and sharing. “We also found that Inuvik’s Muslims were quite a mixed bag in terms of culture, language, religious practices, and livelihood,” says Nilufer Rahman. “Quite a few are originally from Sudan, but one gentleman of Albanian descent has been in Inuvik for almost 40 years and is likely one of the area’s first Muslims.

Syed Ali belongs to the Muslim community in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital (population 6184). Trained as a mechanical engineer, Ali retired early from his commission as a Colonel in the Pakistani army to immigrate to Canada. He is Chief Boiler Inspector for the Nunavut Government.

“Our community in Iqaluit has about seven families with children whose parents work for government, but most of the other Muslims are transients,” he explains. “At any given time there are maybe 50 or 60 additional individuals from different countries, but it’s hard for us to get together. Ali continues: “One of my passions is to do something to help the Muslim community, so in 2009, I incorporated the Islamic Society of Nunavut as a non-profit organization. Its goal is to establish prayers among Muslims living in Nunavut.

Saira Rahman concludes: “The Inuvik mosque provides an opportunity to examine questions of how people view their place in the world and how home communities are formed. Its Muslim community is so small and diverse. They all share the same space and same fundamental beliefs, yet differ in language, culture and practice.”

“The new mosque is a nice addition to the community,” enthuses Rodgers. “Except for a symbol on top, the old trailer had nothing to distinguish it. But now the minaret tower is lit up all the time. At night it’s quite spectacular. We’re already known for the Igloo [Roman Catholic] Church, but now the mosque provides another feature to help us attract quality professionals to move here, bring their families, and become part of the community.”