By Abdulmalik Merchant
I first met Mr. John Nuraney on the opening day of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building in Ottawa on Saturday, December 6, 2008, just a week before the Golden Jubilee Celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan came to an end on December 13. As a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia he had been invited for the opening ceremony of the magnificent building on Sussex Drive. That evening Ismailis offered their prayers at Lansdowne Park, and Mr. Nuraney was present there along with several institutional leaders of the Ismaili community. I had never met him before, and I simply recognized him as a leader because of where he was seated. I only found out who he was after introducing myself to him. His humility struck me. He gave me his card and when I told him I wanted to interview him by sending him a few questions, he was very supportive. I quickly composed some questions and sent them to his offices. He responded to all the questions without delay.
Now, with his passing at the age of 79, we share below excerpts from the written interview that he so graciously took the time to answer. At the same time, we extend our condolences to his family and friends.
Whenever someone passes away, in the Islamic tradition we offer a profound and meaningful verse from the Holy Qur’an that says “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” which means, “We surely belong to God and to Him we shall return.” May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Simerg’s Interview with John Nuraney
“The celebration of the [Aga Khan’s] Golden Jubilee itself and the events leading up to it were moments that will always be remembered by us all. I was also fortunate to attend the Deedar in Los Angles with my family and I came away with the impression that regardless of where Ismailis celebrated this auspicious occasion the sense of togetherness and love for the Imam were overwhelming.” — John Nuraney, in interview with Simerg
Simerg: It was a pleasure meeting you after the opening of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat building in Ottawa which you attended. What were your thoughts as you attended the opening ceremony in the presence of His Highness the Aga Khan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada?
John Nuraney (JN): It was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. The serenity of the occasion was something to behold.The presence of His Highness and his family signified the importance of this building. For me it marked a true presence in Canada.
I felt that we have now “arrived”.
Simerg: Politically though it was a sensitive week and I wondered if the Prime Minister (PM) might be in a position to attend, particularly as it looked that the government might be dissolved (if I may use the term). Did you manage to have a word with the PM on that issue?
JN: No, I did not have the opportunity to speak to the PM.
Simerg: How is the Prime Minister when it comes to dealing with the province of British Columbia? Has he been receptive to the needs and aspirations of the Province? Is there constant bickering between the Provincial and Federal levels of government or do you see levels of cooperation that probably the public does not often hear about?
JN. The relationship between the Federal and British Columbia Provincial governments are very cordial. Our Premier (of British Columbia) had made a conscious decision when we got elected in 2001 that we would work in a true spirit of co-operation with our Federal counterparts, without regard to their political philosophy.
Simerg: Coming back to His Highness the Aga Khan and his Jubilee it seems your province and especially the city of Burnaby will benefit immensely from a Land that was presented to the Aga Khan to build a Park. Are you aware of any vision for the Park?
JN: The donation of a park land by the City of Burnaby was a good gesture recognizing the contribution our community has made to Burnaby. The Mayor mentioned to me that His Highness graciously accepted the offer. I have not heard of any plans yet.
Simerg: How did you personally participate in the celebration of his Golden Jubilee both in your position of being an MLA and as a member of the Ismaili community?
JN: The celebration of the Golden Jubilee was for me personally an occasion that will always be etched in my memory. I had the honour and the privilege of receiving His Highness at the airport in the company of our Lt. Governor. I also attended the luncheon hosted by our Premier and had the honour to share the table during lunch. The Deedar was again a tremendous occasion.
Simerg: Were you emotionally jubilant about the fact that you were able to celebrate 50 years of the Aga Khan’s Imamat? How did you and your family celebrate it?
JN: The celebration of the Golden Jubilee itself and the events leading up to it were moments that will always be remembered by us all. I was also fortunate to attend the Deedar in Los Angles with my family and I came away with the impression that regardless of where Ismailis celebrated this auspicious occasion the sense of togetherness and love for the Imam were overwhelming.
Simerg: Do you have any fond personal memories about the present Imam or his grandfather that you might like to share with us? What about your involvement with the Ismaili community or any of its institutions including the AKDN agencies?
JN: I have been very fortunate and blessed to have served our Jamat in various capacities. I was the Education Secretary in Mombasa, followed by being appointed the Education Administrator in Zaire (Congo) and then appointed the President of IPS – Zaire. During my term as President of IPS, I had the good fortune of several meetings with His Highness in Geneva, Paris and was invited to his home in Paris and Chantilly.
Simerg: You are of course a member of the Ismaili community but your role as MLA extends beyond the confines of the Ismaili community. Who are your constituents? Are they ethnically diverse? Did you rely on the ethnic vote to win you the election?
JN: My riding of Burnaby-Willingdon is very mixed. We have a good number of Ismailis and Indo-Canadian communities. In the last five years, the demography of my riding has changed significantly and we now have close to 40% residents of South Asian origin. My victory in both elections depended largely on the (Liberal) Party I represented and my personal involvement in the local community.
Simerg: How is your relationship with your constituents? How deeply do they get engaged with you?
JN: My relationship with my constituents, I would like to think, is very cordial. I pay particular attention to addressing the needs of my constituents and stay in touch with them on regular basis through newsletters and media.
Simerg: You have been an MLA representing the BC Liberals for six years. Public offices are challenging – you can be in it one day and out the next day? Does this worry you? What might you do if you don’t win a seat?
JN: One can never be certain whether they would be elected the next time. I am hoping to seek re-election one more time in May 2009. If I win, I will consider myself fortunate. If I lose, I will also consider myself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to serve. If I am not successful, I have several options to move forward.
Simerg: Any thoughts on moving to a Federal Party?
JN: No, I have no intention of moving to the Federal scene. I was asked in the past but I feel that I could achieve more provincially.
Simerg: You are on numerous government committees including the Multicultural Caucus Committee. What does this committee do? How is multiculturalism viewed in your province and what challenges are there to address?
JN: Being a part of Government committees is the most exciting and meaningful exercise. A good part of government work is done at committee levels and I have had the opportunity to make reasonable contribution in this regard. The concept of multiculturalism, even though well recognized, has its challenges. There is a difference between recognition and acceptance. What we are trying to strive for is the concept of pluralism where there is a deliberate and conscious effort to seek understanding across line of differences.
Simerg: The Ismaili Imam has stated time and again that there is strength in diversity and for this reason he has seen Canada as a model of a rich and vibrant society whose example can be copied else in the world. He is setting up a Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. What do Canadians have to gain from this?
JN: Canadians have achieved uniqueness in embracing diversity without conflict. It is this state of understanding which can be a tool in avoiding discords and a better acceptance of different tribal, communal, or cultural differences. The export of this ideology can be Canada’s greatest contribution to World Peace.
Simerg: Coming back to you – you are diverse in the countries you have lived in, the languages that you speak and the interests that you have. You speak several languages – which was the most difficult to grasp?
JN: The most difficult language to grasp for me was Lingala
Simerg: How did you get involved in music, especially Zairian music?
JN: My involvement with Zairian music was by accident. Decca Records of Belgium wanted to sell their business called Ecodis in Kinshasa and I bought it in 1970. This gave me access to the musicians and recording of Zairian music. This also led me to establish good relations with world music companies like Pathe Marconi in Paris, Decca Records in Brussels, and EMI in London. However, I am not now involved in the music industry.
Simerg: What are your thoughts on the South African icon Miriam Makeba who passed away not long ago?
JN: Miriam Makeba’s death touched us all. She was the first African singer who made it on the world stage.
Simerg: You are a citizen and a businessman in the truest sense. You are an entrepreneur owning several A & W restaurants and employing hundreds of people? Can you be in multiple places or does someone else run the business for you?
JN: I was extensively involved in my business until I got elected as a MLA. My son, Nick, is now managing my business.
Simerg: What’s your favourite hamburger – A & W or something else?
JN: I am biased and would say the Teen Burger is the best burger.
Simerg: How do you view the role of visible minorities in politics?
JN: Visible minorities play an important part in our political system and those who have been elected; both Provincially and Federally are doing well.
Simerg: Who is your favourite politician?
JN: My favourite Canadian politician is the late Pierre Trudeau.
Simerg: Last week I interviewed Maria Cook of the Ottawa Citizen who wrote a fascinating essay on the Delegation Building called “Essay in Glass”. When you attended the opening, what part of the building impressed you the most?
JN: The atrium of the Delegation Building is the most impressive part of the structure. It is designed after rock crystal which reflects the splendour of the Almighty in the various colors of stones embodied in it. A signature of pluralism.
Simerg: Who did you meet during the opening ceremony that intrigued you? There were ambassadors, ministers and members from the Ismaili leadership around the world?
JN: It was very interesting to meet with various High Commissioners, Ambassadors and dignitaries. It was an opportunity to renew my contact with the High Commissioner from Kenya and my conversation with the Ambassador from Afghanistan was very educational. I was also fortunate to be able to talk to His Highness and the members of His family.
Simerg: You know the Aga Khan’s late uncle, Prince Sadruddin, once said that “when youths lose dynamism, empires crumble”. What do you see of the Canadian youth today? Are they engaged in the country’s development and progress? Do you have any specific examples where youth initiatives have really encouraged and impressed you?
JN: There is no doubt that youths are our future. Their involvement in all aspects of our lives is very critical. I am impressed with their commitment to various causes.Our youth’s dedication to the cause of the Aga Khan Foundation is commendable. They are the backbone of our efforts in Canada through Partnership and Ismaili Walks. They are also cultivating values when they volunteer their time and knowledge in projects around the world.
Simerg: The US elections created widespread interest all over the world – President Obama was a factor no doubt. Did you watch the election with your family?
JN: Yes, I watched the American election. It was a historical moment when Barak Obama was elected as the first African-American President. I felt particular closeness because of his ties to Kenya.
Simerg: He did engage the younger generation? How do you see our relationship with the US during his term?
JN: I think the world politics will change because of the vision and truthfulness that he will bring to his office. His challenge will be to live up to high expectations. His success can be largely attributed to his ability to engage youths of his nation. I think we will have a very cordial relationship under his Presidency as he shares our values of peace and harmony across the world.
Simerg: As a Muslim you must be bothered about the negative stereotypes and misperceptions about this great faith. Are you concerned that things might get worse or do you see better prospects ahead?
JN: It always bothers me when Muslims are projected in the stereotypical image. It is also my belief that the leaders of our communities are working hard to correcting this misrepresentation. It is also important for us Muslims in Canada to provide correct information about our faith and live by example.
Simerg: Vancouver – nature abounds here – mountains, parks, the ocean. Can you give up this city for any other city?
JN: I consider myself blessed for living in Vancouver. It is, truly, the best place on earth.
Simerg: Are you looking forward to the Winter Olympic Games in a few months? Can you predict Canada’s medal tally?
JN: We are all looking forward to the Winter Olympics. I think Canadians will make us proud and receive unprecedented number of medals.
Simerg: Thank you.
Date posted ( with excerpts from original interview): November 25, 2016.