History of the Bahá’í Community of Canada
The Bahá’í Community of Canada dates from 1898 when Edith Magee, a youth from London, Ontario, became the first Canadian member of the Bahá’í Faith. In 1902 the first Bahá’í group was formed by May and William Sutherland Maxwell in Montreal.
William Sutherland Maxwell 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, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Church of the Messiah, and many fine residences in Montreal. His wife, May Maxwell, was one of the early Western Bahá’ís when William Sutherland Maxwell met her in Paris in the 1890s.
In 1912, the small band of believers that formed around the Maxwells had the honour of receiving ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son and appointed successor of the Founder of the Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, during his tour of North America. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s addresses at the Church of the Messiah and St. James Methodist Church, at the Trades Union headquarters on St. Lawrence Street, and at the Maxwell’s home on Pine Avenue attracted widespread attention from both the press and the public. His talks touched on subjects of economic justice, world peace, and social cohesion. The Maxwell home where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed is today the only Bahá’í Shrine in the western hemisphere.
Following ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to Canada, one by one, small Bahá’í communities took root in major urban centres and then in towns and villages throughout the country. Today, there are over 260 organized Bahá’í communities in all parts of Canada, with elected administrative institutions, called Local Spiritual Assemblies, supporting them. Bahá’ís live in 1200 localities in Canada. Membership represents a cross-section of Canada’s population in general, although nearly one-sixth of the elected Assemblies are on Indian reserves.
Among the Canadians that were attracted to the Bahá’í Faith in its first few decades here were Montreal industrialist Siegfried Schopflocher, prominent Toronto business executive John Robarts, and Royal Ontario Museum curator George Spendlove.
Canada and the Bahá’í Faith
The relationship between Canada and the Bahá’í Faith has been a particularly happy one. The Canadian Parliament was the first sovereign legislature to formally recognize the Faith by incorporating its governing institution, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, by a special Act in 1949, one year after the formation of that national Bahá’í institution.
Canadian Bahá’í architects Sutherland Maxwell and Louis Bourgeois designed two of most important buildings in the Bahá’í world respectively, the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel and the North American House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, the "mother temple" of the Bahá’í Faith.
The Faith’s leading international dignitary was Madame Rúhíyyih Rabbani, the former Mary Maxwell of Montreal, who was married to Shoghi Effendi, the great grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and Head of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 to 1957. Her passing in January 2000 was reported on in major Canadian newspapers such as the National Post, Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, and Toronto Star, as well as the New York Times.
The remarkable architectural contribution of Canadian Bahá’ís continued in the last decades of the twentieth century when Hossein Amanat, a Vancouver architect, designed the seat of the Universal House of Justice at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, along with several of the other principal administrative buildings there. Toronto resident Fariborz Sahba managed the enormous construction project that extended and completed the Bahá’í World Centre complex, designing the magnificent garden terraces that cascade down the side of Mount Carmel. Sahba had previously designed the famous "Lotus Temple," the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, India, reported by CNN to be now receiving the largest number of visitors of any building in the world, drawing more people than either the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower. Currently, work is about to proceed on a House of Worship in Chile, which will serve as the "Mother Temple" in South America. The architect is another Canadian Bahá’í, Siamak Hariri of Toronto.
In the 1980s, following the Iranian Revolution, which brought the fundamentalist Islamic regime to power in that country, the Canadian Government made it possible for a few thousand Bahá’í refugees to settle in Canada and has since been outspoken in defence of the persecuted Bahá’í community in Iran, having co-sponsored resolutions condemning those persecutions for more than 12 consecutive years at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and at the General Assembly of the U.N.
The Bahá’í Community of Canada has collaborated with CIDA on a number of social and economic development projects overseas. The community has made several submissions to the Canadian government in recent years, including the MacDonald Economic Commission, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Review in 1994/5 and the Foreign Policy Dialogue in 2003, and to the National Plan of Action for Children. Local Bahá’í communities have also been active in providing input at a variety of municipal hearings and public conferences.
Developments in recent years in the Bahá’í Community of Canada include the opening of the Office of Governmental Relations in Ottawa, which is housed at the Centre for Bahá’í Studies on the University of Ottawa campus, active annual conferences of the Bahá’í Medical Association of Canada, and the opening of the Bahá’í Office for the Advancement of Women in Quebec City.
In addition to Bahá’í properties owned by the Bahá’í Community of Canada in Quebec City, Ottawa, the Prairies, the West Coast, and the Arctic, the Bahá’í National Centre, with a full-time staff of more than 25, is situated in Markham, on the border of Toronto. There are several local Bahá’í Centres in major cities, smaller towns, and native settlements or reserves across Canada.