Parsis still sweetening rich Canadian diversity
Parsis still sweetening rich Canadian diversity, like sugar in milk
One small community that has continued to punch way above its weight and even today sweetens the rich cultural diversity that is India is the Parsi community. And just as Indians started immigrating to Canada, so did some of India’s Parsi community — and they continue to sweeten the fabric of Indo-Canadian society, and of the wider Canadian mosaic.
In India, the Parsis need little introduction. But Canadians may not know their unique history as well.
For nearly 13 centuries, Parsis have remained one of the most unique South Asian communities. Deriving their name from their ancestral links to Persia or present-day Iran, Parsis are followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions of the world, predating both Christianity and Islam.
Once the dominant religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism came under threat following the Arab invasion of Iran in 641 AD. Religious persecution and forced conversions (to Islam) forced a small group of Zoroastrians to flee to Gujarat, India in the late eighth century. They settled mostly in the Bombay (now Mumbai) region and created a distinctive identity.
In the late 1960s, some members of the Parsi community started moving to Canada. Currently, their numbers in this country range anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000, with the greatest concentration being in the GTA. With the Parsi Navroze or New Year celebrated earlier this year (March 21), we spoke to some members of the community to reflect on their life in Canada, traditions, achievements and challenges.
The Zoroastrian Society of Ontario was the first institution built by the Parsi community in the 1970s. However, over the decades, “as the community grew, there was a need to build a bigger place or another community centre. So the newer immigrants who came settled in the west end, and as a result, it was decided to start a new community centre because everyone couldn’t be accommodated in one small hall. A group of 10-12 people got together and bought the piece of land which is now the Ontario Zoroastrian Community Foundation (OZCF),” says Havovi Bharda, an OZCF board member.
Nilloufer Bhesania’s father was among those earliest Parsis to arrive in Toronto in 1967. The job market wasn’t as competitive as it is today, and he secured a position with Revenue Canada within a week of his arrival. Being a small community, Parsis were very well-knit at that time. Says Bhesania, “My parents were very active in the Zoroastrian community. In fact, many Parsis called my parents as soon as they landed and my parents assisted them in finding a place to stay.”