On the Town with Shinan: His Highness the Aga Khan smiles his way through Toronto festivities

By Shinan Govani

His Highness the Aga Khan with former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Photo: Tom Sandler

“Have you met His Highness?” Adrienne Clarkson asked me.

I had not.

Taking my arm, the former Governor General made the intro to the 78-year-old Aga Khan inside the handsome, months-old museum of Islamic art that flaunts his name, on the outskirts of downtown Toronto. A small reception was stewing around us the other night and, on either side, varied security detail stood on guard, eagle-beaked. It's not every day one meets one of the wealthiest aristocrats in the world – a man known for his collection of estates and horses as much as his extreme philanthropy and liaising between eastern and western civilizations. The entire encounter may have easily felt as stiff as a scene out of an E.M. Forster novel, but I was enlivened by the royal's crinkly smile. Photos do not do it justice. In person, it's the smile of a child, an enthusiasm only boyish in form – remarkable, considering that this is a man who has been doing endless meets-and-greets for five-plus decades, and at the tender age of 20 became the hereditary leader to the worldwide Ismaili Muslim flock.

The Aga Khan Museum at night. Photo: Tom Sandler

Asking a little bit about me, the Aga Khan then expressed some contentment about the project that had reached fruition here in Canada. This seminal building we were in now, courtesy of Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, is tied together with the Ismaili Centre across way, conjured up by Indian architect Charles Correa, and forged together by a formal park designed by Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. Describing the three-act production, courtesy of three different architects, the Aga Khan said it was “like molecules coming together.” The chemistry just worked.

The reception we were at marked the end of various commitments in Canada. The magnate – who was born in Geneva, raised in Nairobi, educated at Harvard, and has as his nerve centre now Aiglemont, outside of Paris – had come to Toronto mainly to inaugurate the park. While in these parts, he also enjoyed a formal meeting with the Premier of Ontario and, in Ottawa, caught up with Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. Justin, alas, is someone the Aga Khan has know since he was a tot, His Highness having been very good friends with his late father, Pierre Trudeau. (Such good friends that he actually served as one of the pallbearers at Pierre's funeral, in 2000!)

His Highness the Aga Khan and Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin. Photo: Tom Sandler

The occasion for Thursday night's gathering, by the way? The unspooling of the annual brains-meet that is the Annual Pluralism Lecture, organized by the Global Centre for Pluralism. This year's heavy-duty speaker was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin, and it was an event that had brought out many legal birdies, plus society duos like Scott and Krystyne Griffin, Globe & Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley, former CEO of Rogers Nadir Mohamed and the the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi.

The pre-reception led to the lecture, which later flowed into a smaller post-reception. At the latter, I noted two things: one, there were big glasses of Mango lassi (Indian-style smoothies!) circulating, and two, the Aga Khan never stopped smiling.

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