The Origins of the Bahá'í Community of Canada, 1898-1948
Author: Will C. van den Hoonaard
Published by: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1996
Pages: xii + 356, 39 b&w photos. ISBN: 0-88920-272-9. Cloth cover: $39.95
Review by Moojan Momen.
Dr Will van den Hoonaard has, from the evidence of this book,
been researching the history of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada for
at least ten years. This research has resulted in several
papers including "The Bahá'ís in Canada: A Study in the
Transplantation of Non-Western Religious Movements to Western
Societies," in Arc: The Journal of the Faculty of Religious
(McGill University) 24 (1996), pp. 97-118. The
culmination of this research is the present book.
This book is concerned with two main themes: the historical
development of the Bahá'í Faith in Canada and a sociological
analysis of the Canadian Bahá'í community. With regard to the
first theme, Prof. van den Hoonaard describes the origins of
the Canadian Bahá'í community among ex-patriot or visiting
Canadians who came into contact with the growing Bahá'í
community in Chicago in the last few years of the Nineteenth
Century. Several of the most colourful characters who became
Bahá'ís in the early years of Kheiralla's teaching were
Canadians. These included Paul Dealy, an inventor and
engineer, devoted to social and economic issues, and Honore
Jackson, a "dreamer and visionary" who had championed the
cause of the Canadian Metis (mixed-race individuals). Mrs.
Kate C. Ives, the first woman born in North America to become
a Bahá'í, was of Canadian ancestry.
It was, however, the Magee family who are credited with
bringing the Bahá'í Faith to Canada. Edith Magee became a
Bahá'í in 1898 in Chicago and returned to her home in London,
Ontario, where four other female members of her family became
Bahá'ís (22-4). This predominance of women converts became a
feature of the Canadian Bahá'í community, as indeed of most
religious movements in the West.
The next important event in Canadian Bahá'í history was the
arrival in Montreal of May Maxwell in 1902. Her enthusiasm and
social connections enabled her to establish a mainly upper
class Bahá'í community in Montreal (36-7). Among these early
Montreal Bahá'ís were a number of interesting characters,
including Dr. Rose Henderson, one of the first women in Canada
to obtain a PhD and an ardent feminist and social reformer
Prof. van den Hoonaard asserts that it was the visit of
`Abdu'l-Bahá to Montreal in 1912 that fused the disparate
group of individuals in Canada into a community (43).
Communities arose over the next few years in Toronto and
Vancouver. Although these communities had a fragile and
tentative existence for several years, they eventually became
After the departure of May Maxwell for South America in 1939
and of other prominent Bahá'ís from Montreal, Toronto overtook
that city as the foremost Bahá'í community on Canada. Here,
there was a dynamic community with several Bahá'í "firesides"
being held each week and other social activities such as a
Bahá'í businessman's club (211-3).
The final event covered in this book began with the election
of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of
Canada in 1948, Canada having previously have a joint National
Spiritual Assembly with the United States.
Prof. van den Hoonaard points out the importance for the
expansion of the Bahá'í community of such features as the
summer schools where a Bahá'í identity could be forged; the
enrollment of whole families in some communities such as
Hamilton where there was a high rate of growth; and the work
of travelling teachers in keeping contacts with the wider
Bahá'í community open.
Apart from this broad historical sweep of the events of Bahá'í
history, Prof. van den Hoonaard, as a sociologist is also much
concerned with the social structure of the Canadian Bahá'í
community. He analyses the data that he has managed to
collect, giving information in Chapter 13, for example, on the
gender, class, ethnicity and religious background of the
community. He finds that more women than men became Bahá'ís
(68:32 in 1947); that the initial upper class predominance was
replaced by a lower-middle predominance by the 1940s; and that
the community was predominantly from an Anglo-Saxon (78%)
Protestant (75%) background, with a marked under-
representation of the francophone (3%) Catholic (12%)
population of Canada. His findings are summarised in his
statement that a typical Canadian Bahá'í in the early 1940s,
would be a white single woman telephone operator, of
Protestant background, living in a big city (231).
The analysis presented in this book leaves a few questions
unanswered. If one looks at the table in Appendix C, that
summarises much of the statistical information that the author
has derived, one sees that he has analysed the growth of the
Bahá'í Faith in the fifteen largest Bahá'í communities in
Canada. If one looks at the figure for "All other"
communities, however, one finds that this figure has grown
almost faster than any individual community in the table.
Unfortunately, almost no information is given about what this
"All other" communities represents. It would have been
interesting to know, for example, if this category represents
mainly small scale growth in other large cities or growth in
rural areas. Indeed, rural areas are only occasionally
mentioned in the book. This neglect may, of course, be because
there was little or no Bahá'í activity in rural Canada or
because the author was unable to determine whether there was
any such activity. Either way, it would have been interesting
to know. In the statistical tables, it would also have been
interesting to have been provided with comparative figures for
the Canadian population as a whole in order to compare this
with the Bahá'í population. This is only done in one table for
ethnic groups (p. 245).
In all, Prof. van den Hoonaard has produced a book that I am
sure will be considered for many years to come, not only as
the standard history of the Canadian Bahá'í community but also
as a model for anyone wishing to produce a history of any
Bahá'í community or indeed of any religious movement. As the
author points out in his Introduction (5), most histories of
modern religious movements have tended to be ahistorical
snapshots of movements. Taking a view of fifty years of the
Bahá'í Faith in Canada allows the author to examine such
questions as the process of the adaptation of the religion to
its Canadian environment, the effects of wider social events
and movements on the development and expansion of the Bahá'í
community, and the extent and manner in which minority groups
have been integrated into the Bahá'í community.