OTTAWA — The Aga Khan returned Tuesday to Ottawa to unveil the new headquarters of an international organization that is positioning itself as an antidote of sorts to growing strains of populism and intolerance around the world.
Board members of the Global Centre for Pluralism, including former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, singled out the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House as something that makes the centre's work even more relevant.
"We have to keep a very careful eye on not only the countries that have a history of turmoil but also on places like the United States, where the rule of law is being flouted by the president," said Clarkson.
"It is terrifying to see that on a daily basis, and think, how is that going to work out in the end because it's such an important power — it's a great country."
Board member Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, singled out Trump for blaming foreigners for taking American jobs "and other bad things," and for deceiving unemployed Americans in the rust belt that he can revive the coal industry to create jobs.
"When you don't do that and you lie to them, I worry what happens (the) next time they realize they've been deceived," said Annan.
Controversy hovered over the Ottawa appearance of the Aga Khan, a wealthy philanthropist and hereditary spiritual leader to the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims. He gave Justin Trudeau a controversial helicopter ride to his private island in the Bahamas over the Christmas holidays, something the opposition continued to press the prime minister on during question period on Tuesday.
The 80-year-old Aga Khan kept the focus on the opening of the new pluralism centre — part think tank, part advocacy group — on a renovated piece of prime Ottawa real estate on Sussex Drive.
John McNee, secretary general of the centre, declined comment on the helicopter controversy, saying: "That's not a matter for the Global Centre for Pluralism."
The Conservatives have loudly condemned Trudeau for the trip, which they say violated the Conflict of Interest Act. They are demanding to know more about an ongoing investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.
A former aide to Stephen Harper says the Conservative ex-prime minister was hopeful none of that would overshadow the opening of the new pluralism centre headquarters, or its core mandate of promoting diversity in a troubled world.
"He's hugely supportive of it," said Rachel Curran, who served as Harper's policy director. "He's always thought the Aga Khan was one of the leading voices in the world for the promotion of peace and pluralism."
She said the helicopter controversy reflects more on Trudeau than the Aga Khan.
"I don't think it will reflect on the work of the centre or the Aga Khan's work . . . It's a distraction for sure."
Harper, who gave the Aga Khan honorary Canadian citizenship, visited his resplendent Ismaili Centre in Dubai in January and said in a tweet that it reminded him of "what a tremendous force for global peace and pluralism the Aga Khan is."
Trudeau, meanwhile, has said the Aga Khan is a longtime family friend, dating back to the early 1970s when his father, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, gave sanctuary to Ismaili Muslims fleeing Ugandan despot Idi Amin.
"Liberal and Conservative prime ministers have all readily responded to the Aga Khan's interest in promoting pluralism in the world, drawing on Canada's experience," said McNee.
The centre is set up as a registered non-profit and had been operating since 2011 out of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, the Aga Khan Foundation's building also on Sussex Drive.
McNee said some of its previous activities have included keynote events featuring the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and the architect of South Africa's post-apartheid constitution.
That's just a taste of what's to come in the centre's new home, which used to house Canada's war museum, said McNee.
There will be more speeches and public discussions, and research papers have been commissioned on the diversity challenges in places such as Bolivia, Singapore and India. There will also be a $50,000 Global Pluralism Award for an international advocate of human rights and "inclusion," said McNee.