TORONTO — When members of the Jewish and Somali communities held a press conference last year to announce a mentorship program, Mark Persaud was there to lend his support.
Though neither Jewish nor Somali, Persaud was instrumental in bringing the two sides together in an effort to promote goodwill between two communities that, at first blush, might not be considered the most natural of allies.
Persaud, president of the Canadian International Peace Project (CIPP), an organization that fosters pluralism and inter-community relationships, said that ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he had “looked for an opportunity to bring Jews and Muslims together and build relationships at the organizational level.”
His efforts to promote inter-community goodwill will be recognized at a tribute dinner May 7, as CIPP and Friends of Mark Persaud “celebrate 25 years of exceptional contributions and public service to Canada.”
At the joint news conference, held at a west-end public school, Canadian Jewish Congress and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto joined the Canadian Somali Congress to announce the mentoring program, which will see Jewish professionals help young Somalis – potential community leaders – as they enter the workforce.
Somalis are the largest diaspora African community in Canada and they practise a moderate form of Islam, Persaud explained. Many Somalis have had contact with Jews – especially those in the legal profession – as they try to establish themselves in the country, he added.
Persaud credited Ed Morgan, former president of Canadian Jewish Congress, and James Morton, past president of the Ontario Bar Association, for laying the groundwork for the program’s ultimate success. Both are honorary patrons of the Somali Congress board.
“This is a beaker for a very interesting social experiment in seeing how far we can go to build bridges,” Persaud said. “The whole thing is cutting edge. I’m very proud of it. It shows what can happen if you bring together people of goodwill.”
One immediate spinoff of the mentoring project, which is supported by Canadian Heritage, is the desire by several Somali women and young people to give something back to the Jewish community. CIPP staff is working on a proposed project for June that would see Somalis visit seniors at the Baycrest Centre and share their foods, culture and songs. At the same time, the Somalis will hear about Jewish culture, religion and immigration experience, Persaud said.
While actual mentoring hasn’t yet begun, the program has the potential to expand to other communities. Persaud has received feelers from two influential Pakistani businessmen interested in introducing it to their community, and non-Muslims have also expressed an interest, he said.
Persaud believes building personal relationships is the key to establishing inter-community ties. Doing so seems to come easily to the Guyanese-born activist, Morgan said. “The force of his personality” is an ingredient in Persaud’s success. “He’s a very likeable guy. He’s been outspoken on the plight of visible minorities in the federal civil service,” and that drew the attention of minority groups.
“He makes a point of befriending community leaders” and he has extensive contacts in numerous cultural communities, Morgan added.
Businessman Nathan Jacobson, who hosted Persaud on a trip to Ukraine and Israel, said, “Mark Persaud is a well-intentioned, selfless and principled person. He is trying to work out of the box. He is a big supporter of Israel.”
As a youth growing up in Guyana, Persaud didn’t know any Jews. Raised in the Hindu faith, he was taught to have an open mind and to be tolerant of other religions and races.
In 1983, when he was 19, his family fled political and civil upheaval in Guyana. He came to Canada as a refugee with the equivalent of $80 in his pocket.
He attended Osgoode Hall law school and worked as a federal prosecutor for 10 years. He also served as legal counsel to the RCMP for two years, and along the way, worked in community outreach projects.
He left law and “decided to come back to this. I believe I bring a perspective and understanding that are needed in terms of building relationships to move our communities together.”
A teenage convert to Christianity, Persaud boasts a family of such diversity he could be a poster boy for multiculturalism. One of his sisters married an American and is a Protestant, another married a Muslim and is raising her children in that faith, and a third sister married an American Roman Catholic and is raising their children as Catholics.
A brother married an African-American Christian, and Persaud is so close to several American Jews, he considers them his siblings.
“In my family we have Hindus, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, blacks, whites and browns,” he said.
“The fluff of multiculturalism” – the songs and dances – doesn’t interest him so much as its substance, which means “bringing friends, family, together with a deeper appreciation of other peoples.”
The legal aspects of multiculturalism – the laws which mandate it – “have their usefulness, but we’re reached the point where we have to move beyond the traditional role of multiculturalism to integration and communities working together to build a stronger Canada,” he said.