Posted on September 2, 2010

A Little Mosque’s Big Journey, From Winnipeg to Inuvik

Patrick White, Globe and Mail (Toronto), September 2, 2010

By the time it reaches Inuvik, the prefab mosque strapped to Kevin Anderson’s truck will have earned a place in the record books–even before the first worshippers pass through its door.

The stout structure will become the most northerly mosque in North America–and possibly the world–as well as the focus of what’s believed to be the world’s longest building move.

That significance is likely lost on motorists dodging Mr. Anderson’s 30-foot-wide load as he diesels slowly past farms outside Selkirk, Man. A small alcove, or mihrab, juts from the rear of the cargo, destined soon to face Mecca rather than canola fields and cattle herds. But there is little else to indicate that this single haul represents so much to so many: the aggregate religious ambitions of an Arctic community’s Muslims, the changing spiritual mores of Canada’s North and a major logistical pain in the neck.

Three weeks from now, roughly 100 Muslim worshippers in Inuvik, NWT, are expected to pray at the building, thankful for a sturdy replacement for the 50-year-old trailer they currently use. The mosque’s journey will take it from Winnipeg to Edmonton, then north to Hay River, where a barge will float it toward the shores of the Mackenzie Delta, home to Inuvik’s 3,600 residents. “In Islam, to build a house of worship, the reward is a castle in paradise,” said Hussain Guisti, the man who’s single-minded vision has propelled the project. “To do that we are doing like Star Trek and going where nobody has gone before.”

It’s one more example of Canada’s crumbling religious frontiers. The country’s Muslims–long seen as an urban population–are migrating to smaller resource towns in search of boomtown riches and a better quality of life. The Muslim population of the Northwest Territories alone is growing at a rate of 300 per cent every decade, according the latest Statistics Canada numbers. And Islamic groups in Timmins, Prince George and Whitehorse are all in various stages of mosque construction.

But Dr. Guisti and the small charity he helped start three years ago with the modest goal of building a mosque in Thompson, Man., decided to aim higher–in latitudinal terms at least.

After the Zubaidah Tallab Foundation successfully erected the Thompson mosque, Dr. Guisti went looking for high-profile projects. Inuvik was a perfect fit.

“The opportunity to help make Islamic history played a big part in it,” he said.

The foundation researched building a mosque in Inuvik from scratch, but cost estimates ran over $550,000. Dr. Guisti found they could save $200,000 by having a Winnipeg company construct a prefab building and then haul the structure by road and river.

They had to design a building short enough to avoid power lines and bridges and design a course that avoided major highways.

“It’s one hell of a route,” said Mr. Anderson, the truck driver, from his cab. “We have to add a good 500 kilometres to the trip just taking less busy back roads.”

Mr. Anderson hopes to reach Hay River next week, just in time for a barge to tote the mosque to Inuvik by Sept. 24. That’s where Ahmad Alkhalaf, project manager on the Inuvik end, will pluck the mosque from the barge and place it on two lots the local Muslim community purchased in 2008.

“It’s really quite an honour to be part of this,” he said. “Currently during Ramadan we get so many people coming to the trailer that we have to rent a community hall. It’s a problem. The mosque will fix that.”

And while the faith of Manitoba Muslims has erected an unlikely building, it has yet to pay for it.

“We’re still short about $75,000,” said Dr. Guisti. “But I have confidence in God. He’s come through thus far.”