April 24 is a day of deeply felt and often turbulent emotions, say members of the Canadian Armenian community.
Designated Armenian Genocide Memorial Day, it brings back tortured memories of a painful past mingled with a sense of gratitude for their survival as individuals, and as a nation with a distinct identity.
It brings to the surface a yearning for the world’s, and particularly Turkey’s, recognition of the genocidal campaign that began on that date in 1915 during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. In the years that followed, over one million Armenians were slaughtered for no other reason than their ethnicity and religion.
“The day means so much to us,” said Ann Cavoukian of Toronto in an interview. “Every year when we went to church, families shared memories of the atrocities that the older generations endured, and of their survival.”
The story of the Cavoukian family’s survival is nothing short of miraculous.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for my brilliant grandfather,” said Cavoukian, sister of the famous children’s songwriter and singer Raffi. Another brother is the well-known photographer Onnig Cavoukian, whose subjects included Queen Elizabeth II and Pierre Trudeau.
“We were of course delighted when Canada recognized the Armenian genocide in 2004, but it would mean so much if Turkey did the same,” she added. Turkey has never admitted it, and even keeps it (the myth that it never happened) alive,” she continued.
For Cavoukian and other Armenians around the world, the memories of the genocide are not the stuff of myths or legends but are deeply rooted in the reality of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives.
“My grandfather was a painter. On the eve of April 24, 1915, the day when Armenians in the Ottoman Turkish empire were rounded up and executed or marched off to death by starvation in the Syrian desert, he painted a portrait. By the light of a candle that my grandmother held up, he etched on parchment a charcoal drawing of Enver Pasha.”
Pasha was an Ottoman military commander, and one of the chief perpetrators of the genocide that eventually massacred a significant portion of the region’s Christian population:1.5 million Armenians, 350,000 Greeks and 300,000 Assyrian/Syriacs.
“The next day, just minutes before he was about to be executed, a soldier came galloping by on horseback with my grandfather’s portrait of Enver Pasha and demanded to know who had painted it,” Cavoukian said.
When her grandfather claimed ownership, the execution order was stayed and he was released.
The Cavoukian family has never stopped giving thanks to God for their miraculous survival.
“My grandfather later visited the Armenian church in Jerusalem and, at the request of the Archbishop, restored the frescoes as an act of gratitude for his narrow escape,” she said.
Asked how the legacy of genocide survival has shaped her life, Cavoukian replied that it has instilled in her and her family an extraordinary sense of the sanctity of life and drive to excel in everything they did.
Her own career and the accomplishments of her siblings are a testament to that. Ann served as Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner from 1997 to 2014 and was later appointed distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.
On the other hand, it leaves a deep-seated longing for justice and a recognition of the genocide by governments and individuals, she said.
Turkey’s denial is still an open wound for her and other Armenians.
“Just before the pandemic, after a seminar I had taught, a Turkish-Canadian student came up to me and apologized for what his country had done to my people,” Ann said. “It meant so much to me.”
But genocide recognition at an official level is difficult to achieve because it brings realpolitik into play, says Sarkis Assadourian, former Liberal MP for Don Valley North, and later for Brampton Centre. The first Armenian Canadian to be elected to Canada’s parliament, Assadourian was born in Aleppo, Syria, to genocide survivor parents
He is acutely aware of the obstacles facing official recognition, not only from Turkey, but also from Canada and other NATO allies of Turkey.
“Recognition by Canada and other nations brings a degree of emotional satisfaction but politically the fight goes on,” he, told Convivium in an interview.
Assadourian was instrumental in getting the Armenian genocide recognition resolution passed in Canada’s Parliament in 2004. He recalled how motions introduced every year for nine consecutive years prior to 2004 were defeated.
“It always met with much resistance from Foreign Affairs,” he said, adding that it was because of Canada’s interest in selling nuclear weapons to Turkey.
But persistence paid off and finally, on April 25, 2004, the motion, introduced by the Bloc Québécois, was passed by an overwhelming majority of 153 to 68.
For Assadourian it was the end of a long, hard-fought political campaign. He was moved to tears.
Kyle Matthews, Executive Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies agrees that genocide recognition is of more than symbolic importance.
“It’s not a magic bullet that solves all problems, but lack of recognition is justice denied. And when it is recognized, it gives (survivors) hope,” he said. “It’s part of the healing process, and they can move forward.”
Matthews pointed out that while the consensus among scholars is that the Armenian genocide did indeed take place, the issue of Turkey’s denial, and other nations’ reluctance to recognize is complicated by several factors: Turkey’s nationalism that sees its ethnocultural minorities as enemy aliens, its fear of having to pay reparations, and its membership in the NATO alliance.
Assadourian concurs with Matthews’ point that Turkey’s NATO membership continues to obstruct recognition by other countries.
NATO partners are still in the grip of the Cold War mentality when Turkey was seen as a bulwark against Russian aggression, he said.
Two other Canadian Armenians who are currently in Armenia point out that recognition alone is not enough.
Haik Kazarian of Montreal and Eline Alina Sarkisian of Toronto are currently engaged in humanitarian relief work in Armenia after the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war ended in a crushing defeat for Armenia.
“Recognizing the genocide is good, but Canada should take a more active role in standing by its humanitarian values,” Sarkisian said, adding that Canada should have immediately stopped the sale of arms to Turkey—arms that were sent to Azerbaijan and used in the war against Armenia.
“Personally, I am very grateful and proud that Canada did not succumb to Ankara’s pressure,” said Kazarian, referring to Canada’s genocide recognition resolution of 2004.
“But having said that, Armenia is inconsequential to Canada while Turkey is a NATO ally, and that’s why Canada was slow to stop arms sales to Turkey during the recent war,” he added.
“As in every year, large groups around the world will march to commemorate the genocide,” Kazarian noted. “But as long as Turkey continues to deny it, and is not held accountable, nothing will change, and more genocides will occur in the future. But if Turkey is held accountable, other leaders around the world will think twice before repeating this crime against humanity.”
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