I am a Canadian of Armenian ancestry.
A Canadian who has, at times, struggled with her heritage. A multi-layered heritage born of an insidious act, that weighs on me.
Most Armenians living in diasporas around the world proudly identify themselves as Armenians. Solely so. Some might add Canadian, or American, or French, or any other nationality their family adopted as part of their emigration. But, the majority of Armenians were raised to fiercely nurture and preserve their Armenian culture and Christian Orthodox religion, and more importantly to teach it’s history to the next generation.
A history that includes the twentieth century’s first genocide.
A genocide inflicted upon 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish Ottomans commencing in 1915.
With Pope Francis’ public acknowledgement last week, the world at large is aware on a grander scale of both the genocide and of its upcoming one hundredth year anniversary on Friday, April 24th. It must be said that Turkey does not admit to nor recognize that a genocide took place, preferring to state that there were deaths on both sides as a consequence of the First World War. You can read Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement here, made on the eve of April 24, 2014.
I am curious what term my readers would use when 1.5 million citizens of a nation of two million, disappears.
I’m not going to present a historical recounting of the Armenian genocide. There are scholars far more adept than I could ever be in this subject area. If you would like to read about it further, there are many online sites that provide documented details as well as newspaper articles, including those found in the Toronto Star recently, about its context, and it’s affects on subsequent generations.
I was raised with stories of my grandparents’ escape from Armenia through Egypt to Canada. For some reason I don’t recall the actual genocide being so defining to our lives in my earlier years. More time was accorded to tales of our extended families’ years in Egypt, a country that accepted many Armenian orphans after the genocide.
Raised in Canada from the time I was a toddler, I spent more time outside, than inside, the Armenian community, creating friendships with kids and teammates of all backgrounds. Dinner conversations at home were more likely to include Trudeau, geopolitics, our day’s activities, extended family news or anything sports-related.
My personal struggle with my Armenian heritage stems from a time when the public at large previously heard references to the Armenian genocide. Starting in the early 1970s, several Turkish diplomats were killed, including one in Ottawa in 1982. I was a young teenager who played basketball weekly at the community centre frequented by one of those charged with killing the Turkish diplomat to Canada. I didn’t know him personally, but still couldn’t quite come to terms with the accusation that someone there had been involved.
Although many pointed to Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Armenian Genocide as an explanation for the killings, I never supported the use of violence as a means of retribution or in forcing the world to acknowledge the genocide. I was mortified that a killing had taken place, at the depth of the anger leading to the decision to kill another, and that it had been at the hands of another Armenian.
In my mind, there was no plausible justification. Something I spent years reiterating to any non-Armenians with raised eyebrows when they learned of my ancestry.
This vantage point put me at odds with some Armenians who defended the actions of those who had killed.
After the incidences against the Turkish diplomats, I distanced myself emotionally, intellectually and physically from most things Armenian. Outside of extended family, in all my interactions with friends, fellow students, eventual colleagues, strangers, and acquaintances, I was clear in the order of nation to which I ascribed my fealty.
Canada was the country where I was raised. Its flag and anthem were and are my flag and anthem. Canada’s rights and equality were my rights, my equality. The promise of the maple leaf palpated to my core.
I never felt that same pull from Armenia.
I understood that even with a strong penchant for higher education and professionalism within Armenian communities, theirs was often a closed community. The need to be insular, the hesitation of marrying “others” came from an innate need, a hunger really, to propagate a peoples another attempted to eradicate. Especially so as the diasporas were scattered around the world. Marrying “others” would only serve to dilute Armenianism.
I understood and admired the values born from having only religion to guide one’s survival as the abject horrors of persecution unfolded. The values that helped the orphans and those who had left Armenia prior to 1915 (re)build their lives in diasporas around the world with one foot still in Armenia.
My maternal grandmother, Rose Balayan, was one of those orphaned during the Armenian Genocide. Born in Sis sometime around 1912-1913, she survived the genocide and was transported from orphanage to orphanage, even temporarily reunited with a girl who presented herself as her older sister. It was that sister who told her of her brief life history and of her Armenian heritage.
Circumstances separated the two sisters, and set my grandmother on a path from Turkey to Greece to Egypt, where she finally settled. It is said her sister ended up in Argentina, but the sisters sadly never laid eyes on each other again.
In Egypt, with the help of a British couple, she pursued her education while caring for the couple’s children. She met my grandfather, whose family also fled the Armenian genocide, got married, had two daughters and was widowed by the time she was in her early thirties.
She raised those two daughters, my mother Mary and my aunt Margaret, on her own through very trying times. After both daughters were married, she joined them in a move to Canada in 1966 to begin the next chapter of her remarkable life, and remained here until she passed.
My grandmother was my hero. She helped shape me into who I am today. Her three other grandchildren will tell you the same.
Standing barely five feet tall, she spoke several languages and had a particular affinity for all things British, including all things proper, because of the couple who had been instrumental in her life. She worked hard until she retired in her sixties.
For a woman of such small stature, Grandma was a formidable, yet calming presence who cherished, above all else, her family, honesty, helping those less fortunate, and her faith in God.
She was also a no-nonsense lady who lived simply. While she shared many stories of her childhood, they were never told from the perspective of a victim. She never knew her parents nor her brothers, yet not once do I recall her using that as an excuse for any outcome in her life. Those stories were used as teachable moments that all her grandchildren absorbed and helped build the foundation of our characters.
I do sometimes wonder if my grandfather had lived longer, what impact that might have had on her nature, her independence, her wants. Would she have pursued a different line of work? Would she have made a living as an artisan, selling her gorgeous handmade clothing, needlelace and embroideries.
I felt strongly, in her honour, that this year, the hundredth year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I would reconsider my former misgivings and reflect deeper on our cultural history. To look back despite my propensity to look ahead.
A Consciousness Awakens
I immersed myself in reading about several Armenian families’ stories. From the generation that escaped the clutches of the genocide to the ways in which their children and grandchildren were impacted by missing family members. How these events inspired them, propelled them in their personal and professional lives. How retelling the truth of the genocide again and again in every corner of every country was akin to breathing. How seeking redress and a formal acknowledgment from Turkey was a guttural need, an unquestioned right that might, might begin to heal the open, throbbing wounds across generations.
I took stock of current Armenia, where the masses fortunes and day-to-day lives hasn’t matched that enjoyed by the small political class. Where outside of its thriving capital Yerevan, water and electricity are available periodically. Where the majority of men are unemployed, while women take on the role of breadwinners and homemaking. Where families living in poverty or meager means rely on donations and investments by the diasporas around the world. Where most rely on the arts to breathe life and speak the truths of THE genocide.
I realized what I attributed to my grandmother’s remarkable humanity and will as born from life as a widow, had its true roots in surviving the Armenian Genocide.
That the social justice for youth at risk, teens from broken or battered homes, single mothers living in poverty, the homeless, those in poverty and most especially Canada’s indigenous peoples at the core of my belief system was ignited by the message I heard throughout my childhood.
That of the justice demanded by all Armenians.
That justice may not be forthcoming. But not because it’s undeserving. More likely because of geopolitical circumstances in the Middle East today.
How does that impact Armenia? The United States and most of the other UN and NATO allies do not recognize the genocide. In fact the list of countries that do is a rather short one, with Germany set to join that list on Friday, the day of the 100th anniversary. Western nations need a supportive Turkey to counterbalance ISIS, Al Quaeda and every other anti-Western group in the Middle East. As long as Turkey serves that role as critical ally, no one, including the United States, will dare place sustained pressure on Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Now, if the nuclear deal with Iran is ratified in the summer, I question whether Turkey’s support will be as crucial long term.
Whether Germany’s acknowledgment might serve as a gentle nudge. Or example.
A Parallel, of Some Consequence
My Canadianism wonders whether Turkey’s recognition should be the denouement Armenians desire?
The Canadian indigenous peoples’ journey historically and during current times offers some parallels to that of the Armenians, Greeks and any others who have suffered at the hands of their oppressors.
Their lands were appropriated. From North America’s explorers to today’s extractors of fossil fuels, seizure of lands remains the unspoken, spoken crimes of the white man.
Their ancestors were killed, repeatedly. From the same explorers to today’s perpetrators of missing and murdered indigenous women, justice too has fallen down for our First Nations.
Their children were taken under the guise of education and tortured, raped, abused, and endured unimaginable acts of violence in residential homes. Those childrens’ children often suffered abuse at the hands of their broken mothers and fathers, and often turned to drugs, alcohol and prostitution simply to dull the pain.
Incarceration is a further wound Canada inflicts.
Why? Because Canadians have turned a blind eye to the overall denigration, racism, theft, and discrimination indigenous peoples have been subjected to at the hands of Canadians and our federal government.
Because we, as Canadians, haven’t demanded better. Haven’t demanded fairness in reparations, in social justice, in everyday support to lift this generation up and offer equal opportunity of a future, of hope.
But these indigenous peoples haven’t waited idly for our acknowledgement, our reparations, our equitable hand up.
They are organizing to demand respect for their culture, arts and equality in services we deliver to other Canadians. They are seeking higher education, upwardly mobile jobs and using the courts for world-wide recognition of Canada’s failures, return of or reparation for stolen lands, and shared profits from any business using their lands.
Through this evolution, they’ve slowly gained support amongst some segments of the Canadian population at large and regional politicians ready to lend a supportive hand up, in full acknowledgment of the true first Canadians, our First Nations peoples.
In as much as the Armenian diasporas share their stories, build tremendously successful lives, share their rich arts, educate others of the Armenian Genocide and demand Turkey’s formal acknowledgement, they must also be willing to make demands of a government of Armenia beholden to the oligarchs.
At a minimum, water, electricity, infrastructure, education and jobs for Armenians living in Armenia should be extracted from the government of Armenia by the Armenian diasporas for continued financial and business capital support.
Poverty across the Armenian lands cannot be tolerated. The gains must trickle down. When you lift everyone up, they are more inclined to hope, to plan and see a future for themselves. To lead or designate leaders capable of building an inclusive, democratic future for the country, supported by a stronger economy.
A strong, stable, self-sustainable Armenia in a murky geopolitical neighbourhood might, one day, gain traction as an ally for Western nations. Western nations that might be willing to add their names to the list of those recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
In my own journey through this time of contemplation, I realized that threads reach through my ancestry to my maple leaf, after all.
That attributes and characteristics that I cherished of my maternal grandmother were defined not simply by her struggles brought on by widowhood at an early age, but from surviving the Armenian Genocide to building her final home in Canada.
She built an identity through sheer force of will, faith and belief. That hope, and belief in the good of all peoples of all colours, cultures, nations resides in me.
I also realized that Armenia is an important cog in my ancestry, a history and culture that ultimately helped define this Canadian’s interests, loves and values.
It’s time, Turkey. To recognize the Armenian Genocide, as it is for Canada to heal our First Nation’s wounds and treat them with dignity and equality.
I chose to follow my maternal grandmother’s path rather than that of my paternal grandmother, as their family left Armenia prior to the genocide. I wanted to better understand how the person they grew to be was coloured by the Armenian Genocide.
The following photos include those of my family and of those of other families’ found or shared over the years, representative of the immediate post-genocide life.