Political intrigue marked Armenian-genocide vote

Globe and Mail
POSTED AT 2:13 AM EDT Friday, Apr. 23, 2004

Political intrigue marked Armenian-genocide vote

>From Friday’s Globe and Mail

Ottawa – Aris Babikian watched nervously from the gallery of the House of
Commons on this, a most important and historic day.

For half of his life, the 50-year-old Toronto immigration consultant had
lobbied Ottawa to recognize as genocide the mass killing of Armenians during
the First World War.

By his count, the vote would be close.

Seated across the vast chamber from him were members of the Turkish-Canadian
community. Clearly, they were nervous, too.

On the floor of the Commons, MPs were preparing to vote. Deputy Prime
Minister Anne McLellan yelled at her colleague, Revenue Minister Stan Keyes:
‘You get up. You have to vote.’

Cabinet ministers had been ordered to vote against the motion, and it would
become clear later that Mr. Keyes was not comfortable with the rule of
cabinet solidarity.

Other ministers were missing: Trade Minister Jim Peterson, a friend to the
Armenian community, and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.

The Prime Minister also was not there. His office said he doesn’t attend all
private member’s votes.

Tension in the chamber was palpable; people were edgy. But the motion
passed, 153 to 68.

Mr. Babikian was elated. The Armenian ambassador to Canada, religious
leaders from the community and other members were crying and hugging.

The Turkish contingent remained silent.

‘I was shocked. Until the last moment, I was actually expecting…reason to
be winning over the political needs or voting needs…,’ said Fazli Corman,
a diplomat at the Turkish embassy, who was also in the chamber. ‘This is
making us boiling with anger because it is just a travesty of facts.’

Others were boiling, too – for other reasons.

Mr. Keyes left the chamber and was heard by some of his colleagues cursing
in the private lobby.

‘I didn’t want to vote for that,’ sources overheard him saying, angry that
Mr. Peterson and Mr. Cotler had ducked the vote.

Mr. Corman believes that MPs supported the motion only because they are
worried about angering their constituents.

‘… The Armenians are voters at this moment in Canada,’ the Turkish embassy
diplomat said. ‘Because of that the Canadian Parliament comes out and puts
themselves into the position of a judge and then decides about my history.
It is not acceptable.’

The vote has been condemned by Turkey and Turkish-Canadians and celebrated
by the Armenian community worldwide.

Mr. Babikian went to bed, finally, at 5 o’clock yesterday morning after
spending hours on the telephone being interviewed by media in Armenia,
Lebanon and the U.S.

For him, this victory acknowledged the suffering of his grandfather, whose
family was wiped out in the massacre. For years Mr. Babikian has been
travelling to Ottawa to lobby MPs, an effort that became more intense over
the past several months as the vote approached.

In that time, the Armenian community sent out more than 2,000 e-mails and
5,000 postcards to MPs. There have been phone calls to politicians from
their constituents and meetings in communities from Quebec to British

Special dossiers explaining the Armenian point of view were also sent to all
MPs.The other side had been pushing hard, too. Mr. Babikian was not only
fighting the Turkish government and the embassy but also two large Canadian
corporations with contracts in Turkey and an unsympathetic Foreign Affairs

Twice this week, the Turkish ambassador to Canada, Aydemir Erman, had
written to MPs, arguing the vote would affect Turkish-Canadian relations.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham had also sent letters, expressing his
‘deep concern’ with the motion, saying it could have ‘far-reaching negative

Thunder Bay, Ont., Liberal MP Stan Dromisky, head of the Canadian Turkish
Parliamentary Friendship Group, had talked to his colleagues about the
billions of dollars of lost business for Canadians if the motion passed.

Bombardier employs about 1,000 people in his riding. The company is making
subway cars for the Ankara subway project.

A spokeswoman for Bombardier said Thursday that the company is hopeful the
motion will ‘not impact our future market position in Turkey…’

Meanwhile, there were some MPs, such as Conservative Stockwell Day, who had
been telephoned by companies with contracts in Turkey, such as SNC Lavalin.

He said he listened, but the call did not change his view. ‘We make our
decisions based on the principle of the issue.’

Mr. Babikian learned Tuesday afternoon that Mr. Graham was to attend the
next day’s Ontario Liberal caucus to discuss the issue, just hours before
the vote was to be held.

He contacted his ‘friends in the Liberal Party’ and told them it was ‘do or
die.” ‘If you respect our friendship…you have to speak up,’ he told them.

They did during a heated caucus in which Mr. Graham and other MPs, such as
Mr. Karygiannis, who has fought for this for the past 15 years, presented
their sides.

Later Wednesday, the motion passed.

Despite years of effort, Mr. Babikian believes the motion passed, in part,
because of changes in the House of Commons – private member’s motions now
must be voted on and the Prime Minister has allowed his back bench to vote
freely. He harbours no grudges against cabinet ministers who voted against
the motion – except for one.

‘But what’s bothered me and what bothered my community is the extent Bill
Graham went to put pressure on the caucus … to go and put pressure in the
11th hour on the caucus you’d think Bill Graham is a senior civil servant in
the foreign affairs of Turkey.’