Armenian vote marks a turning point: MPs acknowledge the genocide

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia)
April 24, 2004 Saturday Final Edition

Armenian vote marks a turning point: MPs acknowledge the genocide
despite the prime minister’s wishes

by: Adrian Dix

April 24, 1915, 89 years ago today, was one of the most significant
and tragic days of the 20th century. On that date, the Ottoman Empire
arrested and murdered hundreds of Armenian community leaders and
intellectuals. It was the beginning of the Armenian genocide — the
first genocide of the 20th century.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted 153-68 in favor of a motion
to “acknowledge the Armenian genocide and to condemn it as a crime
against humanity.” The motion passed in spite of the opposition of
Prime Minister Paul Martin and his cabinet and exposes not only the
difficulty in defending human rights against crass self-interest, but
the emptiness of the federal Liberal rhetoric about the “democracy

The scope of the horror perpetrated against Armenians by the
government of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918, atrocities
that were renewed by the post-First World War Turkish state between
1920 and 1923, is virtually impossible to comprehend. An estimated
1.5 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 as the result of
systematic state policies of starvation, deportation, torture and

Genocide is defined as “the organized killing of a people for the
express purpose of putting an end to their collective existence.”
Before the First World War, there were two million Armenians in the
Ottoman Empire. By 1923, the entire Armenian population of the region
had been expunged either through death or deportation.

Armenak Deragopian, an Armenian-Canadian living in Vancouver,
testifies to his family’s experience: “My father’s family was
massacred — about 16 people. My father survived because he was
working in Egypt at the time of World War One and was unable to
return to his home region. My mother managed to escape but much of
her family was massacred as well.”

In the wake of the First World War, recognition of the Armenian
genocide was pushed aside by political considerations as the
victorious powers carved up Europe and the Middle East and dealt with
the emerging Turkish state and the Soviet Union.

An avalanche of evidence demonstrates the scope of the Armenian
genocide — from eyewitness reports to comprehensive inquiries. And
many governments including Sweden, France, Switzerland, Holland and
Belgium have formally recognized the Armenian genocide and have
joined in the April 24 commemoration. Several leading NATO powers
have not — including the United States, Great Britain and Canada.
These countries have refused to recognize genocide for fear of
offending Turkey — a strategic NATO ally.

Turkey has fought hard to deny international recognition of the
Armenian genocide, using both its strategic position in the Western
Alliance and its growing economic power to block recognition efforts.
In 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives withdrew a motion on the
genocide under pressure from the Clinton administration after Turkey
threatened to deny access to its airspace for missions to Iraq.

When the French National Assembly passed a motion in 2000 to
recognize the genocide, the Turkish government cancelled a number of
important contracts for French companies.

The effort by the federal Liberal cabinet to block the Canadian
motion this week was motivated by similar concerns. Bombardier and
SNC-Lavalin are bidding on a major contract to extend the subway
system in Ankara. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce lobbied on their
behalf to oppose the passing of the Armenian motion, fearing
retaliation against Canadian economic interests.

Once the motion was passed, in the absence of the prime minister,
Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham issued a statement stating that
Canada’s position “had not changed.”

He added: “Canada has had friendly and co-operative relations with
Turkey and Armenia for many years. The Canadian government is
committed to make these relationships even stronger in the future.”

If nothing else, the vote recognizing the Armenian genocide
illustrates the hollowness of the prime minister’s commitment to end
the “democracy deficit.” Reacting to the vote, Martin suggested that
“Parliament and the government could have different views. And that,
in fact, is one of the great benefits of dealing with parliamentary
reform and parliamentary democracy.”

What is the point of having more “free votes” if they are
pre-determined as meaningless in terms of government policy by the
prime minister himself? This is not parliamentary reform. Martin is
furthering the democracy deficit by debasing our democratic

After all, the government of Canada is a reflection of a majority in
Parliament, not a benign dictatorship that can accept or reject the
view of elected members of Parliament. Martin is prime minister
because a majority of members of Parliament elected by the voters are
Liberals. It is not because “he knows better.”

Canada’s MPs are to be praised for standing up against the prime
minister in recognizing the Armenian genocide. This is a victory for
the value of historical memory over self-interest. This April 24, the
memory of those who lost their lives in the genocide will not have
been forgotten.

Perhaps too, this vote can represent a turning point in the revaluing
of Canadian democratic institutions. Given the reaction of the prime
minister, however, the goal of erasing the democracy deficit seems
far away.

Adrian Dix was an adviser to the New Democratic Party government.