Montreal: Armenian tears flow over genocide vote

The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)
May 8, 2004 Saturday Final Edition

Armenian tears flow over genocide vote: First world war killings
recognized. Liberal political reforms, allowing MPs to vote with
their heart, helped pass the bill


Girair Basmadjian remembers the sadness that hung over family
gatherings when he was a child.

“Everybody used to cry,” said Basmadjian, 62, a Montreal

The source of their sorrow was all the absent relatives. Basmadjian
knew his grandfather but never met the man’s siblings. His aunt and
uncles were among numerous family members who died in the mass
killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World

Since the 1980s, Basmadjian, president of the Armenian National
Committee of Canada, and others have lobbied Ottawa to recognize the
killings as “genocide” instead of using adjectives like “calamity” to
describe the atrocities.

Now many in the Armenian community are savouring their recent
victory. A private member’s motion adopted in the House of Commons
last month recognized the Armenian genocide of 1915 and condemned it
as an act of inhumanity.

Retired Montreal engineer Robert Kouyoumdjian, who lost 32 family
members in the genocide, called it a “a huge relief.”

Kouyoumdjian likened it to a burial garment for the Armenians who
were interred in ditches and mass graves. “I told myself they finally
have a shroud,” he said.

Describing the bittersweet elation in his community, Norair
Serengulian, head of the Armenian National Committee of Quebec,
suggests it represents “a step closer to a collective healing.”

When they began pushing for the recognition of the genocide,
Basmadjian said, people told him he was paddling upstream.

“At the time I used to say, ‘Well, I’m not rowing against the
current. I’m rowing against the falls,’ ” he recalled, with a laugh.

The committee also sharpened its lobbying tactics. In 1999, when the
subject came before a parliamentary committee, the Armenian National
Committee assembled a six-inch-thick document backing up its
insistence that a genocide occurred.

“So this time, in order for them to read it, we made it very, very
concise,” Basmadjian said, leafing through a bound 23-page document.

Political reform also helped their cause. Under reforms introduced by
Prime Minister Paul Martin, private members’ motions are now subject
to automatic votes. Moreover, the so-called two-line vote on the
motion called for cabinet solidarity but other Liberals MPs were free
to vote the way they wanted. “Without the government members this
motion would have died,” said Eleni Bakopanos, Liberal MP for
Ahuntsic riding, who supported it.

Basmadjian and a contingent of 150 people of Armenian descent watched
in the visitors’ gallery as MPs voted 153-68 in favour of the motion.

His eyes filled with tears again recently as he recalled seeing some
members of Parliament become emotional. “Seeing Armenian eyes crying
is understandable,” Basmadjian said. “But seeing the MPs crying –
that was the most touching part of all.”

The motion was brief.

In a letter sent to MPs, the Armenian National Committee of Canada
called the recognition of the Armenian genocide “an act of historical
justice” rather than one of vengeance.

But a Turkish diplomat in Ottawa contends the motives behind it
involve land claims and financial redress.

“It is not a case of genocide from our point of view. It is a
historical dispute for land … from the days of the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire,” said Fazli Corman, a counsellor at the Turkish

The assertion of genocide “is not right because it is a travesty of
truth,” Corman added.

Turkey suggests a few hundred thousand Armenians died; however, most
non-Turkish historians contend the Turks killed up to 1.5 million
Armenians in 1915.

“We all have someone in our family tree who has been affected – who
has either been murdered by the Ottoman authorities at the time or
had a life of hardship because of that,” Serengulian said.

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a member of the Armenian National Committee of Canada, visits the
Armenian National Monument at Marcelin-Wilson Park at the corner of
L’Acadie and Henri Bourassa Blvds., where his daughter, Celine
Kouyoumdjian, places flowers. The National Committee succeeded in
having the federal government recognize the Armenian genocide during
the First World War.