Asbarez: Toronto: Another Host Town to the Armenian Diaspora

The author, Catherine Yesayan in front of Toronto’s St. Mary’s Church

Today I’d like to tell you about the Armenian diaspora in Toronto, the capital of the province of Ontario in south-east of Canada, which is the most populous and a multicultural city of Canada. Toronto is home to around 65,000 Armenians.

The modern Armenian diaspora was formed largely as a result of the Armenian Genocide, after World War I. However, in historical terms, the Armenian diaspora has existed for the last two millennia.

There’s evidence that Armenian communities were present during the Achaemenid (550-330 B.C.) and Sassanid (224–651 A.D.) Persian Empires. Also, some Armenians were relocated to less populated Byzantium areas to defend the eastern and northern borders of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 A.D.). The Armenian settlement of Canada is more recent, but still has deep historic roots. 

The first Armenian on record to settle in Canada was a man named Garabed Nergarian, who arrived at Port Hope in Ontario in 1887. Within the next 10 years, about 140 more Armenians arrived in Ontario.

After the Hamidian massacres of the mid-1890s, Armenian families from the Ottoman Empire began settling in Ontario. After the Armenian Genocide in 1915, approximately 2,000 survivors— mostly women and children — came to Canada as refugees.

From 1923 to 1924 some 100 Armenian boys, aged eight to 12-years-old, that were orphaned during the genocide, were brought to Georgetown in Ontario from Corfu, Greece. The effort of bringing the boys to Georgetown was spearheaded by the Armenian-Canadian Relief Fund and was dubbed: “The Noble Experiment.” It was Canada’s first humanitarian act on an international scale. The boys eventually came to be called “The Georgetown Boys.”

The Georgetown Boys

The Armenian orphans lived, worked, and were educated on Cedarvale Farm near Georgetown. The boys were largely trained to work at the farms.

The assistant superintendent at the school during that time was Aris Alexanian—an Armenian. He helped the boys start a newsletter called “Ararat.” The newsletter was written and published by the boys and used as a tool to improve their English language skills. By 1927, a total of 91 of the original boys were placed on farms throughout Ontario. The majority of them became Canadian citizens. 

In 1929, the refugee boys’ home was renamed the Cedarvale School. In addition to the boys, about 40 girls and women were taken in by the Canadian government. 

In 2010, the Georgetown Farmhouse, now the Cedarvale Community Center, was designated as a municipal historic site honoring the Armenian boys who lived there. An Ontario Heritage Trust plaque is installed at the site.

A comprehensive book on the life of the Armenian Georgetown Boys was written by Jack Apramian in 1976. “The Georgetown Boys” is written in the first person, since Apramian himself was a Georgetown Boy who arrived with the first group in 1923. The boys retained some of their Armenian heritage while facing pressure to assimilate. Apramian’s original self-published book was revised by Lorne Shirinian and was republished by the Zoryan Institute in 2009. 

Coming to the present day, what better time to share my observations of today’s Armenian community in Toronto? On Monday, September 12, I flew from Quebec City to Toronto. Anahit, my high school friend from Tehran, with whom I still keep in touch, picked me up from the airport and drove me to my Airbnb room where I had made prior reservations.

We arrived at the room around 9 p.m. I was tired and hungry. Fortunately, Anahit had the foresight to pack a dinner and some snacks for me. Thanks, Anahit, for your generous food package.

Once I ate my delicious dinner, I unpacked my luggage and crashed in my bed. For the following day, I had made reservations to visit Niagara Falls. I woke up early, had breakfast that Anahit had packed, then called an Uber and arrived in downtown Toronto to take the tour of Niagara Falls. 

Visiting Niagara Falls had been on my bucket list for many, many years. It definitely didn’t disappoint—a truly spectacular and epic experience. The tour included a short boat trip to get close to the Falls and experience the powerful mist. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The following day, my cousin Edith, who lives in Toronto, had arranged to show me some interesting sites. She and her husband picked me up around noon and drove me to Lake Ontario to enjoy the Scarborough Bluffs. They showed me how, over millions of years, the water had eroded parts of the bluffs and had created very interesting standing columns. 

After spending an hour or more in nature and enjoying the breathtaking views of Lake Ontario, and wondering how the the columns were formed, we went to a casual eatery to have a late lunch. Then they dropped me at my room.

As we were driving back, my eyes caught the sight of numerous high-rises along the two sides of the freeway. I was truly stunned to see the multitude of skyscrapers. With my amateur opinion, I may say that Toronto must be among the cities with the most high-rises.

Lavash restaurant in North-York, a borough in Toronto

On the second part of the day, my friend Anahit had arranged to meet me with another old friend and go out for an early dinner to an Armenian restaurant called Lavash, which was in the proximity of where I was staying. They picked me up and we drove to the restaurant.

The other friend, whose name is Anik, was also a high school classmate, however I had not kept in touch with her since we had separated more than fifty years ago. We reminisced about the past and also talked about the present.

Anik was one of the smartest girls in our class and she had ended up becoming an airline pilot. I hope that one day, in a future column, I will write about her interesting life. I remember that she had a knack for fixing our hair just as they do at salons. She also had the best spelling skills of all the other girls I knew at school.

The Lebanese-Mediterranean food of Lavash restaurant, like our conversation, was superb. Although there were only a few occupied tables, I noticed that several customers came to pick up take-out.

Lavash is situated in Toronto’s North York Borough, where many Armenians have made their homes. However, Scarborough, which is next door to North York, has the highest concentration of Armenians.

On the third and the last day of my stay in Toronto, my cousin had made a prior arrangement to meet with the Very Reverend Vartan Tachjian at St. Mary’s Armenian Church in North York. The church is under the auspices of the Holy See of Cilicia of Lebanon.

Around noon Edith and her husband picked me up and took me to the church to meet with the Reverend Tachjian and to get some information about the Armenian community.

Very Reverend Tashjian and Catherine Yesayan inside the St. Mary’s Church

First let me give you a little background on the Very Reverend Tachjian, and then let’s get right into the Armenian community and the two churches I visited that day. 

Vartan Tachjian was born in Syria. He graduated from the Theological Seminary in Antelias in Lebanon. In 2014, he arrived to Montreal from Lebanon to serve there. Five years later, in 2019, he moved to Toronto, where he began to preside over the St. Mary’s church.

In 1979, the Armenian Relief Society had opened an Armenian school, for students from kindergarten to high school. However, the Holy See of the Catholicosate of Cilicia had no Armenian Church yet. 

Four years later, in 1983, a petition by the Armenian community was passed to build a church. The prelacy put an open call to all Armenian architects around the world to submit plans. Harout Mardirossian, who is my cousin’s husband, won the design competition. 

In 1986, the construction of the church began and it took four years to finish. On May 27, 1990, the new building was consecrated and its first Holy Mass was celebrated. The Church was officially named St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church.

The Church has a ladies auxiliary group, who serve coffee and sweets every Sunday after the church mass. They also prepare food for Հոգեճաշ or “Soul-lunch” after interment.

Adjacent to the church is the school, built by ARS. which today has a nursery, a kindergarten, and primary grades up to 4th grade. The upper grades are housed at another building, close by, which also serves as an Armenian Youth Center and sports complex. It offers a theater with a 500-seat capacity. It also has a full-sized gymnasium. 

The Armenian youth center and high school in Toronto

In proximity to the church, there’s also an Armenian Community Center with a magnificent banquet hall. The center offers a vast array of amenities, including a conference hall, meeting and seminar rooms, as well as a café and restaurant.

After visiting the St. Mary’s church, and the close-by sites, we drove to the Holy Trinity Church.

Since 1928, the Holy Trinity Church of Toronto has served the Armenian community. Over the years, the church has moved a number of times until, by the generosity and determination of the community members and its leaders, the current building was built in 1987 in Scarborough.

The church has numerous Armenian Family Support Services under a center called “Barev Centre,” which works with issues relating to the elderly, women’s shelter, and Newcomer’s Volunteer Programs.   

Other activities of Barev Centre includes: St. Sahag and St. Mesrob Armenian Saturday School, from kindergarten to 8th grade; Sassoun Folk Dance Ensemble; Youth; Lousapem; a Theatre Group; as well as junior and senior choir. Barev Centre also has committees which organizes Open Golf, Walk-a-Thons, and many more events.

Next to the church, there’s an Armenian General Benevolent Union property which was an Armenian cultural and educational center. In October 2018, the AGBU Toronto Chapter issued a statement announcing that it could no longer afford to pay its Center’s operational costs. Fortunately, the church was able to raise the large sum of 8.5 million Canadian dollars to save the building from selling to other entities. 

The Genocide memorial monument in front of the St. Mary’s Church

I’d like to add that there are three memorial monuments dedicated to the Armenian Genocide in Toronto. Two of them are next to the Holy Trinity Church and the other one is situated in front of the St. Mary’s church.

In Toronto there are four more Armenian churches: Armenian Catholic Church Of Toronto, the Evangelical Brotherhood, Armenian Brotherhood Bible Church, and Armenian Evangelical Church.  

As I am sure, you may know that the month of May has a special significance for us Armenians. May 28 is widely celebrated by Armenians as a day that, in 1918, after 600 years of colonization, we regained sovereignty over our historical lands.

In March of 2022, the Ontario Legislative Assembly proclaimed the month of May as “Armenian Heritage Month.” Armenian Heritage Month is an opportunity to educate Canadians about the Armenian struggles and the achievements they have made.

Even before the dedication of the month of May as Armenian “Heritage Month,” Armenians of Toronto had created a Heritage Day called “Dohmig-Or.”  

Usually the ARS has been in charge of the Heritage Day by organizing activities during the day and a black-tie gala, where a community in the Diaspora is chosen to be presented. Last year the theme was the “Armenian Quarter” in Jerusalem. 

At the gala there were presentations, including informative lectures, speeches and slide shows. At the banquet, attendees had the opportunity to buy items from the Holy Land, such as religious artifacts and ceramics made in Jerusalem. The “Dohmig-Or” has been celebrated for almost three decades in Toronto. 

To finish my report, I should mention that the Armenian Community of Toronto had a great impact on the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015 and 2016, the community privately sponsored about 2,800 refugees at almost no cost to the city and the Canadian Government, saving in excess of $30 million in relocation costs.

This concludes my report of the Armenian community of Toronto, which I found to be very vibrant and close-knit.