Our Top 5 People Stories of ’23: #1 Marking the 100-year legacy of the Georgetown Boys

Halton Hills Today, Ontario, Canada
Dec 31 2023
The final instalment in HaltonHillsToday's countdown of the best stories about people in the community: We honour a major milestone in the history of the Georgetown Boys – the Armenian refugees whose lives were changed a century ago when they came to live at Cedarvale Farm

A version of this article was originally published on HaltonHillsToday on April 24.

They are all gone now, so we can never directly hear what they have to say about Georgetown’s Cedarvale Park. But Canada and Armenian Canadians have not forgotten the role the local green space played in history. 

Dubbed the Georgetown Boys – a misnomer as there were many girls too – they were rescued by Canadians from the clutches of an orphan’s lonely death. In Georgetown, the federal government and several benefactors hoped to turn these orphans into good farmers. Cedarvale Park, then a farm, served as their home and proving ground. 

But the absence of the boys and girls today creates an undeserved illusion that Cedarvale Park is unremarkable. The painstaking work of historians, archivists and community leaders, many of whom are Armenian, keep the memory alive. Without them, visitors would miss the park’s connection with the First World War and, more importantly, the Armenian Genocide. 

“Armenians are obsessed by 1915,” said Lorne Shirinian, a descendent of the so-called Georgetown Boys. 

Shirinian is the son of Mampre Shirinian, a Georgetown Boy and Mariam Mazmanian, a Georgetown Girl. Her brother, Ardeshes Mazmanian, was also a Georgetown Boy. 

Lorne Shirinian's mother and uncle, Mariam and Ardeshes Mazmanian.

The Mazmanian siblings likely survived when their parents gave them to Turkish neighbours. Neither appeared to know how they escaped the genocide as they were too young to remember. What they do know is that they lost a brother and both parents in the chaos. 

Lorne Shirinian’s father did not talk much about his experiences with the genocide. Shirinian the younger understands that his father was alone from 1915 to 1918. 

The orphans getting picked to come to Canada was, in effect, a lottery. 

“My father tells me one day all the boys, almost a thousand boys, were lined up and the relief workers came and they asked, ‘Who wants to go to Canada?” Lorne Shirinian said. 

“They went through picking randomly. ‘You, you, you.’ And my father was randomly picked. And my uncle did come to Canada randomly.”

Ardeshes and Mariam were separated at some point. While her brother languished at a Corfu orphanage, Mariam ended up at one in Syro, Greece. Once he arrived in Canada with the first group of boys in 1923, Ardeshes pleaded with ARAC to have his sister come to Georgetown. They were reunited in 1927. Mampre Shirinian arrived in 1924 with the second group of boys. 

Mampre Shirinian and Mariam Mazmanian married in 1935 after meeting at Cedarvale Farm. Their son Lorne was born 10 years later, beginning a long life of being surrounded by the Georgetown orphans.

“The Georgetown Boys would drop in all the time. On the weekends, there would be parties. There would be making sheesh kabob on the barbecue. There were dances in the backyard, much to the chagrin of the neighbours,” Shirinian added.

What Shirinian appreciated most was “their joy and vitality for having survived.”

“I always had the feeling that they looked on me and other offspring of the Georgetown Boys as special because not only did we survive, but we are multiplying.” 

Shirinian has added his voice to multiple sources that have crystallized the memory of the orphans. Through those sources, we can tell their story and get to know who they were. 

The Ottoman Empire – the modern-day Republic of Turkey – was in decline in the late 1800s. Looking for a scapegoat to mask their economic mismanagement, the government took aim at ethnic minorities, especially the Armenians. 

Abdul Hamid II is often called the “Red Sultan” as his throne was soaked with blood.

In 1908 the Young Turks seized power from Abdul Hamid. But the Armenians were not safe. One of the Young Turks’ goals was to turn the Empire into an ethnically homogenous nation. 

After the Battle of Sarikamish ended in a catastrophic defeat for the Turkish army, they had their excuse. The war minister Enver Pasha – who planned the battle – blamed the Armenians.

On Apr. 24, 1915, Ottoman Interior Minister, Talaat Pasha, had 250 Armenian intellectuals arrested in Constantinople. The genocide had officially begun. By 1923, mass deportations, starvation and outright killing wiped out virtually all Armenians in Anatolia. Despite the best efforts of some righteous Turks to save Armenians, it is estimated that some 1.5 million people died.

The government of the Republic of Turkey denies the genocide to this day.

The work of Canadian historians has made Cedarvale Park an equally important piece of the puzzle as the genocide itself. 

Author Jack Apramian, who himself was brought to Cedarvale Farm, wrote the book The Georgetown Boys. Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill authored Like our Mountains, a book about the Armenian Canadian experience. Parts of it tell the story of Cedarvale Farm.

Cedarvale Farm today. Mansoor Tanweer/HaltonHillsToday

Through these two, we know how Canadians got involved in the lives of the orphans. Using various means, Armenian children found themselves at an orphanage on the Greek island of Corfu. The Armenian Relief Association of Canada (ARAC), with the blessing of Ottawa, brought the boys to Canada. 

It should be noted that the events are important not just to Georgetown, but also to the nation . “This is the first time in Canadian history that we helped people in need. And we help them by bringing them to the country,” said local historian Mark Rowe. 

By 1920, Canada was only 53 years old. Canadians had engaged in international humanitarian work, but only as individuals. Thanks to the ARAC and the federal government, Canadians were saving lives abroad as a nation, setting the tone for future aid to refugees.