Remembering the Armenian Genocide cuts across party lines

Elected representatives from all political stripes joined Toronto’s Armenian community and pointed to the parallels between the Armenian Genocide and what is happening in Artsakh today 

By Rupen Janbazian

Toronto’s Armenian community gathered at the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto on Sunday, April 23, 2023, to mark the 108th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The event, organized by the Armenian National Committee of Toronto (ANCT), was attended by several guests and dignitaries, including elected officials from all three levels of government, several mayoral hopefuls, and representatives of Armenian and other ethnic communities across the GTA.

The event’s Master of Ceremonies, Hrag Dadayan of the ANCT, welcomed guests and recognized dignitaries who entered the Centre’s main hall, accompanied by the Homenetmen Toronto Fanfare and flag-bearing Scouts troop. The Fanfare troop began the ceremony by playing the national anthems of Canada, Armenia, and Artsakh. Following the anthems, Dadayan acknowledged that Toronto is the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. “The Armenian National Committee of Toronto stands in resolute solidarity with the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples in their demands for recognition, restitution, and continued autonomy,” Dadayan said in his welcoming remarks before inviting all to observe a moment of silence.

After providing a brief background of the Armenian Genocide, Dadayan announced that the Armenian community of Canada would be celebrating the centennial of the arrival of the Georgetown Boys and Girls in June. “Our gathering here today, in this Centre of resistance, perseverance, and hope, unifying church, school, culture, and tradition, follows the footsteps of the Georgetown orphans who, against all odds, learned and later taught the Armenian language and are a testament of my people’s will to survive and prosper,” Dededyan said, before welcoming Toronto-Armenian violinist Nshan Papazian and pianist Maria Davoudian, who played a touching rendition of “Adana,” a song composed by famed Armenian musician Ara Gevorgyan.

Dadayan then introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Kyle Matthews, Executive Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. At Concordia, Matthews founded the annual AI and Human Rights Forum and the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab, which works to counter online extremism and study how social media platforms are being used as a weapon of war.

Matthews began his remarks by explaining that he had had the opportunity to visit Armenia and the Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakeberd in Yerevan while he was working in the South Caucasus with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Visiting the [Armenian] Genocide memorial and museum shocked me since it made me ask myself, ‘How come I didn’t know about this? How come growing up in Canada, I didn’t know what happened to the Armenians?’” Since then, he said, he has had the opportunity to work closely with the Armenian-Canadian community, particularly in Montreal, in its quest for justice for the still unpunished crime.

Matthews detailed the important roles Canada played in establishing Responsibility to Protect—the global political commitment to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity—and the International Criminal Court. “We really need to pay attention to what’s happening to Armenia today—I am talking about Nagorno-Karabakh, Artsakh. I cannot believe, and this is where Canada is deeply implicated, that in 2020, we [Canada] delivered drones to Turkey to fight ISIS, a group that was committing genocide of its minorities. Lo and behold, we find out that some of this technology was given to Azerbaijan to attack Armenians. This is unacceptable,” Matthews said, urging people to continue speaking out and to stand for justice for the people of Artsakh. “What happened 108 years ago should give us pause and reflection to take action today, to make ‘never again’ a reality,” he concluded.

After thanking the keynote speaker, Master of Ceremonies Hrag Dadayan invited Dr. Helena Jaczek, Member of Parliament (MP) for Markham-Stouffville, and the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, to deliver the message from the Government of Canada. Jaczek, who was joined on stage by her colleagues from the federal Liberal caucus (Jean Yip, MP for Scarborough-Agincourt; Micheal Coteau, MP for Don Valley East; Ali Ehsassi, MP for Willowdale; and Paul Chiang, Member of Parliament for Markham-Unionville), shared brief remarks before reading Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message. “Today, as we remember a profoundly dark chapter of history, let us all vow never to allow such a tragedy ever to occur again. We should take this day to remember just how lucky we are to live in a country where diversity is our biggest strength. We should take this day to recommit ourselves to consistently fighting against hatred. We should take this day to promise ourselves for those who need us the most,” read a part of the statement.

Melissa Lantsman, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and MP for Thornhill, then took the stage to share her greetings on behalf of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. “Even as a seasoned speaker, it is difficult to put into words my thoughts about the unspeakable tragedies that occurred during the Armenian Genocide. And even more than a hundred years later, we are still at a loss for words to describe the horrors, the cruelty, the loss of human life that took place during that time, and the fact that we still have to fight to make it known—that, in itself, is a tragedy,” she said. New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader Jagmeet Singh’s message to the community was subsequently read by Dadayan.

Han Dong, MP for Don Valley North and Co-Chair of the Canada-Armenia Parliamentary Friendship Group, shared a message of solidarity and hope with the community. “We must honour the memory of the victims by committing ourselves to build a more just and compassionate world,” he said.

Michael Parsa, MPP for Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill and Ontario’s Minister of Children, Community, and Social Services, was joined on stage by his colleagues from the provincial Ontario PC caucus (Robin Martin, MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence; Billy Pang, MPP for Markham—Unionville; Aris Babikian, MPP for Scarborough-Agincourt; Logan Kanapathi, MPP for Markham—Thornhill; and David Smith, MPP for Scarborough Centre). “Today, we stand with the Armenian community in Ontario and around the world to commemorate the Armenian Genocide of 1915. We remember the strength and bravery of the Armenian people and honour the memory of those who perished during this dark chapter in human history. Many thanks to the Armenian Genocide Commemoration Committee of Toronto for its dedication to ensuring that we never forget this crime against humanity,” read part of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s statement, which Minister Parsa presented.

MPP Babikian then shared a few words of gratitude and solidarity with members of his community. “As the son of this community and as the grandson of survivors of two genocides—the Armenian Genocide and the Greek-Pontian Genocide—I am humbled to stand with my colleagues in solidarity with you, committed to fighting injustice wherever and whenever it happens… I want to thank the Canadian people for their steadfast support of Armenian Genocide survivors from the time it happened. I am grateful to them for their contributions to help the survivors, the orphans of the Genocide,” Babikian said before urging elected officials at all levels of government to “follow in the footsteps of our forebears who stood up for justice” to prevent another genocide in Artsakh at the hand of Azerbaijan.

Before delivering greetings on behalf of the New Democratic Party of Ontario, the Official Opposition in Ontario, Tom Rakocevic, MPP for Humber River-Black Creek, acknowledged MPP Babikian’s commitment to his community and people. “I know we stand on opposite sides of the Legislature, but your passion on this issue is unmatched, and I want to recognize that,” Rakocevic said. Adil Shamji, MPP for Don Valley East, was then joined by Mitzie Hunter, MPP for Scarborough—Guildwood, Deputy Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, and mayoral candidate for the City of Toronto. Shamji explained that, apart from being an elected official, he is an emergency physician. In that capacity, he has been with many people in the last moments of their lives. “Even despite that, I still struggle to comprehend what it means for 1.5 million Armenian people to have lost their lives during the genocide… And what does that really mean, 1.5 million people? If we were to stand and say their names, every single one without pausing, taking a breath, or sleeping, it would take 18 days to remember and honour every single one of those people who passed in the worst possible way,” Shamji said.

Laying of wreaths and carnations at the Armenian Community’s Armenian Genocide Monument (“Revival” by Armenian-Canadian artist Arto Tchakmakjian) (Photo: Ara Hasserjian/ANCT)

Dadayan then invited members of the Toronto City Council to the stage. Councillors Brad Bradford (Beaches-East York; mayoral candidate), Josh Matlow (Toronto-St. Paul’s; mayoral candidate), Chris Moise (Toronto Centre), Jamaal Myers (Scarborough North), Jon Burnside (Don Valley East), and Nick Mantas (Scarborough-Agincourt) joined Shelley Caroll, Councillor for Don Valley North, who expressed her solidarity to the people of Artsakh, who have been blockaded for more than 130 days by Azerbaijan, and delivered greetings on behalf of Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie. Michael Chan, Deputy Mayor of Markham, and his council colleagues from York Region (Alan Ho, Markham Regional Councillor; Ritch Lau, Markham Ward 2 Councillor; Juanita Nathan, Markham Ward 7 Councillor) then addressed the audience with a heartfelt message of solidarity and support.

School board trustees from the Toronto and York Region Public and Catholic Boards then took the stage. Trustee Shelley Laskin (TDSB, Ward 8) delivered official remarks on behalf of the trustees, touching upon the importance of education in preventing future crimes against humanity.

The ceremony was attended by a total of seven Toronto mayoral candidates: Councillor Josh Matlow, Councillor Brad Bradford, former Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, MPP Mitizie Hunter, former MP Olivia Chow, former Police Chief Mark Saunders, and newspaper columnist Anthony Furey. Many submitted a video message that will be posted online. Many other honoured guests and longtime friends of the Toronto Armenian community also made time to join the commemoration, including former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, David Warner, and award-winning Armenian-Canadian director, Atom Egoyan. The event concluded with announcements by the Master of Ceremonies and the laying of wreaths and carnations at the Armenian Community’s Armenian Genocide Monument (“Revival” by Armenian-Canadian artist Arto Tchakmakjian).