Defence and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney told Armenian Canadians gathered Friday on Parliament Hill that the memory of their homeland’s genocide will never be forgotten in this country, The Canadian Press reports.
Kenney dramatically affirmed that controversial position — which Canada’s NATO ally Turkey vehemently opposes — to hundreds gathered on the east section of the Hill lawn, separated by barricades from hundreds of Turkish Canadian protesters gathered on the lawn’s west side.
In doing so, Kenney was siding with the Armenians at the start of a weekend when a pair of First World War 100th anniversary commemorations were taking place in Armenia and Turkey.
“We are here today as proud Canadians because we believe in memory,” Kenney said.
“This is why we gather on this centenary of the first genocide of the 20th century, to call prayerfully to mind the souls of all of those whose lives were taken in a campaign of brutal violence.”
Also Friday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander was in Armenia to lay a wreath at a commemoration of the 1915 massacre, in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed at the hands of Ottoman Turks.
Ottawa calls the tragedy a genocide, to the anger of Turkey.
Kenney did not mention the Turks, nor did he visit the group of Turkish Canadians gathered on the other side of the lawn as he spoke, many of them brandishing signs that denounced the use of the term ‘genocide.’
As he spoke, junior foreign affairs minister Lynne Yelich was leading Canada’s delegation in Turkey, including veterans of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, at ceremonies marking the centenary of the start of the Gallipoli campaign.
Armenia and Turkey both invited Gov. Gen. David Johnston, but he will instead attend a Gallipoli ceremony Saturday at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Armenian ambassador Armen Yeganian expressed satisfaction that a “high-level” Harper representative will be in Armenia.
Selcuk Unal, the Turkish ambassador to Canada, had no comment on Canada’s decision to send a junior minister to Turkey.
But he did note that unlike Armenia, Turkey is fighting alongside Canada against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“We believe, being a NATO ally, being an important player in our neighbourhood and actually taking part in the same coalition against ISIL, things could have been different,” Unal said.
Kenney also connected history to the current violence in Syria and Iraq, saying: “As we speak, the so-called Islamic State is attempting to affect a genocide against the Assyrians, Yazidis and Christians of Iraq and Syria.”
Yeganian said that the Harper government’s recognition of the Armenian genocide doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.
“I don’t think because of that the Armenian community is pro-Conservative,” he said, estimating the split as “roughly half and half” with the Liberals. The majority of the 100,000 Canadians of Armenian descent live in Montreal and Toronto, he said.
This year, Turkey has chosen three days of celebrations from Thursday to Saturday, overlapping Armenia’s April 24 date.
“I don’t deem it as Turkish diplomacy. I deem it as a cheap manoeuvre to distract international attention from (the) Armenian genocide,” said Yeganian.
But Unal said neither his country nor the Ottoman Empire deserve the genocide label, nor the accusation it is trying to thwart Armenia’s commemoration with its own major event.
“It is the Armenian government and the diaspora making this link, as if we are trying to shadow one’s grief. In Gallipoli, half a million people died, including people from Canada.”