At 3:15 on Thursday in Ottawa, the Foreign Ministers of Canada and Turkey are to lift the cover off a striking new public monument said to honour all diplomats who have been killed by terrorists. But the commemorative gesture carries diplomatic risks of its own.
Its location, at the very spot where a Turkish diplomat was assassinated 30 years ago, allegedly by Armenian terrorists, suggests to some it is one act of terror that is being singled out, and one country, Turkey, that is being placated.
Everything depends on the wording of the plaque being revealed Thursday.
Turkey has harboured a grudge against Canada since 2006 when the newly elected government of Stephen Harper officially recognized the killing of Armenians during the First World War as an act of genocide by the Ottoman Turks. That official recognition pleased Canadian Armenians no end, but Turkey was so incensed it withdrew its ambassador to Ottawa for a time.
Thursday’s monument unveiling is the last in a series of Canadian gestures intended to restore good relations with a nation of growing importance in an unstable region, and Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has made his first trip to Canada for the occasion.
Canada’s Armenian community, however, fears the reconciliation is coming at its expense and that the unveiling of this monument will reopen old wounds.
It was Aug. 27, 1982, and Colonel Atilla Altikat, military attaché at the Turkish embassy, was on his way to work. He stopped for a red light at Island Park Drive, near the Ottawa River, and another car stopped nearby.
Witnesses said a lone gunman emerged from the second vehicle, went to the passenger side of Col. Altikat’s car and fired some 10 shots from a 9mm handgun through the window, killing the diplomat. The gunman ran into the cover of some nearby bushes and the driver of his car sped away.
It was one of three attacks on the Turkish embassy and its personnel between 1982 and 1985, and one of more than a dozen assassinations of Turkish diplomats in the decade 1977-86 carried out in capitals around the world.
It was the only time a foreign diplomat had been killed on Canadian soil, and the killer never was found. And while an Armenian group, Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide, claimed responsibility, no one ever was charged.
“The monument will help bring closure,” said Lale Eskicioglu, of the Council of Turkish Canadians. “This was a horrible attack – an innocent man killed in the streets of the city where we chose to raise our children.”
“Our children now are in school together,” said, Ms. Eskicioglu, referring to children of Turkish and Armenian ancestry. “We want them to be friends.”
It’s not that easy, says Aram Adjemian, an Armenian community leader and adviser to Liberal Senator Serge Joyal.
“In my opinion, the erection of the monument is simply a new tactic aimed at legitimizing the Turkish government’s denial of the genocide of Ottoman Armenians, rather than the stated goal of honouring all fallen diplomats,” he said.
He points to the secretive nature by which the monument was constructed as evidence of an ulterior motive.
No public announcement was made and the monument’s components, sculpted in Turkey, were flown to Canada in some 40 crates and assembled without publicity. All this was done, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, to avoid stirring up the Armenian Canadian community.
“Such secretive manipulations of historical events, clearly done for highly partisan and purely political purposes, are highly unhelpful, if not downright harmful, to the process of dialogue between us,” said Mr. Adjemian.
“The wording on the plaque is crucial,” said an equally apprehensive Roupen Kouyoumdjian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada. “We have no objection to a monument that denounces terrorism in all its forms – Armenians have been victims of terrorism too, state terrorism.”
“But the wording must not be selective, singling out one incident,” he said, clearly concerned that it will point a finger at the Armenian community that has long argued for international recognition that what befell its ancestors at the beginning of the last century constituted genocide.
Ms. Eskicioglu, who organized the annual memorials for Col. Altikat for the past several years, admitted she was greatly troubled when the Canadian government two years ago gave official recognition to the Armenian genocide.
“I think it should have been left to the historians to sort out,” she said, “not the politicians.”