Raffi Sarkissian is founder and chair of the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education.
Friday marks the official commemoration of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923). As we reflect on this event and how it has been addressed over the past century, collective commemoration becomes evermore crucial since it helps in healing and establishing justice, while preventing future genocides.
Strong examples of collective commemoration were Pope Francis's recent message and the European Parliament's resolution on the Armenian Genocide. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly responded to both these international calls for justice with insolence, warning the Pope "not to make similar mistakes again" and stating that the EU resolution would "go in one ear and out the other."
The Turkish government insists that such statements are divisive and counterproductive. To the contrary: These calls have strengthened the will of brave Turkish citizens and civil-society groups who are demanding Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
An umbrella group of Turkish human-rights organizations, working under the name 100th Year – Stop Denialism, recently called for Turkey to apologize and make compensation for the genocide. Collective commemoration supports the rights and desires of these agents of change, who despite threats of legal consequences, embody the righteous Turks of the genocide era – memories of whom have been drowned in state denial while the perpetrators are lionized.
Genocide is a breach of international agreements to maintain peace and stability in the world. Thus, the great suffering caused by this crime must be seen as shared by all humankind. In Canada, our commitment to multiculturalism should not be limited to feelings of joy and celebration alone. It must also facilitate the sharing of pain and calls for justice, so that we can all mourn and seek repair together. This is especially true in cases where perpetrator states and their successors continue to deny past crimes and actively evade justice.
Collective commemoration, through actions such as government resolutions, allows Canadians to reaffirm their willingness to remember and condemn past violence. It renews our commitment to preventing future injustices. It recalibrates and sharpens Canada's moral compass and has an impact on our everyday lives and collective values.
Recognizing the importance of collective commemorations, the Ontario Ministry of Education incorporated the assessment of acknowledging past injustices into its revised 2013 Canada and World Studies curriculum. Students are asked to "describe some of the ways in which Canada and Canadians have, since 1982, acknowledged the consequences of and/or commemorated past events, with a focus on human tragedies … and explain the significance of these commemorations for identity and/or heritage in Canada."
The collective voice of Canadians has improved the lives of many throughout the past; we have on many occasions left our mark on history's pages of peacemaking and humanitarianism. One such example was the formation of the Armenian Relief Association of Canada in 1916, which was established to co-ordinate fundraising efforts for victims of the genocide. The group had among its patrons Toronto's Roman Catholic archbishop and Anglican archdeacon, an Ontario Supreme Court justice and two governors-general. It had more than 25 chapters and co-ordinated its work with the British Lord Mayor's Fund and the American Near East Relief.
In 1920, The Globe started a campaign to raise funds for Armenian Genocide victims called "The Call from Armenia." In recognition of this successful initiative, the American Near East Relief's secretary Charles V. Vickery wrote that he did not know of any "benevolent fund raised by any daily paper that has equalled in size the contributions that [The Globe has] forwarded for Near East Relief. The response is a tribute to the high standing and high standards of The Globe, to the recognized generosity of the Canadian people, and to the growing sense of world brotherhood." Some of this money was used to bring 110 boys and 37 girls, mostly orphaned survivors of the genocide, to Canada. The boys were raised and educated in Georgetown, Ont., and came to be known as the Georgetown Armenian Boys.
The consequences of genocide are transgenerational, making the prevention of this crime even more pressing. Our failure to prevent genocide and impunity toward past genocides has caused transgenerational trauma, suffering and losses often irreparable in nature. It is imperative that we build on the legacies of the past by applying the lessons we have learned over time.