It’s easy to cre­ate a list of prom­i­nent Cana­di­ans with Ar­me­nian back­grounds: pho­tog­ra­pher Yousuf Karsh, film­maker Atom Egoyan, chil­dren’s per­former Raffi Cavoukian. But the Ar­me­nian-Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence runs deep be­neath those cel­e­brated fig­ures, in a story that stretches back to the late 19th cen­tury.

“The Ar­me­ni­ans who came to Canada in the 1880s and 1890s weren’t re­ally set­tlers,” says Cana­dian scholar Is­abel Ka­prielian-Churchill, au­thor of Like Our Moun­tains: a His­tory of Ar­me­ni­ans in Canada, the de­fin­i­tive study of the sub­ject. “Many mi­grated to Canada or the U.S. as guest work­ers and sojourners work­ing to send money home.”

Back then, Ar­me­nian work­ers were di­rectly re­cruited by the Cock­shutt Plow Co. to work in Brant­ford, Ont. They were also called here from the United States as Amer­i­can com­pa­nies be­gan to es­tab­lish branch plants in Canada’s in­dus­trial heart­land. Most, Ka­prielian-Churchill says, “had ev­ery in­ten­tion of re­turn­ing [to their home­land] with enough money to pay off their debts, pay a mil­i­tary ex­emp­tion tax and in­vest their cap­i­tal in farms and other busi­nesses.”

Yet, for many, the out­break of the First World War shat­tered any hopes of re­turn­ing home. And their frus­tra­tion gave way to hor­ror over news of the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide car­ried out across the Ot­toman Em­pire begin­ning in 1915.

“Many sur­vivors re­turned home fol­low­ing the war to search for their rel­a­tives,” says Ka­prielian-Churchill. “Those who re­turned faced a sec­ond and third wave of eth­nic cleans­ing.”

By 1924, more than 1.5 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans had been killed, their busi­nesses dis­man­tled, schools closed, churches and monas­ter­ies gut­ted and prop­erty con­fis­cated. Canada did not stand idly by. “From the early days of the geno­cide, Canada and Cana­di­ans stood with the Ar­me­nian com­mu­nity and re­sponded to the calls of the per­se­cuted Ar­me­nian pop­u­la­tion,” says Se­vag Belian, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ar­me­nian Na­tional Com­mit­tee of Canada. “Canada’s re­sponse to the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide was one of the first in­ter­na­tional ini­tia­tives taken by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to in­ter­vene and pres­sure the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to act against acts of in­jus­tice.”

Ka­prielian-Churchill notes that Cana­di­ans re­sponded to the cri­sis with con­sid­er­able char­ity, but the gov­ern­ment of­fered no easy path to wel­come refugees.

“A lot of money was raised to help Ar­me­ni­ans,” she says. “But while it was not easy to come to Canada be­fore 1914, it was more dif­fi­cult af­ter the war be­cause of the rig­or­ous rules put into place. For ex­am­ple, you had to have a cer­tain amount of money in your pocket and you had to make a con­tin­u­ous jour­ney to Canada from your coun­try of ori­gin, which was im­pos­si­ble for dis­placed refugees. They were also afraid that th­ese im­mi­grants would be­come pub­lic charges.”

One ex­cep­tion was the resettlement of more than 100 or­phans in Ge­orge­town, Ont., by the Ar­me­nian Re­lief As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada.

Ka­prielian-Churchill’s own fa­ther came to Canada in 1912, hop­ing to re­turn to his wife and two chil­dren in the prov­ince of Erzu­rum. He searched for his fam­ily for years fol­low­ing the war, even­tu­ally de­ter­min­ing that they had all per­ished.

“My mother was a ‘pic­ture bride,’ cho­sen from Ar­me­nian women liv­ing over­seas,” she says. “With the ar­rival of Ar­me­nian women, com­mu­nity and fam­ily was es­tab­lished in Canada.”

Ka­prielian-Churchill speaks of a happy child­hood grow­ing up in Hamil­ton, where the com­mu­nity was well in­te­grated into the city. Ar­me­nian cul­ture was pro­moted at the lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre, while chil­dren at­tended Ar­me­nian school for three evenings each week.

Today, Ar­me­nian-Cana­di­ans rep­re­sent a pop­u­la­tion of about 100,000, a group Ka­prielian-Churchill de­scribes as “an­other facet of the di­a­mond that makes up the Cana­dian world.”

But what is that facet’s unique con­tri­bu­tion to Canada?

“In my opin­ion, Ar­me­ni­ans in Canada have ex­celled in two ar­eas: the arts and medicine,” she says. “It’s in­ter­est­ing that th­ese are the same fields Ar­me­ni­ans ex­celled in long ago.”

The com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to thrive, bonded by a com­mon lan­guage, a com­mon cul­ture and the Ar­me­nian Apos­tolic Church, the na­tional church of the Ar­me­nian peo­ple. How­ever, just as the pic­ture brides who ar­rived in Canada trans­formed a group of “men with­out women” into a com­mu­nity, Ka­prielian-Churchill cred­its the ef­forts of Ar­me­nian women in both sus­tain­ing their own com­mu­nity and con­tribut­ing to Canada at large.

“From car­ry­ing on the tra­di­tions of nee­dle arts and lan­guage, to the ef­forts of the Ar­me­nian Re­lief So­ci­ety of Canada and the Ar­me­nian Gen­eral Benev­o­lent Union to sup­port Ar­me­nian and Cana­dian char­i­ta­ble causes, to teach­ers and moth­ers, Ar­me­nian women have had a prom­i­nent role in sus­tain­ing their com­mu­nity in Canada,” she says.

Is­abel Ka­prielian-Churchill is pro­fes­sor emerita of his­tory at Cal State Fresno, where she was pro­fes­sor of Ar­me­nian and im­mi­gra­tion his­tory be­fore re­tir­ing in 2006. She is cur­rently re­search­ing her lat­est book project, a his­tory of the treat­ment of chil­dren dur­ing the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide.


The Ar­me­nian Boys’ Farm in Ge­orge­town, Ont., where more than 100 Ar­me­nian chil­dren, or­phaned dur­ing the geno­cide, were given a home thanks to the ef­forts of con­cerned Cana­di­ans.


Is­abel Ka­prielian-Churchill is the child of Ar­me­nian Geno­cide sur­vivors and a renowned Cana­dian scholar.

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