History course proposal upsets Canadian Turks
1,200 people sign petition against class that labels 1915 mass killing of Armenians as a genocide
An unusual new course about genocide to be offered in Toronto high schools this fall has sparked anger among Turkish-Canadians for including the Turkish killing of Armenians in 1915. The Grade 11 history course, believed the only one of its kind at a high school in Ontario and possibly Canada, is designed to teach teenagers what happens when a government sets out to destroy people of a particular nationality, race or religion, through three examples: the Holocaust which exterminated 6 million Jews in World War II, the Rwandan slaughter of nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, and the Turkish killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. “These are very significant, horrible parts of history, and without sounding hackneyed, we hope we can learn something from them so we can make a better world for our children’s children,” said Trustee Gerri Gershon, of the Toronto District School Board, who proposed the course after a moving tour in 2005 of the Nazi death camps in Poland. “This isn’t a course to teach hatred or blame the perpetrators — no, no, no,” said Gershon. “Our goal is the exact opposite: To explore how this happens so we can become better people and make sure it never happens again.” But the Council of Turkish Canadians has gathered more than 1,200 signatures on an online petition opposed to the course for calling the Armenian killings a “genocide” and inciting anti-Turkish sentiment. The Turkish government has long denied the slaughter was a genocide, but rather part of the wartime casualties of World War I, with both sides guilty of some provocation.
“To pick Armenia as a genocide when it is so controversial — especially when there are atrocities by other countries that could have been chosen — is just wrong, and will inadvertently lead to the bullying of Turkish-Canadian children,” argues Ottawa engineer Lale Eskicioglu, executive director of the council and author of the petition, which she will present to school board staff at a meeting this month.
“Children of Turkish descent already face bullying, racism and hatred in the school yards. We rely on our schools to provide a shelter free from hate-inciting propaganda and not contribute to the divisions between ethnic minorities,” she says.
School board Superintendent Nadine Segal says teachers already are being trained to handle these issues “with sensitivity to the cultural mosaic in our schools,” and insists the course is not designed to “point fingers, but to examine the early warning signs of genocide and the role of the perpetrator and bystander.
“Our own Canadian government has recognized the Armenian genocide as uncontestable reality, the original genocide of the 20th century, and the course has been approved by the Ontario Ministry of Education,” says Segal.
“But students will also be doing independent studies of their own choosing that will allow them to examine other examples of genocide. The goal is to help students gain a deeper understanding of human rights and their responsibilities as global citizens.”
Kudos for the new course have been rolling in from historians and human rights advocates, Segal adds, including former United Nations special envoy Stephen Lewis, author Joy Kogawa and genocide historian Frank Chalk, co-director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.
The course is being designed with the help of experts from UNICEF, York University, the Canadian CentreforGenocideandHumanRights Education, the University of Toronto and the Holocaust Centre of Toronto. Schools from as far away as Montreal have asked for the curriculum, says Segal.
Both Segal and Gershon cite the International Association of Genocide Scholars’ unanimous declaration of the Armenian killings as “genocide” in 1997. However, Eskicioglu calls the course “propaganda by the Armenian diaspora” and notes that although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has recognized the Armenian tragedy as genocide, his government also supports Turkey’s call for an “impartial” joint historical review of events — a move Armenians refuse to take part in. “We are asking either for the removal of the genocide course from the curriculum,” says the petition, “or removing any discussion of the Ottoman-Armenian tragedy from its contents.” Gershon says she would oppose any such change.