Commons condemns Armenian genocide

Liberal MPs were free to support motion, although Ottawa fears fallout from Turkey

April 22, 2004
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)

By Jeff Sallot and Campbell Clark

OTTAWA -- The Commons last night condemned the Ottoman Empire's brutal treatment of Armenians nine decades ago as an act of genocide, a moral judgment that government officials fear will provoke painful economic retaliation by modern-day Turkey.

Despite government warnings that more than $1-billion in potential contracts for Canadian companies is at stake, 78 backbench Liberal MPs broke ranks with the cabinet to approve a motion that says the House "acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915 and condemns this act as a crime against humanity."

The non-binding motion, approved on a free vote 153-68, was a setback for Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham and a high-powered business lobby. Conservative ranks were also split on the issue, but the Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats voted for the motion.

The Turkish government strongly objects to any suggestion that its imperial ancestors committed genocide during the First World War. Turkey cancelled multimillion-dollar defence contracts with France when the National Assembly adopted a similar Armenian genocide resolution in 2001.

In the hours before last night's vote, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce vigorously lobbied MPs to consider the possibility that Bombardier Aerospace and SNC Lavalin could lose out to European competitors for megaprojects such as the extension of the Ankara subway system.

Mr. Graham made the same point during a charged Liberal caucus meeting yesterday morning. Trade officials estimate the subway contract alone could be worth about $1-billion.

"It's huge," said Bob Keyes, the Chamber's vice-president for international affairs.

Lavalin is in the running to become the prime contractor on the subway extension. Bombardier, which produced the rail cars for the original subway, is believed to have the advantage in the bidding for the contracts for new subway rolling stock.

Several Canadian mining companies are eyeing projects in Turkey.

"These sorts of contracts do not come along every day," Mr. Keyes said.

Timing is crucial, he said, noting that Turkish authorities are expected to decide who gets the subway work within the next 12 months.

In a letter to the MPs of all parties, the Chamber said that if the House adopted the motion, "there will be an immediate negative economic impact on Canadian firms and their ability to do business in Turkey."

Despite the dire warning of the business lobby, Prime Minister Paul Martin allowed a free vote on the motion in line with a promise to the Liberal caucus to allow greater autonomy for backbenchers on issues that are not questions of confidence in the government.

Filmmaker Atom Egoyan, one of Canada's best-known Armenians, made the film Ararat about the genocide. Yesterday he expressed his pleasure with the House decision.

"What is amazing today is that it's law and it's something we can tell to the generations that are to come," he told the CBC.

Bloc MP Madeleine Dalphond-Guiral introduced the motion. Ontario Liberal MP Sarkis Assadourian, who is of Armenian heritage, seconded it.

"Armenians have been waiting for this justice to take place for 89 years," Mr. Assadourian said. "If you don't address the issues of the past, then you're condemned to repeat them. If the Armenian genocide was condemned in 1915, I'm confident the Holocaust would not have taken place."

Armenian groups around the world have been pushing for recognition of the 1915 events as an act of genocide.The Liberals have tried to finesse the issue on other occasions when it has been brought before Parliament.

In 1999, the Chrétien Liberal government said it viewed the 1915 events as a "calamity" that afflicted the Armenians, and "this tragedy was committed with the intent to destroy a national group in which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were subjected to atrocities which included massive deportations and massacres."

But then prime minister Jean Chrétien and his ministers did not use the word genocide, the one word that most upsets the Turkish government.

Mr. Graham urged caucus members yesterday to avoid inflaming Turkish passions, but he seemed prepared for the passage of the motion.

Several hours before the vote, the Foreign Minister told reporters that he hoped the Turkish government would view the motion as an expression of the free will of individual members and not an official condemnation by the Canadian government. "Individual Parliamentarians are free to express their will."

When asked directly whether the Armenians were the victims of genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, Mr. Graham said, "it is best to allow historians to deal with these issues."

Mr. Graham suggested the motion could create tension within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at a time when Canada is trying to work with Turkey and other allies to provide security in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

"We want our Turkish friends and our Armenian friends to put these issues in the past," Mr. Graham added.