Why shouldn't MPs acknowledge genocide?

March 24, 2004
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)

The House of Commons has caused a furor by acknowledging, in a free vote this week, that Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915. The furor is more telling than the acknowledgment. Realpolitik apparently dictates that truth does not exist, that each generation lives in a historical vacuum, and that pondering such issues is a matter best reserved for artists and historians rather than mere legislators. To challenge these dictates is to reveal oneself as naive and too immature for real leadership.

Yet the legislators, who voted 153-68 in favour of a private member's bill from the Bloc Québécois, were merely stating a historical fact. They were not committing Canada to monetary payments. They were not apologizing on behalf of another generation. They were engaging in a simple act of memory on behalf of victims who have descendants living in Canada, an act that is controversial only because of the Turkish government's offensive 89-year-long denial.

The genocide of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey was the first attempt to murder an entire nation in a century riven with them. It was a blueprint for Hitler. So appalled were Canadians at the time that they bent their rigid immigration rules and permitted 100 Armenian orphans to come to Georgetown, Ont., and live with farm families. This uncharacteristic generosity toward allegedly inferior peoples was dubbed "Canada's Noble Experiment." The Georgetown Boys, as they were known, grew up and became good Canadians who raised families, paid taxes and voted in elections.

Today's Canada is a different kind of experiment. It is one in which all peoples are welcome, not so much for noble reasons as from enlightened self-interest: Give us your educated, your upwardly mobile, your ambitious. In such a country, the hard choices of realpolitik become more difficult than ever. Why? Because Canada, if it is to succeed as an experiment, must be based on respect for human rights. And if this diverse country stresses human rights on the domestic scene, it can hardly deny their value in the larger world.

Prime Minister Paul Martin, in trying to give more power to backbench MPs, is allowing free votes where confidence in the government is not at issue. With this freedom comes responsibility. It may be that, in future, MPs will attempt to go further afield, in ways that might affect Canada's legitimate foreign-policy interests.

But in this case, it is hard to see what was irresponsible in this statement of principle. Genocide is a current issue for a world that just commemorated the 10th anniversary of the attempted annihilation of the Tutsi people in Rwanda. Canada has obligations beyond its borders. It was instrumental in the creation two years ago of the International Criminal Court.

In spite of scaremongering from some high-powered businesses, it strains credulity to think that Canadian firms will lose big contracts or that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's relationship with Turkey will suffer over the resolution. Should the Canada that risked its relationship with its closest ally when it spurned the United States' call to war in Iraq develop amnesia to avoid reprisals from Turkey? For the record, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien said in 1999 that the tragedy of 1915 "was committed with the intent to destroy a national group..." That is the very definition of genocide. And Canada's relationship with Turkey survived.

Human beings are capable of the worst atrocities, but there are always some who do not forget. No foreign country, ally or not, can deny Canada the right to bear witness.