The Forgotten Genocide

History Sep 02, 2019

By Phoebe Warren
Published 2018-11-15

The Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) marked a tragic yet important period in the consolidation of humanitarianism both abroad and in Canada. Some individual states and their citizens recognized the need to help Armenian refugees who were rapidly fleeing their country. However, the victims of this genocide lacked protection granted by the international legal mechanisms and institutions that would emerge following World War II. In fact, the word “genocide” was not developed until the 1943 publishing of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe by Raphäel Lemkin. The international community and Canadian public had little idea how best to address the mass atrocities being committed by the Ottoman government, let alone how to implement legal and logistical structures with which to offer concrete solutions to Armenians.
Through an examination of humanitarianism and, to a lesser extent, race, this paper seeks to identify ways in which Canadian international organizations, domestic state actors, and civil society succeeded or failed the Armenian people in their time of need prior to the signing of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It should be noted, however, that the 1951 Convention, while the bedrock of the modern refugee regime, was limited in its temporal and geographic applicability and non-Europeans were not able to seek protection under its definition of a refugee until the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. I argue that international organizations to which Canada belonged, such as the League of Nations and International Labour Organization, failed Armenian survivors of genocide because they lacked effective legal and logistical structures designed to protect and find solutions for these would-be refugees in a pre-1951 convention world. To an even greater extent domestically, the Canadian government demonstrated inefficient and inhumane policies through stringent immigration stipulations and the maintenance of Asiatic exclusion legislation. Conversely, Canadian civil society was an effective humanitarian agent during and after the Armenian genocide through the practice of extensive press coverage, the founding of advocacy organizations, and the successful integration of the Georgetown boys and girls into their communities.

Canadian Involvement in International Organizations
Coinciding with the Armenian genocide was another brutal event resulting in the deaths of many millions – World War I. The post-war rise of multilateralism marked a global paradigm shift better suited to help the plight of displaced persons. However, multilateral agreements rely upon individual state cooperation and in the case of Canadian representatives and high-level officials, this cooperation was not easily obtained. This section will look at the actions and responses of the newly established League of Nations and International Labour Organization and analyze Canadian resistance to their efforts from a foreign policy perspective.
The League of Nations (hereafter “League”), founded in 1920, was primarily tasked with “[promoting] international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security” as enshrined in its Covenant. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres was imposed upon the Ottoman Empire as a solution to a “question that had cost the lives of half [the Armenian] nation.” However, Richard G. Hovannisian notes that “no [individual] power was willing to shoulder the moral and material responsibilities.” As a result, the League was tasked with trying to mitigate the damage. While its Covenant did not specifically entail the defense of human rights, the League established offices and positions pertaining to international protection efforts. One such position was the High Commissioner for Refugees, held by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen from 1921 to his death in 1930. Under the auspices of his position and with support from the League, the Nansen Passport was issued to stateless persons from 1922 to 1938 as an innovative humanitarian development. During a fact-finding mission to Armenia in 1925, Nansen wrote in his subsequent report that he “[hoped] that the facts gathered in these pages will affect the conscience of Europe” as a result of the horrors he had witnessed. However, the Nansen Passport was only extended to Armenians in 1924 due to initial lack of widespread support of the Allies – nine years after the outbreak of genocide in Armenia; a grave delay. The International Labour Organization (ILO), at the time an agency of the League, also sought to work towards logistical solutions for Armenian refugees. In 1925, refugee work and the issuing of Nansen passports were transferred to the ILO and its Refugee Service until the establishment of the International Refugee Office in 1930. However, the efficacy of these services was impeded by the weak structure of these two organizations, their lack of experience in responding to humanitarian crises, and ambivalence by Allied powers.
Canadian contributions to Armenian humanitarian and logistical efforts of the League and ILO were limited by post-war foreign policy goals. While there were those who sympathized with the need to provide support to Armenian refugees such as Canadian Delegate to the League of Nations Newton Wesley Rowell, mounting anti-imperial sentiments within the Department of External Affairs and a desire to differentiate Canadian foreign policy from that of Britain led to increasingly isolationist sentiments. Canadian decision-makers’ hesitance towards cooperation due to isolationist attitudes led to “opposition to any firm and specific commitments to aid [victims] of aggression.” High-level Canadian government officials eschewed the opportunity to improve their country’s international standing and their refusal to accept recommendations from the League and ILO to recognize the Nansen Passport came at the expense of Canada’s reputation and the plight of Armenian refugees.

Canadian Government
Canadian officials found it difficult to divorce the issues of refugee integration and Westphalian-style state sovereignty. This attitude therefore handicapped Canada’s activity as member to international humanitarian organizations. Prior to and during the Armenian Genocide, the Canadian government implemented nativist and exclusionist immigration policies against groups they deemed unworthy or unwanted in their society. These racist policies hindered the possibility of humanitarian and compassionate actions by the government. This section will examine two ways in which the Canadian government failed to act in best interest of Armenians fleeing persecution. It will focus on the maintenance of exclusionary immigration laws against members of the “Asiatic race” and the domestic implications for immigration due to the Canadian government’s refusal to recognize the Nansen Passport.
In attempts to curtail immigration, the Canadian government effectively barred the admission of “undesirables” by maintaining policies that were “framed and applied with the object of making easy the entry of those classes and races suited to, and required for, the settlement of development of Canada, and preventing the admission of those mentally, morally, industrially or otherwise unfit.” These undesirables included Armenians who were classified as Asians by Canadian civil bureaucrats prior to World War I due to their geographical roots in Asia Minor. Despite the incongruence and arbitrary nature of these policies, they still had the effect of presenting barriers for Armenians who, scorned as “international beggars” by the Canadian government, were viewed as probable drains on the country’s finite resources during a period of global economic depression. While much of the inaction during this time on issues of humanitarian intervention and aid can be attributed to the lack of an internationally codified and recognized refugee convention, the Canadian government’s Asiatic exclusion policies are an example of active rather than passive discrimination. Despite Armenians who sought to immigrate through legal channels “[symbolizing] the condition of statelessness”, the government would not fully repeal geographic discrimination of sponsored immigrants until 1967 with the implementation of Order-in-Council PC 1967-1616 by the Liberals under Lester B. Pearson.

The aforementioned Nansen Passport and Canadian foreign affairs officials’ refusal to recognize these documents conjured up debates surrounding the country’s international standing. Canada’s primary objection to the Nansen Passport for all refugees was based on the fact that it did “not allow the return of the refugees to the state which issued the certificate.” Throughout the 1920s, the “returnability” of refugees was of great import to those such as assistant deputy minister of immigration Frederick C. Blair who held the belief that “[refugees] coming to our shores naturally would have to be housed, fed and found employment [by the Government] or become permanently a public charge.” As a result, the Nansen Passport was never accepted by the government and Armenians were forced to find alternative avenues through which to come to Canada. As such, Armenians who sought to come to Canada, whether as their first point of contact with the country or to reunite with family members who had circumnavigated immigration laws in the past, could not depend solely on the government for help and turned instead to Canadian civil society.

Canadian Civil Society
The overall failure of Canadian foreign and domestic policy officials to ameliorate conditions for survivors of the Armenian genocide was tempered by the relative success of civil society initiatives. This final section will evaluate contributions by the Canadian press and advocacy organizations which sought to bring awareness about the Armenian genocide and provide logistical and financial aid. It will additionally examine the mobilization around the “Georgetown boys and girls” as a case study example of civil society success on a micro-scale. However, it is important to note going forward that the previously analyzed isolationist and nativist government policies did not emerge from a vacuum – they ultimately stemmed from the desires of many Canadian citizens who believed that undesirable immigrants were a drain on resources.
Though somewhat limited by censorship efforts related to the War Measures Act of 1914 and the establishment of the Chief Press Censor’s office, the Canadian press was dedicated to reporting on the Armenian genocide. Their willingness to address the early years of the genocide demonstrates a commitment to propagating truth greater than that of the government and even the international community. The press reported the horrors of the genocide to readers without mincing words, using shocking title such as that of a September 1915 article in The Ottawa Evening Journal: “Armenian Mothers Throw Children in Euphrates to Escape Turk Torture”. Publications such as Action Catholique and The Globe were particularly concerned with the plight of Armenians due to their shared religious identity, with The Globe editor and Presbyterian minister James A. Macdonald taking a particular interest in reporting on the contributions of missionary aid in the Caucuses. Most notably, The Globe launched an influential fundraising campaign entitled “The Call from Armenia” in January 1920. In a “powerful inducement of humanitarian action”, the newspaper raised $300,000 in just a few months. As a result of the anger evoked by media coverage and with fervor to continue the effort of The Globe campaign, communities decided to act.
Visceral reactions to “The Call from Armenia” and an understanding that the government was not doing enough to help Armenian survivors of genocide led to an influx of support to numerous NGOs and humanitarian aid groups. The Armenian National Committee of Canada (ANCC), Armenian Relief Society (ARC), and Armenian Relief Association of Canada (ARAC) “appealed to their people for resettlement assistance” for those Armenians who were able to meet voluntary immigration requirements. These organizations appealed to devout Christians, with ARC patron Henry J. Cody stating in a January 1920 issue of The Globe that the churches must help since governments were unwilling to do so. The Armenian National Committee of Canada, first and foremost a political organization concerned with the fate of Armenia and its people, focused on raising funds within the Armenian diaspora, demonstrating that immigrants communities too were committed to this cause. On 12 December 1922, the ARAC received from the federal government what had previously seemed impossible – permission to bring 100 Armenian orphans to Canada who would be granted automatic citizenship upon arrival under what was considered a “noble experiment.” These children – who would have become known as the Georgetown boys and girls due to their residency in a Georgetown, Ontario farmhouse – lived under a set of strict stipulations laid out by the Canadian government. The ARAC’s eagerness to take care of the Georgetown children until adulthood as required by the federal government is a prime example of civil society humanitarian mobilization on a small but important scale.

Designated the “forgotten genocide” by documentary filmmaker J. Michael Hagopian, the Armenian genocide ultimately resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 people. Ultimately, international organizations and the Canadian government failed to act upon humanitarian duty because of concerns over sovereignty and fears of Armenian “undesirables” due to race. On the contrary, however, domestic Canadian humanitarian organization and press mobilization demonstrated that the Canadian public was sympathetic to Armenian plight. This comparison of responses to the Armenian genocide serves as an early case study of Canadian civil society outreach and burgeoning humanitarian identity – an identity that would develop over the 20th century to become entrenched in the very notion of what it means to be a Canadian.

League of Nations. Covenant of the League of Nations. Paris, 1919, 1.

Richard G. Hovannisian, “Historical Dimensions of the Armenian Question, 1878–1923,” in The Armenian Genocide in Perspective, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1986), 35.


Fridtjof Nansen, L’Arménie et le Proche Orient (Paris: Imprimerie Massis, 1928), 3. Original French, personal translation – «… j’ai l’espoir que les faits rassemblés dans ces pages toucheront la conscience de l’Europe.»

Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, “Rejecting ‘Misfits’: Canada and the Nansen Passport” in The International Migration Review 28, no. 2 (1994), 284.


Aram Adjemian, “Canada’s Moral Mandate for Armenia: Sparking Humanitarian and Political Interest, 1880–1923,” M.A thesis, Concordia University (2007): 49–51.

Richard Veatch, Canada and the League of Nations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), 11.

Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, “Armenian Refugees and Their Entry into Canada, 1919–30,” in Canadian Historical Review 71, no. 1 (1990): 92.


Kaprielian-Churchill, “Rejecting ‘Misfits’,” 295.

Peter Gatrell, “Refugees and Forced Migrants during the First World War,” in Immigrants & Minorities 26, no. 1-2 (2008): 103.

Louis Parai, “Canada’s Immigration Policy, 1962–74,” in The International Migration Review 9, no. 4 (1975): 457.

Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, Like Our Mountains: A History of Armenians in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s. University Press, 2005) 161.

Ibid., 157.

Jocelyn Chabot, Richard Godin, and Sylvia Kasparian, “Extreme Violence and Massacres during the First World War: A Comparative Study of the Armenian Genocide and German Atrocities in the Canadian Press (1914–1919),” in Mass Media and the Genocide of Armenians: One Hundred Years of Uncertain Representation, eds. Jocelyn Chabot et al. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 181–182.

Fédération Révolutionnaire Arménienne Organisation de la Jeunesse Arménienne du Canada, Le Genocide Armenien dans la Presse Canadienne, Vol I: 1915-1916 (Montreal: Comité National Arménien du Canada, 1985), 84.

Adjemian, “Canada’s Moral Mandate for Armenia,” 27.
Ibid., 36.

Kaprielian-Churchill, “Rejecting ‘Misfits’,” 304.

Adjemian, “Canada’s Moral Mandate for Armenia,”

Kaprielian-Churchill, “Like Our Mountains,” 94–95.

Lorne Shirinian, “Orphans of the Armenian Genocide with Special Reference to the Georgetown Boys and Girls in Canada,” in The Armenian Genocide Legacy, ed. Alexis Demirdjian (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 56.