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Armenians in Ontario and Quebec

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By Hrag Vartanian (AGBU Magazine, July 2000)

The earliest history of Armenians in Canada is mostly an unknown chapter. While records reveal the first Armenian settler, Garabed Nergararian, arrived in Ontario during the 1880's and lived in the small fishing village of Port Hope, it was not until decades later that any substantial Armenian immigration to Canada began.

In fact, few Armenians traveled to Canada during the nineteenth century and even fewer remained. Some Armenians, led by the dream of coming to America, passed through Canada hoping to avoid the mandatory U.S. health examinations. Official records show that between 1899 and 1917, 1,577 Armenians entered the United States through the Canadian land border. Others arrived in Canada from the Ottoman Empire and Russia and a small number relocated from various regions of the U.S.

The few that settled or studied in Canada in the early years included individuals like Armenag Haigazian and Paul Courian, both Protestant Armenians probably encouraged to make the journey by missionaries in the Ottoman Empire. Courian arrived from Constantinople and opened Toronto's first oriental carpet store in the late nineteenth century. Haigazian (for whom Haigazian University in Beirut is named) enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1898 to study music after completing his Ph.D. at Yale Theological Seminary. He later returned to Anatolia and died in the Genocide.

Early Canadian oral history reveals that a member of the Cockshutt family, owners of the Cockshutt Plow Co. in Brantford, Ontario, went to Constantinople in the 1880?s and recruited ten Armenian workers, originally from Keghi in the province of Erzerum. Soon, other Armenians began arriving in the southern Ontario industrial towns of Hamilton, Brantford and St. Catharines in search of employment. Dr. Isabel Kaprielian calls this early period of Armenian immigration to Canada, the "Sojourner" period which continued until the Genocide. Most of these pioneers arrived in the country hoping to return to their native villages with their hard-earned savings. Little distinguished the small and predominantly male communities from other Armenian settlements, except for the fact that 80% were from Keghi.

By the 1920's, the largest Armenian communities existed in Brantford and St. Catharines, each with an Armenian population of 500, while Toronto numbered 200.

Dr. Kaprielian, professor of Modern Armenian and Immigration History at California State University, Fresno, was born in Hamilton and is herself descended from these early southern Ontario settlers. Her father, Kapriel Kaprielian came in 1912 from Keghi, and her mother arrived in 1924 as a picture bride from Erzerum. "The Armenian community was so small and hardly anyone had grandparents, so we grew up in a world of aunties and uncles. When I speak to other non-Armenians of my generation I realize what a warm and wonderful childhood we enjoyed," Dr. Kaprielian says about her early years in Hamilton.

Community life was active but primarily local and not until 1930 did Armenian-Canadians erect their first church. Built in St. Catharines, Ontario, the church of St. Gregory the Illuminator was constructed through a united effort and quickly became a focal point for Armenians in Canada.

Garabed Sarkisian, Charlie to most of his friends, whose grandfather was one of the original church founders, was also one of the first children baptized in the new church. He remembers that the early community was tightly knit and clearly stood out in the predominantly Anglo town.

He still continues to be an active member of the church which has adapted to the cultural realities of generations of intermarriage and assimilation. While it was for years one of the proudest symbols of early Armenian cross-partisan unity, towards the end of the twentieth century the building fell into disrepair. When Rev. Fr. Shenork Souin, the first Canadian-born Armenian Apostolic priest, arrived in 1994 the fire department was threatening to close down the building.

Shocked by the condition of their foremost symbol, members of the St. Catharines community rallied together five years ago to begin a substantial renovation process which cost over half a million dollars.

In 1999 the renovations were completed. We are happy that today it is serving a 700-strong community as the center for Armenian Christian education. We hope it will bring back generations of lost Armenians. We can also be proud of the fact that many non-Armenians have become members of our church and feel welcome among us," says Rev. Fr. Souin, a leading force in the church?s modernization and whose special connection to the Armenian church follows his own father?s many years of service as a deacon.

In contrast to Ontario, the Quebec Armenian communities were late to develop. We know the earliest settlers in Quebec were a small group of Pennsylvania Catholic Armenians, originally from Mardin, attracted to Thetford's asbestos producing mines in rural Quebec during the turn of the century. The Setlakwé family, whose descendents include the famous photographers Yousuf and Malak Karsh, were among those first arrivals. Subsequent Armenians arriving in Quebec would settle in Montreal. In 1925, with some 70 Armenians living in Montreal, the Armenian-American Encyclopedic Almanac lists 43 Armenian-owned businesses in the province, including dry-goods retailers, restaurants, grocers, shoemakers and a photography studio.

As other Western countries welcomed the Armenian refugees after the Genocide, Canada officially closed its doors to Armenians. In 1908, Canada had classified Armenians as Asiatics, who along with Africans and Asians were considered undesirable. Other than isolated cases this halted most Armenian immigration to Canada for the next half century.

After the massacres in Turkey, roughly 1,200 refugees (predominantly young women and children) arrived as domestic workers, picture brides or under the sponsorship of relatives. By the 1940?s, Canadian-Armenians still did not exceed 4,000.

Ironically, while the majority of Armenians were shut out of Canada, the Genocide was extensively covered in the Canadian press. The Toronto Globe daily spearheaded a "Starving Armenians" campaign, along with the Canadian branch of the Lord Mayor's Fund in London, called the Armenian Relief Association. Daily subscribers were confronted by the horrifying tales of deportation and massacre that confronted the Armenians in Turkey.

In one of the more noble moments in Canadian immigration history, the campaign raised $300,000 for relief and sponsored 110 Armenian orphans who would be cared for and educated in Georgetown, Ontario.

After the Second World War, Canada radically changed its immigration policy, which previously gave priority to "white" immigrants. Middle East Armenians, fleeing the various national crises of their regions, constituted the majority of postwar Armenian immigration. Toronto and Montreal's Armenian populations boomed as they absorbed the majority of new immigrants. Unlike the earlier generation who came from rural backgrounds, post-war newcomers were predominantly urban and skilled.

Crucial in the fight to correct the misclassification of Armenians as Asiatics, the Canadian Armenian Congress (CAC), formed in 1948, successfully lobbied the government, opening the doors for a new wave of emigrés. Activists, including Yervant Pasdermajian of Montreal and Kerop Bedoukian of Toronto played a leading role in the lobbying effort. After its victory, CAC, headquartered in Montreal, sponsored thousands of Armenians fleeing turmoil elsewhere in the world.

Today, approximately 50,000 Armenians live throughout Canada. Half in Montreal, 16,000 in Toronto and others in the smaller communities of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Cambridge, Kitchener-Waterloo, St.Catharines, and Ottawa. While not large in total population, Ontario and Quebec Armenians have shown their dedication to their heritage by establishing seven day-schools, fourteen cultural centers and sixteen churches.

See also