By Kristin Kidd
Armenian International Magazine
May 2000 - Volume 11, No. 5
Expectations are high -- even unrealistic - of Armenians in political office. Increased worldwide Genocide recognition, financial support for Armenia, and a greater respect for the local community are just some of the overwhelming hopes placed on the elected official who must also serve the needs of the larger society and build the necessary credibility with peers.
Few have been able to so quickly meet the high hopes of Armenian constituents as Montreal City Councilwoman Noushig Eloyan. Now in her second four-year term, the 42-year-old activist is fully committed to making her community proud while serving Montrealers equally well. It's a balancing act Eloyan has learned to manage, thanks to her own savvy and to the unique political climate that exists in this multicultural Canadian city.
More than half of the 1.1 million people living in Montreal are neither French nor English-Canadian in origin. About 200 different "cultural communities" live as neighbors in the city where one can hear 90 different languages in addition to the official language -- French. A concentrated effort on the part of city leadership to promote a spirit of acceptance and cultural preservation has made Montreal a model for other cities with large and varied immigrant populations. The French philosophy of celebrating diversity -- Vive la difference -- has clearly been adopted by Montreal.
In her spacious office at the Hotel de Ville, Montreal's decorative downtown City Hall, Eloyan talked about her decision to get involved in government. "I'm a missionary in political affairs," she mused, and it is clear Eloyan does take her career in politics as seriously as any religious mission. Spending 80-90 hours per week on the job, Eloyan has chosen work over friends and even family in order to make the most of her opportunities. She has no children and is not married. "No time!" she smiles. The personal sacrifices are apparently appreciated, as evidenced by her landslide reelection victory in November 1998.
The Syrian-born Eloyan is enthusiastic about her accomplishments, especially the two projects she championed specifically for the Armenian community in Montreal during her first term. The first was to sponsor a City Council motion recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915, and to designate April 24th as an official annual day of remembrance in Montreal.
The second was the erection of a genocide monument on public land. Through Eloyan's leadership, both projects were unanimously approved by the 51-member City Council which paid $170,000 of the cost of the large marble monument which stands in Marcelin Wilson Park. The Montreal Armenian community raised the other $100,000, but dedicated the monument to the victims of all genocides so that other groups could use the site for their memorial ceremonies. A French-Canadian artist designed the monument, entitled La Reparation, in the shape of a house divided in two halves. While there has been some grumbling within the Armenian community about its rather generic appearance, all are proud nonetheless to have such a meaningful and government-sanctioned landmark in their city, the first of its kind in Canada. Another genocide monument also stands in Toronto but it sits on private land.
Strong opposition from the Turkish government threatened to derail both projects early on, but the young Councilwoman was able to convince her colleagues that the threats were not real. "Representatives of the Turkish government were saying we're not going to invest any more in Montreal, we're going to put an end to the diplomatic relations with the city of Montreal," Eloyan remembered. But Eloyan had made a promise to her grandmothers, both genocide survivors, that she would do everything within her power to honor their experiences. So, despite the danger to her career,"I finally convinced Mayor Pierre Bourque, and I'm very grateful to him and my colleagues on the City Council for their courage," stated Eloyan who notes that none of the Turkish threats of boycott came to pass.
Eloyan's current project involves the signing of a Friendship Act between the cities of Montreal and Yerevan, a symbolic deed that would help encourage a spirit of connection between the cities. Montreal's Mayor has been willing, but the declaration which was signed in 1998 is with a Yerevan Mayor who is no longer in office, and the Canadians say the process must start over.
Eloyan's parents, Aghavni and Yetvart are well-known educators. Her mother served as principal of the St. Hagop Armenian Day School in Montreal for nine years before retiring. Her father, who was a long-time principal in Lebanon, is remembered by many as one of the best interpreters of Armenian poetry.
"They taught me to work hard and reach high, but always to stay humble. I was brought up being told I had to serve my community, I had to share with my community," Eloyan said. And she has. "I came to Montreal in 1977 [having fled the Lebanese Civil War] and I was so well accepted. I appreciated the quality of life here, I thought I have to give something back to this city one day. Then the Mayor called and said I want you to join our party. I was so flattered that I, an immigrant, was asked to be part of the decision making process. I said yes!
Eloyan had been working in real estate, served as President of the Armenian Cultural Association and earned a bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering at Concordia University in Montreal. Still, she was unknown to Montrealers. "When I went door-to-door during my first campaign, I didn't like talking about myself but I had to," Eloyan remembers. She spent two and a half months knocking on nearly 4,500 doors in the district of l'Acadie, with many Armenian, Arab, Greek, Italian and French-speaking Canadians.
On Election Day 1994 Eloyan's life changed. "It was one of the best, most emotional moments of my life. First to be recognized by Montrealers, and to be trusted to manage our city. What a privilege." The following week the Mayor asked Eloyan to be the President of his Executive Committee, despite her inexperience. Her biggest lesson came in learning how to deal with a confrontational and sometimes critical media, "I didn't have an easy time with the press. They weren't ready to see a stranger in a high position like that, especially a woman from a cultural community with no background in politics. It was very tough," she recalled.
Eloyan obviously overcame her first-term challenges, because when she won reelection in November 1998, she received the largest percentage of votes of any candidate in the city of Montreal. She interprets that win as a sign of satisfaction from all of the groups living in her district. "This was an indication that I could serve everybody even though I'm a member of the Armenian community." Eloyan credits Montreal's commitment to promoting multiculturalism with her own success in achieving support for issues important to Armenians.
"We're lucky to live in a very open society in Canada, especially in Montreal. People are used to living together with their differences in color, religion, language. It's wonderful and we have to keep it that way because it's very fragile," declared Eloyan who says she has no concerns about drawing criticism from her colleagues for representing the specific desires of Montreal's Armenians. "Everybody knows by now that I'm Armenian in origin and I'm very proud. I don't have to hide it. On the contrary, I'm a very good example that you can combine different cultures and you can still be a good citizen and very well accepted by your colleagues and your peers," Eloyan noted.
"Charles Aznavour once said you can be 100 percent French and 100 percent Armenian. The same is true in Canada."