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Recognition of Armenian Genocide by Canada

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Learning from the past The Toronto Star, Life Section, April 21, 1998

By Natalie Jikerjian ,Toronto Star Young People's Press

Tolerance has become a theme for young Armenian Canadians. In the past, commemoration of the 1915 massacre has caused heated debate. Now youth are dedicated to finding peaceful ways of getting their message across.

The Armenian flag draped over the back wall of the Armenian Youth Group office in Toronto is tricolour: blue for peace, orange for prosperity and red in memory of the martyrs of the 1915 massacre that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians

The walls of the office are filled with pictures, proverbs and quotations. One reads, ``The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again. The quotation complements the federal government's resolution that each year the week of April 20 to 27 be a remembrance of the inhumanity of people toward one another. Sarkissian, 19, sits and studies pictures of the Armenian tragedy "which claimed some 1.5 million lives that took place on April 24, 1915," according to a unanimous 1996 House of Commons resolution. "On that day, hundreds of business, religious and political leaders of the estimated 2.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman empire were rounded up and many murdered."

Sarkissian believes studying Armenian history will give her the ability to recognize human rights violations in the future. ``Canadian Armenian youth are knowledgeable about their past and are willing to teach future generations of young people to be more tolerant, she says.

Tolerance has become a theme for young people. In the past, commemoration of the massacre has caused heated debate. Currently, the youth of the Armenian community are dedicated to finding peaceful ways of getting their message across. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The declaration urges the right to political, economic, social and cultural self-determination as well as the right to peace, the right to live in a healthy, balanced environment and the right to share in the world's resources.

``The appalling crimes against humanity, including the extermination of millions of people, helped bring human rights to their present level of acceptance, says Sarkissian, a student at the University of Toronto.

Her motivation to work for positive change is personal. ``If my great-grandparents had been given the choice between life or death, I would probably have gotten to know them. Unfortunately, they had no choice, she says. Nanor Nicolian, 18, sits in the crowded room waiting to speak to younger children about peaceful communication. ``We are not here to condemn the people of Turkey, she says. ``We want to inform the public about our past so that others can learn from it and not repeat the painful lessons of history.

Nicolian hopes that by recognizing and learning from the tragedy, these youth will be able to help others benefit from their experience. She encourages all young people to write letters to public figures, the international community and the media in an attempt to pay attention to and recognize universal human rights.

The youth group is adamant about advocating on behalf of all peoples. ``We are a completely different generation, yet our ideals haven't changed, says Nicolian, one of the chief organizers of the commemoration exercises. ``We want everyone to be able to live in a peaceful environment.

It is active young people like Sarkissian and Nicolian who are at the forefront of planning, organizing and leading the commemorative activities each year. This year those activities included an open forum for discussions with children about what happened and why; songs and speeches; high school visits; a candlelight vigil in front of Queen's Park; the creation of murals and other artwork and a trip to Ottawa for a peaceful protest on Parliament Hill.

The second annual candlelight vigil paid tribute to all victims of senseless killing.

Sossy Terzizian, 22, the youth guest speaker at the event, stated that the youth of today have the ability to create a better future. ``We cannot turn back time and save our forefathers who perished in the genocide, she said. ``We can only educate the world about this and other cruelties against humankind.

Azadoutchoon (Freedom) is the title of the murals painted by 12 youth group members. The murals portray the massacres as seen through the eyes of modern teenagers.

Painting murals and creating other artworks are how these youth bring to life the reality of the genocide. It is hoped that by expressing themselves through art, the youth will gain further insight into what happened and learn from the inhuman situations people were forced to endure.

The trip to Ottawa for a peaceful protest is the last activity of the week. Hundreds of youth from across southern Ontario and Quebec gathered on Parliament Hill Friday to plead to be heard by government officials.

Raffi Assadourian, 21, says his peers have the capability to effect change `Youth represent the future of this country, he says. ``They should have active involvement in all levels of government, in all aspects of life and not only for the Armenian cause. ``What happened was wrong and it should never happen again, says Tveen Titizian, 9, a Grade 3 pupil at the Armenian Relief Society Day School in Toronto. Every year, the school's students observe the lectures and discussions prepared by their older community members.

Rupen Janbazian, also 9, considers his Armenian history class at the school the most interesting.

``I like reading about Armenian history because if I know my history, I can answer questions about it, he says. Tveen and Rupen are just two of the hundreds of pupils who attend the school.

``Events in the past mold the shape of the present and future, says 18-year-old Vahan Ajamian, an influential Armenian youth representative.

Each Armenian Canadian youth ``owes it to themselves to lead and participate in activities that solemnize the horrible events of 1915.

Ajamian's colleague, 20-year-old Sevan Demirdjian, says her combined Canadian and Armenian heritage allows her the freedom to publicly recognize her history.

``We are so very fortunate to be living in a democratic society like Canada, a country that is known all over the world as one of the most tolerant, compassionate, and just societies in existence. Canada is the leader in dealing with issues on human rights, she says.

As is the case for many communities who have suffered crimes against humanity, Armenians are a very close-knit community. But their desire to stop future tragedies extends beyond their own circle.

``We are not here to plead the case of only the Armenians, says Nicolian. ``We are paying homage to all those victims of senseless killing and ethnic cleansing.

``It's by preserving our history, culture and ethnic traditions that we are able to provide an example to other nations and cultures of what unification and faith can do, concludes Ajamian.

Annually, the Armenian community youth groups in Toronto spend hundreds of hours preparing for the commemoration exercises. However, their message to the world doesn't stop there.

``We, as Armenians, are the living proof of what every culture must strive to achieve, says Hovig Tozcu, 19. ``Our youth are the ones leading the community into a peaceful future without forgetting our past.

Natalie Jikerjian is 19 years old and a student at Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute. She is an active member of the Toronto Armenian community. She dedicates this article to the memory of her friend Nerses Mksy-Artinian, 1978-1998

Source: Torcom