Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Armenians in Canada: History

1880's - 1914

The earliest Armenian settlements in Canada go back to the 1880's. The first person to have settled in Ontario is believed to have been one named Garabed Nergararian in 1887, in Port Hope. A few Armenian students were sponsored by Canadian missionaries to study in Canadian University.
One such student by the name of Mesrob Baghdasarian studied at McMaster University. In a letter to the Governor General dated January 21, 1896, the Chancellor of the University requested that Baghdasarian's family be assisted to escape from their native town of Kharpert in the Ottoman Empire.
Most of the Armenian immigrants during this period who settled on the American continent, mainly in the United States, came from the various regions of the Ottoman Empire. Soon some were recruited to Canada to work in the factories of Brantford, Hamilton and St. Catharines. Others are believed to have been hired in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, according to the Canadian Family Tree. These were few in numbers, and it is not known whether they stayed on in Canada when work on the Pacific Railway was completed.
Actually, these sojourner immigrants, like many others of different nationalities at the time, had not planned to live permanently in the west, but to make enough money to help their kin back home, and, after getting financially secure, join their families. However, the increasing repressions in the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians in the late 1890's up to the end of World War 1, constituted a major reason for these sojourners to abandon their original plans, seek permanent settlement and find means to have their families join them.
According to Serge Pelletier, some 1,850 Armenians came to Canada between 1900 and 1914. Therefore the period between 1896 and 1914, besides being considered the 'sojourner phase' of Armenian migration to Canada, is also the period when the foundations of the Armenian community in Canada were laid. The handful of Armenians at the time formed village associations to maintain their ties with their families *in the homeland. They organized chapters of the political parties they were affiliated to back home and established ties with the American Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in New York to cater for their spiritual needs.
The massacres that were organized in 1894, 1896 and 1909 by the Ottoman authorities throughout the empire added to the already existing insecurity for all Armenians across the Ottoman Empire. The conditions in the country and the fear of more hardships made many Armenians leave the Ottoman Empire.
Before 1908, leaving the Ottoman Empire was not an easy task. In order to get a travel permit, one had not only to pay expensive bribes, but 'renounce one's citizenship and give up all property rights.' These restrictions were loosened after the Constitution of 1908. This change encouraged European transportation companies to open branches in important Black Sea ports, thus lowering the cost of travel significantly.
American and Canadian missionaries also had a great role to play in the spread of American culture in Armenian villages. They built missions, schools, colleges, orphanages and hospitals in major towns and cities densely populated by Armenians. Many years later, J.N. Chambers of Woodstock, Ontario, whose brother Rev. Robert Chambers was among the missionaries in the Middle East, interceded with a cabinet minister, Dr. Montague, and in a letter dated January 30, 1896, he quoted a letter from his brother saying, "The Armenians as you know are tremendously cut up. Very many of them are anxious to emigrate. They make good settlers. If the Canadian government would offer assistance to them very many would take advantage and go." In a reply from the assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior dated February 13, 1896, Mr. Chambers was informed that the government did not have funds to guarantee the Atlantic trip of new settlers, yet any Armenian who would arrive might qualify for settlement 'under the Dominion Lands Act. 26 Thus, 234 Armenians came to Canada between 1903 and 1905.
Except for such humanitarian acts, the admission of Armenians into Canada was restricted, according to immigration laws. The two basic regulations that did not encourage larger numbers of Armenians from getting into Canada before 1914 were the medical examinations and the money qualifications (immigrants were required to carry $200 each) However. those who were lucky and got into Canada took the jobs that were offered. Most of them settled in Brantford, Hamilton and St. Catharines and worked either in iron foundries, factories, farms, railway construction, the twine mills or seasonal public works. Many of these workers were Armenians who were recruited from American industries to come to Canada as unskilled laborers *in the expanding foundries of southern Ontario. A number of Armenians ran boardinghouses, coffee houses, barber shops, grocery stores and confectionaries. Still others were cobblers, carpenters, carpet weavers and repairers. They were industrious and quiet, not getting involved in workers' struggles or disputes, since their main objective was to supply assistance to their families, either in the homeland or in the New World. However, Armenians had a great role to play in the formation of industrial labor unions in St. Catharines, Brantford and Galt.
Wherever they settled, the Armenians tended to live in the same neighborhood, while the transient laborers lived in boardinghouses run by Armenians. This had an invaluable significance, because they not only had the chance to be with their own people, eat their own food and share news from back home, but could save money to send to their families in the homeland. These men also established ties with fellow-villagers across the American continent.
The little communities of Armenians did not only concern themselves with their daily survival or the financial assistance to their immediate families back home. In order to improve the education of the children in their villages, they established independent village educational associations, raised money through functions, sent it to the village in order to build a school, pay teachers' salaries and school fees. Gradually, these Canadian based associations exercised a great influence on the policies and the quality of education in the schools they supported, to the extent that they withheld funds whenever their expectations were not properly met. These associations stopped functioning with the outbreak of World War I, when the villages were destroyed.
Between 1902 and 1914 these Armenians had also established chapters of the two main Armenian political parties in the towns or cities they had settled in. These parties already had working branches 'in the United States. However, the lack of a basic knowledge of English was another barrier in the face of these Armenians. Soon books like The Armeno-American Letter Writer became available to the men from the village and helped them not only to learn how to write letters in both languages, but also to learn about 'the customs, laws, ideals, manners and government' of North America.
In order to cater to the cultural needs of these Armenians, reading-rooms were established. These served many purposes: coffee house, political meeting rooms, community activity center and much later, as schools for the children. The spiritual needs, on the other hand, were met by itinerant priests that were sent from the American Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in New York. Armenian Mass and sacraments were held in an Anglican Church which was the closest Christian establishment to the Armenian Apostolic Church as far as theological similarities are concerned.

After 1914

With the outbreak of World War I and the mass deportation and massacre of the Armenians by the government of the Young Turks, the Armenians in Canada could not even dream of going back home, but lived the torment of locating lost relatives, if any had survived. Moreover, the Immigration authorities in Canada adamantly opposed to grant per mission to the surviving relatives to immigrate. A number of Canadian church leaders were able to arouse sympathy among the public to support their effort. About six months after the outbreak of the execution of the plans of deportations and massacres by the Ottoman government, the Canadian Churchman, a publication of the Church of England of Canada, now the Anglican Church, published reports of the sufferings of the Armenian people.
The editorial of the same publication, in its October 14, 1915 issue stated: "According to Lord Bryce the continuous and wholesale slaughter of the Armenians is not the outcome of passion, but a careful plan for extirpating Christianity all over Asia Minor and Armenia. The Christian population is being deliberately exterminated with diabolical accompaniments, and Lord Bryce calls attention to the obvious fact that the Allied Powers cannot stop the massacres for which Germany must accept a full measure of responsibility."
The Canadian Churchman was not alone in appealing to the Canadians to come to the aid of the distraught Armenian remnants. The Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches, some of which already had missionaries in the Ottoman Empire, also had a great role in the humanitarian efforts that followed. Soon the Canadian National Association for Armenian Relief was organized, whose campaign was supported by the Toronto Globe.
The efforts of the churches and media bore fruit. It is believed that Canadians contributed $300,000 toward food, clothing and housing for the refugee Armenians scattered in the countries of the Middle East. In 1922 an ecumenical organization by the name of the Armenian Relief Association of Canada was formed under the patronage of the Governor General of Canada and comprised many prominent Canadians and the famous Armenian rug merchant Levon Babayan. The Association worked to secure the entry of one hundred Armenian orphan boys from the orphanages 'in the Middle East, and settle them on a farm. A countless number of orphans had already been gathered from the regions of Asia Minor and the Middle East by the Near East Relief Society in New York, the Armenian General Benevolent Union and others, and placed in orphanages established by the same organizations in Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Palestine (at the time).
The task of the Armenian Relief Association of Canada to bring these orphans was not an easy one, considering the tough immigration regulations at the time. After persistent efforts, the Association was finally able to secure the entry of fifty boys from Corfu into Quebec on June 29, 1923.
The orphans arrived at a farm that was later known as 'The Armenian Boys' Home', near Georgetown, Ontario. The orphans, known as 'Georgetown Boys' and still affectionately called so by the Armenian community, were trained in all aspects of farming. A year later, on September 30, 1924, forty more boys arrived in Halifax, and soon found their home on the same farm. But here too they were to face new difficulties: the authorities attempted to change their 'unpronounceable' Armenian names to 'simpler Canadian names', but were met by resistance by the boys, who argued that they had already lost everything in the world and only had their names as precious reminders from their past.
To complete the initial wish of having one hundred orphans on Canadian soil, a third group of eight boys and two girls arrived in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 30, 1926 and were soon transported to Georgetown, Ontario. One year later, and having proved the good job they had done, the Association got permission to bring one hundred more orphans into Canada, but internal disagreements, associated with the 'waning public interest', did not help the execution of the plan. The Association sponsored the entry of twenty-nine girls between the ages of sixteen and eighteen in the years 1927-32, who 'were placed in domestic service 'in Toronto homes for a period of two years.' These girls in time got married and found their permanent homes either 'in the United States or Canada.
The boys' education on the farm was not comparable to that provided to other children in rural Canada at the time. Like their Canadian counterparts, the orphans had to tend to the farm and therefore were often absent from the classroom, but they also had to work in the kitchen and the building. Moreover, the teachers they had, the superintendents, did not have training in teaching, neither could they allot their time only to teaching, since they had other duties to attend to. One of the effective ways the boys could keep their identity was the publication of the Ararat magazine, that 'included original writings both in Armenian and English as well as translations.
Gradually, after having possessed enough farming skills, some of the boys were sent out to other farms in Ontario. In December 1927, the Farm Home was sold and converted into Cedarvale Home for Girls and the Armenian Relief Association's assets were transferred to the United Church of Canada. Many of the boys were left almost without shelter. Some were lucky to be taken 'in by farmers who also gave them a good education, but others, less fortunate, were employed as cheap farm laborers and Missed the chance of a good education. In time, most of these boys, young men by now, ventured out into the cities and there also faced new difficulties arising from their insufficient knowledge of English. About twenty-five of them joined the army on the onset of World War II, others volunteered at various stages and three lost their lives on the battlefield.
During the early 1920's, Canada allowed some thousand Armenians to immigrate. Besides the Georgetown Boys, the majority were young women who had survived the Genocide and like the orphans, had found refuge in various countries of the Middle East. Marriages between these women and the widowed or eligible men who were in Canada were arranged through intermediaries or marriage brokers.
Between 1926 and 1955, a total of 704 Armenians are believed to have entered Canada as immigrants. This relatively low figure reflects the policy of the Immigration authorities, who classified Armenians as 'Asiatic'. '17he Canadian government, in order to restrict the entry of undesirable elements that could not assimilate easily in the Canadian society, categorized settlers from northern and western Europe as Preferred Group, those from central and eastern Europe as Non-Preferred Group and all the rest - including all Jews, people from Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Syria and Turkey - as Special Permit Group. Armenians fell in the last category.
Between 1931 and 1951 most of the Armenian immigrants were admitted into Canada on humanitarian grounds. The admission of those between 1950 and 1951 may be attributed to the considerable relaxation of immigration regulations on humanitarian grounds concerning Armenians, by Colin Gibson, the Minister of Immigration at the time. The Armenian National Committee for Homeless Armenians was established in 1947 in collaboration with Armenians in the United States. The latter was formed in the aftermath of World War 11, to help find refuge to the displaced Armenians living in European camps. On April 3, 1948 the Canadian branch became independent, called the Canadian Armenian Congress, and had representatives from the existing communities in Canada, regardless of their political affiliations. Yousuf Karsh was appointed honorary president, whose 'connections were of great value.' The Congress had the following as its primary objectives:
to bring five hundred displaced Armenians from Europe,
to induce the Canadian Government to remove the Armenian race from the Asiatic classification.
The Congress was advised by an Immigration officer who had been stationed in Egypt, then moved, to Vienna, to apply for blanket sponsorship, like the Jewish Immigration Aid Society had done. Intense lobbying bore fruit. The application was accepted and the blanket sponsorship was used for seven or eight years. The same dauntless efforts won the approval of a special immigration law on July 4, 1952, by which the Armenians were no more classified as an 'Asiatic Race'. On a wider scale, the 1952 Immigration Act gave the minister and his officials power to set regulations at their own discretion, to apply the act." These changes worked favorably for the Congress. All applications for immigration were screened by the members of the Congress, who had set a system of points in order to make their task easier, then transferred to the government for approval. The members of the Congress offered their voluntary services. A nominal fee was charged for each application and the money was used to pay the man employed to do the paper work. When the Congress was dissolved, the money in the bank account was divided equally between the St. Hagop Church in Montreal and St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in St. Catharines. Though the Congress could not financially assist the newcomers, the latter were given appropriate guidance, and were introduced to people who would find a job for them.
After 1961 there are no official statistics on the number of Armenian immigrants to Canada because records indicate the country of origin rather than ethnic background. However, a statistical table compiled by Serge Pelletier from a Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and from Immigration Canada 1946 to 1966, records the number of Armenians having immigrated to Canada between 1961 and 1966, as around 4,784.
In 1967 new regulations in the immigration act removed all racial and ethnic restrictions. Immigration applications were accepted based on a point system that reflected the priorities set by the economic state of the country.60 In the last twenty-five or thirty years, a significant number of Armenians have immigrated to Canada as a result of political upheavals in Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon. However, they have entered Canada not according to their ethnic background, but their country of origin. Therefore it is almost impossible to trace their exact number. The majority of these immigrants have chosen Ontario, most probably because of their knowledge of English; some of them have later moved as far away as Alberta and British Columbia. Unofficial sources estimate the number of Armenians in Ontario at present to be about 25,000, with those in Metro Toronto alone as approximately 20,000.
It is interesting to note that early Armenian immigrants chose Ontario as home, and concentrated in Brantford, Hamilton and St. Catharines, where 'In 1930 they built the first Armenian Apostolic Church, still operating presently. This may be due to the proximity of these towns to the United States' border. Few settled in Toronto. After gaining some financial security, most of those living in the environs, moved into Toronto or further into other provinces. Others chose Quebec, especially the latest waves, most probably because of their knowledge of French, and the relatively welcoming immigration policy in Quebec, that has set its 'own social and economic priorities and has worked with the federal government to ensure that immigration into Quebec complemented those priorities.


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