Armenian diaspora and the memory of 205 Ottoman Turks in Canada

Armenian diaspora and the memory of 205 Ottoman Turks in Canada

Three years ago I went skiing in the Banff National Park in Canada. At that time I did not know that Turks who were incarcerated during World War I were perhaps among those who helped build the park!

I just recently discovered that during the First World War, “enemy aliens (nationals of Germany and of the Austro–Hungarian and Turkish Empires) were subject to internment. Of 8,579 men at 24 camps across Canada, 5,954 were of Austro-Hungarian origin, including 5,000 Ukrainians; 2009 were Germans, 205 were Turks and 99 were Bulgarians. All endured hunger and forced labor, helping to build some of Canada’s best-known landmarks such as the Banff National Park,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

These Turks used to live in Bradford. All 200 or so were picked up one night and sent to a camp north of Ontario. They spent five years there. Some died there. Others came back to Bradford. There is a burial site in the city where the bodies of some of those who came back are believed to be.

This year marks the centenary of the start of World War I. So the Turkish ambassador to Canada, just like his other Italian or German colleagues, decided to start an initiative to commemorate the Turks that suffered in the detention camps. The response of the local municipality to the wish to mark the place with a plaque was positive at first, yet local authorities appear to be hesitating in backing this purely humanitarian initiative. No doubt the Armenian community is behind it. They think this is an effort to derail their lobbying activities!

Turkish historian Taner Akçam, who claims that the World War I mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman hands was genocide, talks about a “denial industry” in Turkey. I would not contest it, except that the same is also true for the Armenian diaspora. Their industry is about closing all eyes and ears to anything that can question genocide. But this industry goes as far as “obstructing anything Turks do; hating anything Turkish.” Of course there are moderate Armenians looking for dialogue, but it seems they are being terrorized by the more radicals.

What’s wrong with commemorating a few hundred Turks who had nothing to do with the Armenian tragedy in Anatolia. It would have been much wiser to come and attend the ceremony and perhaps give messages or letters to the Turkish ambassador, asking the Turkish state to show the same sensitivity to the thousands of dead Armenians.

Another example of the Armenian “industry”: Apparently whenever Turkish representations donate books reflecting the Turkish side of what happened to the local libraries, Armenians take the books, destroy them, and then pay compensation.

The denial industry in Turkey is losing, albeit slowly, its force; I wonder when this will be the case with the Armenian diaspora. I wonder to what degree they are ready to realize that taboos are being broken in Turkey about the Armenian tragedy. More and more people are questioning the past. It is imperative that the Armenian diaspora realizes this change in Turkey. Yet without any bridges for dialogue, how can we blame them for not being aware of current developments on the subject?

In contrast to the past, the Turkish government is very much willing to enter into a dialogue with the diaspora; in fact Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has called them the “Anatolian diaspora.”

But in view of the resistance that will emanate from the diaspora, countries that are hosting Armenian communities should help initiate this dialogue. After all, several countries, from Europe to the Americas, will come under extreme pressure from both Armenians and Turks in these two years ahead.