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A Canadian Mandate for Armenia

Publié le 1 janvier, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The genocide in Darfur has been met with systematic dithering regarding humanitarian aid and the prevention of atrocities. Canada encountered similar problems almost a century ago regarding humanitarian and military assistance to Armenia. This article examines Canada’s failed mandate for Armenia in early 1920, which I hope offers a practical perspective to consider more recent humanitarian crises 1.

 Heap of Soiled Clothing
Josh Gross, Heap of Soiled Clothing , 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Canadians first heard about the deteriorating conditions of life for the Ottoman Armenian people soon after Confederation. By the late nineteenth century, many people in burgeoning Canadian social and religious movements believed that urbanisation and industrialisation was contributing to degeneration in Canadian cities. As circumstances became progressively worse for the Ottoman Armenians, the Canadian reform movements that were critical of their own society became involved in various relief efforts for the Armenian people. Criticism of society’s evils was thus exported outside of Canada’s borders as well.

Fundraising Efforts and Media Coverage

Canadian Missionaries stationed in the Ottoman Empire and Protestant Canadians were the most involved in at least five fundraising efforts for the Armenians held between 1880 and the 1920s. Canadian missionaries stationed in the Ottoman Empire sent reports of death and destruction back home. The reports were published in various Canadian media outlets and sparked several religious groups in the country to undertake a series of fundraising events to help the Armenians, the raised funds of which were sent to the Canadian missionaries in the Ottoman Empire for distribution. Some of the missionaries, notably brothers William and Robert Chambers and Frederick MacCallum, were continually involved over several decades and even risked their own lives to save the Armenians. Many Canadians learned about the atrocities as a result of this network of Canadian religious associations and individuals, and of the media coverage they helped to generate.

From 1894 to 1897, an estimated 200,000 Ottoman Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid’s carefully orchestrated state-sponsored killing machine. At least $30,000 was collected by Canadians in 1896 in fundraising efforts headed by influential individuals such as Queen’s University Principal George Munro Grant and several other Canadian academic leaders. The Canadian media coverage in various newspapers including The Globe and magazines such as The Canada Presbyterian was extensive. Fundraising efforts to help the surviving Ottoman Armenians were considerable as well, and religious networks such as the Evangelical Alliance ensured that the Canadian government was encouraged to help the Armenians. The Armenian relief efforts may have constituted Canada’s first large-scale international philanthropic campaign and established a strong sense of global humanitarian involvement in the country. However, these efforts ultimately failed to do more than merely heighten the sensitivity of Canadians to the deplorable situation of the Armenians. During another round of killings in 1909, an estimated 30,000 Adana Armenians were again slaughtered.

The word genocide had not yet been coined when the ultimate destruction of over a million Ottoman Armenians took place in 1915 2. Canadians were shocked as details of the horrific crime became clearer and the killings were headlined in several Canadian newspapers, but were also preoccupied with the overseas campaigns which their own soldiers were involved in during the First World War, delaying fundraising efforts until the following year. Nevertheless, hundreds of articles were published about the killings in Canadian newspapers across the country that year. Articles often pointed to German complicity in the genocide, which may have further increased the sympathy Canadians felt towards the Armenians.

Relief efforts for the Armenians finally got underway in June 1916. By 1917, the establishment of the Armenian Relief Association of Canada (ARAC) led to better coordination and a subsequent increase in fundraising efforts. Within the span of two years, hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected and sent overseas. Canadian Sunday school children, who were probably affected by reports of starving Armenian children of the same age, collected an impressive $300,000 between 1918 and 1920.

Canadian newspapers and religious magazines covered issues relating to the Armenians from the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, when the Armenian Question received international attention, to the 1920s. Of these, The Globe provided the most extensive coverage by far, often accompanied by well-coordinated fundraising efforts. On January 9, 1920, The Globe launched its most remarkable campaign, “The Call from Armenia,” which amassed $300,000 and presented daily coverage during the next three months. The newspaper provided a highlighted box on its front page as well as several columns a few pages below, where articles detailed Canada’s specific involvement and all contributions were acknowledged.

Reports published in The Globe and The Toronto Daily Star reveal that at least one million Canadian dollars was collected and sent abroad for Armenian relief after 1916, much of it through the remarkable efforts of The Globe 3. The dollar value of Canadian donations was probably even higher, considering that some individuals and organisations would have likely sent money to American and British fundraising campaigns as well. The Globe’s coverage aloneprovides a crucial repository of information about Canadian humanitarian involvement regarding the Armenians over several decades.

Lobbying Efforts and Canadian Political Reaction

Alongside The Globe’s campaign in early 1920, influential Protestant reform movements, such as the Social Gospel, were instrumental in generating a lobbying campaign to influence the Canadian government to apply diplomatic pressure in support of the Armenians. Such groups believed that participation in the First World War was necessary for the establishment of a “Kingdom of God on Earth,” which they believed was necessary for domestic reform. Individuals from these groups became especially distraught over Armenia’s predicament, since the war was considered to have been fought to create conditions in which people such as the Armenians could live unmolested. They lobbied extensively for the establishment of an Armenian nation, a proposition that was echoed by many delegates of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, even though it was fraught with many logistical difficulties.

The administrators of several Canadian universities contributed their credibility and reputation for integrity to help the Armenians as well. These intellectuals encouraged extensive fundraising for individuals few had ever met, and compelled Canadian political attention in 1896 and especially in 1920. The Canadian government responded to the public reaction that year by pursuing more advantageous conditions for the Armenians in the international arena, while simultaneously securing a more prominent and independent role for their own country on the international stage.

However, the Canadian movement’s lobbying activities only lasted a few months, and only when interest in Canada was at its height, in early 1920. Justice for the Armenians was a goal difficult to fulfill with mere religious wish-fulfillment, ultimately the only thing in which the “social gospellers” were ready to invest. Lobbying fell short of its potential, which could have included finding more realisable solutions to help the Armenians or sustaining more successful relief efforts in Canada.

The coalition Union government, in power from 1917 to 1921, was attuned to the message of the social gospel movement and was particularly sympathetic towards the Armenians. Some politicians within the Union government, such as Undersecretary of State for External Affairs Newton Rowell, merged their moral and political philosophies when considering solutions to various problems such as those facing the Armenian people. In this way, they were similar in their political outlook to American President Woodrow Wilson, who was also very sympathetic to the plight of the Armenians and in 1920 attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the US Congress to allow the country to undertake a League of Nations mandate for Armenia 4.

Under Rowell’s lead, the Union government sent several dispatches on the issue to London between January and April 1920, the same months during which The Globe’s campaign for the Armenians was in full swing. The government demanded to be properly informed by the British concerning the Turkish Treaty and called for the establishment of an Armenian nation. Most interesting is a five page letter sent by Newton Rowell to the British detailing the Canadian government’s position on the issue on February 20, 1920, which included the telling assertion:

Although the Canadian Government has already drawn the attention of His Majesty’s Government to the public opinion in Canada on this question, the undersigned suggests that the Canadian Government should place itself on record as absolutely opposed to the return of any of the Armenian provinces of Turkey to Turkish rule and that this view should be communicated at once to His Majesty’s Government5.

Through its stance on Armenia, the Union government confirmed Canada’s autonomous post-war status in foreign relations, and simultaneously satisfied a sympathetic segment of its electorate. However, this was also a time when the Union government’s grasp on power was tenuous. Furthermore, isolationist sentiment was growing throughout Canada and Ottawa was trying to distance itself from further European entanglements. As interest waned in Canada, so did the requests for information from the British. Sporadic efforts were made to lobby the Canadian government after 1920 as well, but were not nearly as successful.

A Canadian Mandate for Armenia

Canada emerged from the war with an increased sense of nationhood and the ability to apply greater international leverage. In this environment, when it became less likely that the Americans would assume any League of Nations mandate for Armenia, several prominent Canadian and British individuals wondered whether Canada might undertake the mandate instead. Some Canadian and British media outlets referred to an article written by Henry F. Angus published in the Canadian scholarly journal The University Magazine in February 1920. Angus suggests in the article that Canada should take the mandate if the United States refused to do so since this would bolster Canada’s international reputation6. However, as mentioned, the mandate story began losing its appeal in Canada by April 1920, even though calls for Canada to take the mandate continued for at least another year.

The history of the stillborn Canadian mandate and the Anglo-Canadian communication regarding Armenia’s future offers an interesting and forgotten chapter in Canadian foreign affairs. More importantly, it highlights a seemingly ubiquitous problem regarding genocide: the difficulty of merging political morality and practicality. The moral fortitude required to stop mass atrocities from seemingly genuine Western nations is more often dependant on the attention span of a fickle audience rather than on any pervasive ethical concerns to help our fellow man. The ongoing atrocities in Darfur offer a sobering reminder of this fact.


The massive Canadian post-war interest in the Armenians was a short lived phenomenon. By the summer of 1920, The Globe’s campaign received only limited support, religious groups no longer pursued their lobbying campaign, and the Canadian government ceased its communication with Britain on the issue. Nevertheless, various associations and individuals in Canada continued to be interested in the fate of the Armenians. In 1923, the ARAC embarked on a project which became known as “the noble experiment:” the care of over one hundred Armenian orphans who were brought to Canada and settled on a farm in Georgetown, Ontario7.

Problems in establishing the will to intervene during genocides have recurred with disturbing regularity during other genocides and mass atrocities in the twentieth century. Humanitarian aid alone has never successfully stemmed the tide of killing or prevented the repetition of cruelty before the commission of mass atrocity crimes. The humanitarian effort and the degree of intervention that a country will mobilise have unfortunately been and continue to be proportionally determined by the perceived benefit to that country’s rather narrow self-interests. The Canadian response towards the Armenian people illustrates an example of this failure to protect humanity, no matter how well-intentioned the relief efforts may have been. More importantly, it may also offer some clues in understanding contemporary difficulties the international community is having in successfully stemming the killings in Darfur.


1. This article is a summary of my recently completed Master’s thesis entitled “Canada’s Moral Mandate for Armenia: Sparking Humanitarian and Political Interest, 1880-1923.” M. A. thesis: Concordia University, 2007.
2. Some of the best sources that document the massacre and subsequent genocide of Armenians in 1894-97, 1909, and after 1915, and that detail the intent of the genocidal Ottoman regime, include the following: Akçam, Taner. A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006; Dadrian, Vahakn. The History of the Armenian Genocide. New York: Bergahn Books, 1995. Walker, Christopher J. Armenia: The Survival of a Nation. London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1980.
3. On September 29, 1922, the Toronto Daily Star announced that the ARAC had already raised $851,715 since 1916, not including shipments of grain and clothing, and was being restructured to collect an additional $200,000 for Armenian relief.
4. The best source for the story of the failed American mandate for Armenia is written by Gidney, James B. A Mandate for Armenia. Oberlin: Kent State University Press, 1967.
5.Confidential Cabinet Papers Relating to the Turkish Treaty, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG25 A-3-a, vol. 1265, file 1920-463, February 20, 1920. Cited in Adjemian,“Canada’s Moral Mandate for Armenia,” p. 54.
6. Angus, H. F. “Next for Duty.” The University Magazine 19:1, February 1920: 24-30.
7. A book written by one of these orphans years later details some of their experiences. Apramian, J. The Georgetown Boys. Winona, Ontario: The Georgetown Boys’ Association, 1976.

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