April 24 marks the 104th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. A century may seem too long ago and distant to some, but it remains close to the descendants of survivors, because the Turkish state vehemently denies the genocide, leaving little space for justice, closure, and healing.
In 1915, the Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire rounded up and arrested the Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople (currently Istanbul) and deported them to central Anatolia, where they were all executed. Turkish authorities saw the Armenians as a threat to the Empire’s security and took away able-bodied men from their families to be imprisoned or killed, and subsequently drove women, children, and the elderly into death marches through the Syrian Desert where many died due to starvation, exposure, and exhaustion. This was a forced evacuation as part of a larger systematic campaign against the Armenian population. Rape and beatings were commonly used by the Ottoman troops and countless children either succumbed to malnutrition and disease or were left orphaned. In addition, irreplaceable, centuries old churches and architectural marvels were savagely destroyed during this campaign of mass extermination. This orchestrated annihilation campaign, which aimed to leave no Armenians alive, resulted in the death of 1.5 million women, men, and children.
Over a century later, the last of the Armenian genocide survivors, once breathing testaments, have quietly faded away and are now only kept alive through archival footage and their children’s memories of them.
In the aftermath of such profoundly traumatic events, educating current and future generations based on historical facts and survivor testimonials is not only a pedagogically sound approach but it is, first and foremost, an ethical obligation.
Amid the digital age where information is as easily accessible, as it is distorted, the lack of knowledge and awareness surrounding the Armenian genocide remains astonishing. It is a disturbing reality that many Canadian students are still unaware that the Armenian genocide was the first of the modern ideologically motivated genocides. Hitler also referred to it in one of his speeches, proclaiming: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?
Lessons of the past have clearly not yet sunk in. Now, more than ever, there is a dire urgency to educate current and future generations about past and unfolding atrocities.
The Foundation for Genocide Education founded by Heidi Berger, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, aims to rectify this situation as the Foundation’s mission is to ensure that the subject of genocide is taught in every high school throughout Quebec and across Canada.
In 2015, on the occasion of the Centennial of the Armenian genocide, the Foundation for Genocide Education began cooperating with the Armenian National Committee of Quebec and Armenian scholars, to develop a curriculum with the Quebec Ministry of Education.
Starting this fall, a number of high schools around Quebec will receive a universal teaching guide on genocide as part of a pilot project.
Along with the Quebec Ministry, the Foundation will ensure that a comprehensive guide is available to high school teachers in order to facilitate the teaching of the highly complex and sensitive topic of genocide.
The Foundation’s initiative is crucial given the present-day political climate where “fake news” is common currency, racial and religious hatred and violence permeate, and the fear of the “other” is on a sharp rise. The need to encourage youth to break down the constructed barriers of “us vs. them” and reflect critically about the dangers of intolerance is urgent.
Armenians, Assirians, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans, the Sudanese in Darfur faced forced displacement and unimaginable violence. The army in Myanmar is now annihilating the Rohingya Muslims, and the Yazidis were systematically killed and displaced by Islamic State terrorists in Iraq.
Closer to home, in Canada, the devastating repercussions of cultural genocide inflicted on the First Nations continue to be felt.
The destructive cycle of genocide is unfortunately still well and alive.
While it is encouraging and commendable to see a number of Turkish academics, students, writers, and activists seeking accuracy and discussion, denial discourses propagated by the Turkish state continue to circulate in many shapes and forms. In fact, to even raise the issue of what happened to the Armenians is considered a crime in Turkey today, referred to it as “insulting Turkishness.”
Scholars and historians have identified denial as being the final stage of genocide.
The list of genocides is too long and the toll on human lives too heavy. Education is vital in ending this cycle of hatred and violence, with Canada paving an exemplary path in genocide education.
Lalai Manjikian holds a PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University and teaches in the Humanities Department at Vanier College in Montreal. She is currently a board member of the Foundation for Genocide Education.