OTTAWA (CP) – Canada became one of few countries to formally recognize the genocide of Armenian Turks during the First World War in a strongly worded motion adopted 153-68 in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Government members were discouraged from voting for the motion, which is sure to anger a Turkish government that has never recognized the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915.
Following a charged debate at their weekly closed-door caucus meeting, Liberal backbenchers voted massively in favour while the party’s cabinet contingent rejected the Bloc Quebecois motion.
Prime Minister Paul Martin was absent during the politically sensitive vote but Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham defended the government’s opposition.
The Turkish government has warned that recognizing the genocide could have economic consequences and Graham said he wanted to maintain good relations with Turkey.
“Turkey is an important NATO ally in a region where it is a Muslim country with a moderate government,” he said.
“What we seek to do in our foreign policy is to encourage the forward dimension, we’re forward-looking. We’d like our Armenian friends and our Turkish friends to work together to put these issues in the past.”
The motion read: “That this House acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915 and condemns this act as a crime against humanity.”
The Turkish government rejects the charge of genocide as unfounded and says that while 600,000 Armenians died, 2.5 million Muslims perished in a period of civil unrest.
Unlike the Liberal government most opposition MPs – including Conservative Leader Stephen Harper – voted in favour of the motion, which places Canada in a category of only about two dozen countries to have recognized the Armenian genocide.
The United Nations has also recognized the massacre, and Armenians have been fighting for decades throughout the world for that sort of acknowledgment.
One opposition critic labelled the prime minister “hypocritical” for promising more free votes and then forcing ministers to toe the line on such a matter of deep personal conscience.
“It’s a terrible double standard for Paul Martin to force his ministers to vote against it and not even show up himself,” Day said.
“That is a hypocritical double standard.”
Liberal Hedy Fry supported the motion but said it’s important to note the atrocities were carried out under the Ottoman empire, which has faded into history and was long ago replaced by a modern Turkish state.
“I think we need to recognize the past,” she said.
“I think it doesn’t mean we’ve broken ties with the current regime in Turkey. They are our colleagues, they are our NATO allies. They are a moderate, Muslim government and I think we need to work with them.
Recognizing what happened in the Ottoman empire shouldn’t affect Canada’s diplomatic relations with Turkey, she said.
Fry and many other former Liberal cabinet ministers who are now backbenchers also voted in favour, including Martin Cauchon, Stephane Dion, Maurizio Bevilacqua, Lyle Vanclief, Lawrence MacAulay, Herb Dhaliwal and David Kilgour.