Students from the Armenian Students’ Association together with the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) of Canada and the Armen Karo Student Association, an organization that promotes Armenian studies in Canadian universities, protested a panel discussion held by the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations on February 27.
Justin A. McCarthy, a professor from the University of Louisville, and Bruce Fein, a prominent lawyer, were the two speakers invited to the panel. Both have denied that the 1915 Armenian Genocide was a genocide, in opposition to the stance taken by international organizations such as the International Association of Genocide Scholars and Genocide Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a movement to prevent and stop genocide.
The Armenian Genocide was conducted by the Ottoman Empire on the Armenian population that lived in the area presently known as Turkey. It is estimated that between one million and 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of the genocide.
Amir Hassanpour, an associate professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern civilizations, identified a clear distinction between genocide and other forms of killing. “[It] is not based on the number of killings. It is based on ‘the intent’ of perpetrators,” Hassanpour says.
When asked why there are people who continue to deny the Armenian Genocide, Hassanpour says that it is because of the seriousness of the crime. “This is a serious international crime, and nationalists everywhere try to sanitize their history,” he says.
He also explains that governments were concerned with the financial consequences of recognition of genocide in the form of reparations to victims.
The protestors sat in the audience during the talk. At the first mention of genocide by Fein, the group stood up and turned their backs to the speaker in silence. Many of the other audience members were upset by the protest.
One commented that the protest was “strategically planned to disrupt this” while another called it “disrespectful”.
Organizers discussed with campus police what actions could be taken, and were told that the silent protest did not prevent the speaker from carrying on.
Some protestors were asked to move out of the line of sight of other audience members seated at the back.
After about 10 minutes, Fein resumed his speech.
When it was clear from Fein’s talk that he was denying the nature of the genocide, the protestors walked out from the panel discussion to cheers and applause from the other audience members.
Rosalie Minassian, a fourth-year political science student and president of the Scarborough chapter of the Armenian Students’ Association, was one of the leaders of the protest. According to Minassian, all Armenians at the protest were descendants of genocide survivors.
“They are using the University of Toronto as a guise to bring legitimacy to genocide denial,” she says.
Minassian also says that this went directly against the Canadian government’s official recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 2004.
After the walk-out, the protestors made their way to the Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office to submit a petition and lodge a complaint against the event. The petition called for the university to distance itself from the organizers and speakers of the panel. It was put online two days before the talk, garnering over 2,000 signatures.
According to Minassian, a letter demanding the cancellation of the event was also sent to a number of university administrators.
Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, says that the event was held by an external organization that rented space from the university.
“Events that such external organizations host are not University activities; the University does not affirm or condemn any assertions made at such events,” Blackburn-Evans says.
She adds that such events are governed by the university’s policies.
“There is a clear statement that all reservations for use of university space are subject to the university’s policy concerning freedom of speech,” she says. “The university upholds the principles of freedom of speech and of the freedom of individuals and groups from physical intimidation and harassment.”