Canada’s Secretary of State of Multi-Culturalism Jason kenney was in town last weekend to accept the ANC-WR Freedom Award on behalf of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He sat down with Asbarez’s Allen Yekikian to discuss the award, as well as the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Canada. Below is the transcription of that interview, which will air on Horizon Armenian Television.
Allen Yekikian: Can you comment a bit about your trip to the United States to receive the prestigious Freedom Award on behalf of Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Armenian National Committee annual Banquet?
Jason Kenney: Well, it’s an honor to be here and I know that the Prime Minister appreciates the honor. Prime Minister Harper is a leader who has exercised principled positions on human rights and I think he is being recognized internationally for that. I think he’s really put Canada increasingly back onto the world stage. It’s an honor to be here and to receive the very warm welcome of the community here in California.
A.Y.: On April 21, 2004 the House of Commons of the Canadian parliament adopted the resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide with a vote of 153 to 68 in favor of passage. Prime Minister Harper, in 2006, became the first Canadian head of government to recognize the Genocide as a policy of the government of Canada. Were there any hurdles or challenges to passing this resolution in Canada?
J.K.: Well I think that there were multiple resolutions presented over the years–as has been the case in the United States congress–that did not succeed. It’s more difficult to get what we call private members motions or resolutions adopted so there were some technical challenges but there was also, of course, a lot of opposition. But we did get a resolution through the Canadian Senate–I believe unanimously–two years before the House of Commons. When the House of Commons resolution was adopted by our Parliamentarians, the Liberal government of the day refused to recognize or acknowledge the resolution. They declared it meaningless and not a government policy. However, Mr. Harper, leader of the Conservative Party while it was in opposition, voted in favor of the resolution as I was one of its cosponsors–the vast majority of our colleagues did so. So when he became Prime Minister in February of 2006, our government–his government–acknowledged the motion as Canadian policy.
A.Y.: Was there any pressure from foreign governmen’s or other Canadian organizations for the Canadian government not to adopt the resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide?
J.K.: Of course. I think Canada is the same as every democratic society. On this and every issue, there is always a debate and there are always countervailing issues and forces–and certainly there are those who are opposed to recognition of the genocide–but I think the sense that prevailed in the debate was the need for us to really learn from the tragic lessons of the twentieth century, particularly the history of the Genocide.
It’s not so long ago that a Canadian General Romeo Dallaire was in charge of the UN mission in Rwanda which saw 850,000 people slaughtered, in part because of international inaction. We see the ongoing crisis in Darfur and so it’s important–I think most parliamentarians concluded that it’s important–for Western Democracy’s to be straight forward about the lessons of history–not to be stuck in the past but to acknowledge it and learn from it.
A.Y.: Every time a major state passes a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Ankara reacts negatively such as was the case with France when Ankara froze official visits and temporarily blocked companies from competing for defense contracts in Turkey. Did Ankara make similar threats toward the Canadian government? If so, have any of those threats been acted upon or have Ankara’s threats been empty?
J.K.: Well following the Prime Minister’s statement acknowledging the parliamentary motion acknowledging the Genocide, there were some actions taken by the Turkish government, including the suspension of some joint training exercises for the military and apparently a ban on Canadian participation in the development of nuclear energy projects in Turkey as well. The Turkish government has made it clear that they were displeased with the decision. We understand the Turkish position and what we’ve tried to say is that Canada remains a friend of turkey. We are NATO allies with Turkey. We support the progress that turkey is making on many fronts and encourage them to continue. We want to have a positive political and trading relationship with that country but we don’t think that acknowledging a historical reality of 90 years ago should jeopardize that relationship and on the whole I think the day to day exchanges that happen between businesses and individuals continue without any interruption.
A.Y.: Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs was firmly opposed and even obstructive to the passing of this resolution. How has the Department of Foreign Affairs dealt with the issue since it was passed?
J.K.: Well the position of the Canadian government has been made clear by the Prime Minister on several occasions. He clarified that in a letter recently to Canadians who were asking for clarification. As the Prime Minister said, sometimes it takes a little while for officials in government to fully adopt the policies of a newly elected government. That’s not unique to Canada; perhaps there was some of that in this issue with certain ministries but it’s the elected government of Canada that determines our positions and quite frankly our elected government did it on the basis of a strong consensus in both houses of our parliament. So in democratic societies it’s not permanent officials in the bureaucracy that determine policy it’s those elected by the people and that what we’ve done.
A.Y.: What is the significance of this resolution for Canada?
J.K.: Well Canada was one of the champions on the international stage of the enshrining and recognizing of the duty to protect, which is the idea that the world cannot sit by and watch massive humanitarian disasters as they unfold. Hopefully we all learned the lessons of Rwanda where as I said, Canadian General Dallaire was in charge of the UN mission and his hands were tied by the United Nations. He was not even allowed to use his modest peace keeping troops to protect the people who were being massacred. It was a tragedy on many levels and a massive failure for multilateral institutions.
We need to learn from that and there’s a new film actually on that incident called "Shaking hands with the Devil." It’s about Romeo Dellaire’s experience with the UN mission in Rwanda. I’m of the view that the world must learn that lesson as we deal with areas like Darfur where innocent people are too easily attacked because of their ethnicity. Again this is a lesson that we must learn–going all the way back to 1915.
A.Y.: Prime Minister Harper has very strong, principled positions on Human Rights. What’s the driving force behind his stance on Human Rights abuses? Is it his faith? A strong moral conviction?
J.K.: I think he is simply a principle based politician. He’s not someone who wears his faith on his sleeve. He has a strong belief in the core values of Canadian democracy, including the dignity of the human person and inalienable human rights.
Canada has a uniquely good reputation in the world. We need to use that and leverage it to advance and articulate the protection of human rights. So I see his decision on the issue of the Armenian genocide as being consistent on that general approach. I’m glad to see that he’s not alone; the new President of France Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed Bernard Kouchner as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, again they are taking a much more principled approach.
There is always a balance in foreign policy between what they call interests and values, between realism and idealism. I’d like to think that Prime Minister Harper has put more emphasis on Canada’s ideals without neglecting our interests.
A.Y.: The late Hrant Dink was also a firm champion of human rights who came under constant threat for his advocacy of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. What are your thoughts on his assassination and Turkish penal code Article 301? What do you think can be done to diminish the climate of denial and repression that gave rise to his murder?
J.K.: Well, I’m sure that like all Western governmen’s we are concerned about laws that prohibit freedom of expression or even academic study on matters of historical interest and by the way our government, through our Foreign Minister Peter McCay, encouraged both Turkish and Armenian governmen’s to collaborate as much as possible in historical research–in a spirit of openness and friendliness. We know that’s difficult but we hope that one day it can be achieved.
The Assassination of Hrant Dink obviously was a terrible crime, a politically motivated crime, a crime of hatred and was and must be condemned by the entire world and I salute the brave scholars and writers throughout the world who are willing to risk their freedom and their lives by pursuing the truth and speaking truth to power.
A.Y.: Do you feel the Canadian resolution serves as an example for open discussion and education about this issue, both in Canada and the United States?
J.K.: Yea, I think so. I think the policy we adopted has a pedagogical and educational function in that it helps to instigate public debate and causes people to learn–importantly–about our past. Obviously the Jewish community has demonstrated tremendous responsibility in taking the Holocaust as an opportunity, if you will, to teach current and future generations about the consequences of racial, ethnic and religious hatred if it’s allowed to germinate and I think there’s an obligation for the Armenian community to teach as well, what happened in 1915 so we can learn those lessons now as well as in the future.
A.Y.: What are your thoughts on the destruction of the monumen’s in Nakhichevan as well as Turkey, both of which are part of Historic Armenia?
J.K.: I believe that UNESCO has expressed the international concern about the destruction of historic sites. I know that the Armenian nation is the first Christian nation and there are magnificent vestiges of the Christian history in Anatolia that date back centuries–in fact more than 1500 years. It seems to me that there’s a universal human interest in preserving those sites of world history and regardless of the context, I can’t imagine why people would want to destroy–wantonly–historic sites of that kind of value to all of humanity–for people of all religions. Regardless of one’s faith, surely we can respect the beauty, at least the aesthetic beauty, of what our ancestors have left us. I would hope that that kind of thing would stop and the international community would be more active in seeking the protection of sites like those.
A.Y.: Oftentimes, these destructive acts not only wound the dignity of the people who treasure monumen’s, they become self-inflicted wounds harming the health of these countries that are developing democracies. What can we do to communicate the importance of maintaining respect for cultural, ethnic and religious diversity as being the backbone of democratic governance?
J.K.: Well, that’s an excellent question; it’s a particular challenge faced by many western countries with large and high levels of immigration. We have a particular approach in Canada. I’m the Minister for Multiculturalism and National Identity. We, for a long time have sought to reconcile the differences of ethnicity, race, language and religion through an active kind of pluralism accommodating differences and I think we’ve built a pretty successful model in Canada in this regard but you can never take it for granted.
There are always going to be people, who tragically, are going to be motivated by hatred for the other and we have to always be vigilant in fighting against that, in educating young people–not through propaganda and political correctness but through educating young people constantly about the tragic consequences of when racial, ethnic and religious hatred can become attached to violence. Again the history of 1915 is central to those lessons. In avoiding the kinds of tensions we see in some parts of the world it’s so important to learn the lessons of history and actively teach them and re-teach them.
A.Y.: Do you see any parallels with the United States Department of State and Canada’s Department of Foreign Services, specifically in regards to the ferocity with which it resists congressional calls for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide?
J.K.: Well, I don’t think it’s any secret that in the balance between values and interests, foreign ministries and the State Department and its counterparts around the world have an institutional bias if you will in advancing the national interest side of the equation in that dynamic mix between values and interest. So I’m not surprised if that’s the case.
I don’t think anybody should pretend–nobody in the Armenian community should pretend that this is a simple issue for democracies–for countries that are engaged in that region. At the end of the day what we have decided in Canada is that we can’t allow political interests to trump a clear acknowledgment of an event that was central to the history of genocide in the twentieth century–a history which tragically continues till this day.
A.Y.: How can elected officials reconcile this kind of impasse they find themselves facing with their state departmen’s or equivalent institutions?
J.K.: As I said in the Canadian context, we–ultimately the democratic institutions–have to prevail in a democracy and that was the position we took in Canada. The senate and then the House of Commons adopted motions, our new government recognized them, unfortunately there was a two year lag there when the older government refused to but we allowed democracy to prevail and that’s the bottom line. There may have been different points of view from certain people but at the end of the day, those who are elected are accountable to the people and so our experience is that these things can be handled in a very civil way–democratically–through democratic processes.
A.Y.: How can the Canadian government’s handling of this similar impasse serve as a frame of reference for our legislators on Capitol Hill?
J.K.: Well, it’s not for me to give lessons to anybody in the US government. All I can do is reflect on our own experience in Canada; there was a long process of education that led to this policy of the acknowledgment of the genocide and it wasn’t done over night and it required great persistence. But one of the encouraging things, I must say, was that it was an all party–it was never a partisan–issue. We have four parties in our Canadian parliament and all of them, well there were members of all of them that supported these resolutions. So I think that it’s important to work with all people of good faith and if they just look at the historical record, ultimately people of good faith will be persuaded of the truth.
A.Y.: What are your opinions on the Armenian Community in Canada? What have been the most significant contributions of the Armenian community to Canadian society?
J.K.: Well, it’s a community that has been there for a long time, in fact, there have been Armenian migrations to Canada since before 1915. Obviously there were refuges that came after 1915. And one of the interesting factors is that it’s not all concentrated in any one area. Canada is an enormous country and there are Armenian communities all the way in Victoria where Atom Egoyan grew up, to Halifax in the east coast. It’s a community that has, perhaps in part because of its tragic history, been successful at keepings its integrity as a community–in keeping together even though the diaspora is so far flung and this is one of the things I really admire about the Armenian community–the sense of strong identity, notwithstanding centuries of adversity, notwithstanding the dispersion through the worldwide diasproa, there’s still a sense of roots and a sense of obligation to those who came before. But people are also thankfully looking forward. Obviously the Armenian community has been very successful in business; we’ve had people in elected politics from the Armenian community in Canada as well as in the United States. I think it’s been a very successful community that has contributed enormously to the diversity of Canada’s social fabric.