From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Armenians/Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill
The Genocide was a watershed in Armenian cultural life. At a time when survivors needed to strengthen their heritage and to reinforce their identity, their creative leadership had been annihilated and their artistic infrastructure demolished. The thread of learning, linking youngsters to their cultural past had, moreover, been brutally cut. Newcomer refugees to Canada, many of them children at the time of the upheaval, brought with them only shreds of their heritage.
For survivors, the main objective was to revitalize what had been lost. Typical of refugee rehabilitation, Armenians in the first years following their trauma concentrated on restoring a treasured past. Every Armenian group tried to rebuild a shattered culture. To this end, immigrants established the Canadian Armenian Union (CAU) in Toronto in 1925. Members formed a choir, which, under the direction of Yervant Selyan, gave regular concerts of traditional Armenian music on stage and radio. Similarly, the choir organized for the Hamilton Centennial in 1946 sang Armenian folk, patriotic, and émigré songs, usually from the compilation of the monk Gomidas. Theatrical repertoire also derived from the period before 1914, with a penchant for the works of Hagop Baronian and Yervant Odian or translations of classics, such as the Hamilton production of Othello in 1958.
In the pioneer settlements in Canada, many women did needle work – skills often learned in the orphanages– making lace, embroidering, knitting, crocheting, and tatting. They did not, however, pass their knowledge on to their daughters, who often preferred manufactured clothing. In telling stories – folktales, fables, tales of village life, exploits of heroes of resistance – mothers often referred to the sanctity of bread,jagadakir jagadakir (destiny), and sayings about the eye: “blind your eye,” “light in your eye,” “the good eye,” “the evil eye.”
Little clubs provided a gathering place for adults and children alike. Here the men had their kratarans (reading rooms) and coffee-houses, smoked, drank coffee, played cards and backgammon, and discussed local and world events. Organizations held meetings and periodically the community staged a play, held a hantes (concert), or put on a khunjoik (feast) – a social function combining speeches, musical entertainment, recitations and skits, feasting, and dancing. As well, community members held birthday parties, wedding receptions, and funeral wakes.
There were many special days on the Christian calendar. Armenians celebrated Christmas on 6 January, then dined on the traditional Keghetsi dish, the bagharch (baked whole wheat flour with madzoon [yoghurt], garlic, and hot, clarified butter). They combined Christian, Jewish, and ancient pagan elements when they lit fires for Diaruntarach, commemorating Christ’s presentation at the temple, and dumped water over each other at Vartavar (Transfiguration). On Easter, the holiest of all days, they cracked boiled, terracotta–coloured eggs. At Ascension, women gathered together to celebrate Veejag, drawing lots to predict their fortune. In August, Armenians rejoiced at the feast of the Assumption of Mary and the Blessing of Grapes. Periodically, to give special thanks, they held the ritual of madagh, the sacrificial lamb.
Community picnics featured traditional dishes such as rice or bulgour pilaff, shish kebab (barbecued-skewered meat), beorag (cheese or spinach in philo pastry), gatah (coffee cake), keefteh (stuffed meatballs), paghlava and bourma (nuts wrapped in philo pastry), and herisah (chicken or veal with hulled whole wheat). People danced the classic Armenian shoorch bar (circle dance) to the strains of a local violinist and later to the music of a four- or five-piece popular Armenian band. These traditions, including the Christmas feast of bagharch and herisah, continue to the present.
Early Armenian Canadians – few in number, dispersed, and isolated from mainstream Armenian cultural activities – looked to diasporan centres such as Boston, Paris, Cairo, and Beirut as well as to Soviet Armenia for cultural inspiration. As a generation of Armenian artists and intelligentsia emerged in Soviet Armenia and in the diaspora, a post-Genocide Armenia culture began to take shape. By the 1930s and 1940s, as the children and grandchildren of the early settlers were reaching maturity, a hybrid culture had begun to emerge. Popular music, for example, was a mixture of traditional Armenian, Turkish, and American influences. If people listened to recordings of Armenian music, these were usually of Armenian-American bands performing Armenian melodies with a North American or Latin beat or Armenian-American compositions, such as Catskilleen Jampa (the Catskill Road). Post-1950 settlers added a different dimension to cultural life, for they were knowledgeable about their Ammenian heritage and determined to preserve it. Cultural exchanges with Soviet Armenia also stimulated Armenian literary and artistic expression in Canada. Cultural renewal has promoted efforts to purge foreign influences, usually Turkish, and to restore traditional folklore, arts, crafts, festivals, language, and literature. As the Armenian community matured and felt more self-confident in Canada, and as members participated in Canadian literary and artistic life, a fusion of Armenian and Canadian cultures began to appear.
For Armenian Canadians, theatre, performed either by travelling troupes or by local groups, has been popular. It enabled survivors of the Genocide to mourn in public with dignity and to find release from sorrow in comedies and operettas. Armenians are devoted to traditional Armenian playwrights and to the world classics, especially Shakespeare. However, as more modern plays are being written in Armenian and performed by theatrical groups, the community is beginning to accept avant-garde work as well. Local troupes perform also in English and French and participate in multicultural theatrical festivals.
Earlier generations wrote autobiographies and memoirs, poetry, and village or regional histories, dominated by the theme of loss. The same theme remains prevalent today, as in Aram P. Aivazian’s Armenia: Usurped by Genocide and Treachery (1992); Ara Baliozian’s Fragmented Dreams: Armenians in Diaspora (1987); Shant Basmajian’s poetry; Kerop Bedoukian’s The Urchin: An Armenian’s Escape (1978); Agop Hacikyan’s Un été sans aube (A Summer without Dawn, 1991); and Lorne Shirinian’s works of literary criticism, such as Armenian–North American Literature: A Critical Introduction: Genocide, Diaspora, and Symbols (1990).
Musical expression remains popular. In the early days, singers such as Mary Ohanian and instrumentalists such as Robert Melkonian performed for the community. Choirs sang sharagans (hymns) for church services, as well as traditional songs. Today, church and community choirs stage regular concerts, as do local and foreign musicians. With the growing popularity of Armenian-American and Armenian-Canadian bands, informal group singing began to decline, and many old songs were lost before ethnomusicologists such as Hasmig Injejikian could record them. Armenian bands perform Armenian pop music for social gatherings; they play Armenian melodies with a North American or Middle Eastern rhythm and use modern recording techniques and instrumentation. Tapes and compact discs bring Armenian liturgical, classical, and popular music from around the world to Canada.
Dancing has been an integral, participatory, and joyful part of community life. The most popular group dance is the traditional circle dance, where everyone – young and old, men and women – dances together as in a chain, with little fingers entwined. During the 1970s and 1980s, concerts by travelling dance troupes from the former Soviet Armenia encouraged the creation of Armenian-Canadian dance ensembles, which now give regular concerts. The concerts helped raise dancing to the level of art and popularized regional costumes and an extensive repertoire of dances. They transformed choreography, costume design, and accompanying music. Despite efforts to return to traditional roots in the arts, Armenian musicologists and dance experts bemoan the intrusions of non-Armenian elements, too often mistakenly labelled “Armenian” by the people.
Most institutions and organizations have cultural adjuncts. The Armenian Catholic Union, Hamaskine, the MEG (Meghitarian, Essayan, Getronagan colleges in Constantinople), and Tekeyan, for example, have a three-fold mandate: to strengthen and encourage Armenian cultural expression and disseminate it among community members; to bring Armenian artistic and literary endeavours to the attention of non-Armenian Canadians; and to expose Armenian Canadians to the great works of the world. The cultural groups organize choirs, theatrical troupes, folk-dance groups, literary and fine arts exhibits, and public lectures and debates; invite painters, lecturers, and performing artists from abroad; sponsor television and radio programs; teach Armenian language; operate lending libraries; launch books; and publish newsletters and newspapers.
Brief, handwritten notes of local news and announcements for Armenian Canadians gradually gave way to newsletters and bulletins. The Ararat (Georgetown, Ont., 1926–28) was a monthly/bi-monthly, stencilled by young Armenian men at first in English and then in Armenian, under the direction of Aris Alexanian, their teacher. Nor Serount (New Generation; Toronto, 1955– ) was published by Holy Trinity Church. Each organization puts out its own tabloid; in Montreal, for example, eight came out in 1989, and a ninth was funded privately.
Before the 1970s Armenian Canadians relied on Armenian-language newspapers – usually partisan – published abroad, frequently in the United States. Today, Abaka (Future; Montreal, 1975– ), edited by Arsen-Noubar Mamourian, is the organ of the Ramgavars; Horizon (Horizon; Montreal, 1979– ), edited by Giro Manoyan, is the mouthpiece of the Tashnags. About four pages in each offer English and French translations of the news. Pages for the young appear periodically, and monthly literary supplements carry poetry and prose in Armenian.
The press also sustains the Armenian language. Historically, Armenian has three forms: classical, for services of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches; eastern, used by Armenians in Iran and in the Caucasus; and western, used in the former Ottoman Empire and in North America. Armenians from different places in the Ottoman Empire, using different dialects, ended up together in countries of refuge. The spoken and written languages needed to be standardized, and the press acted as a catalyst, standardizing and modernizing the language. The Armenian-Canadian press provides a forum in all genres for writers such as Garbis Armen, ‘Vrej-Armen Artinian, Harout Berberian, Mher Karakashian, and Chaké Minassian.
In the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, Armenians were identified by their religion; in Canada, they were an ethnic and linguistic minority, and language became a means of retaining identity. Although parents insisted that children speak Armenian in the home and helped operate Armenian schools, language loss has occurred. According to the 1981 census, for example, about 64 percent of Armenians in St Catharines were born in Canada, and of them only 14 percent spoke Armenian as the main language in the home.
Concerned about language loss, leaders encourage participation in Armenian organizations, where Armenian typically is spoken. Some argue that Armenian must remain the language of communication both in the home and in community activities, while others fear that to insist on Armenian will discourage the young and eventually drive them away. Still, many young people are learning the language and taking an interest in Armenian affairs, as revealed by the growing numbers who travel annually to Armenia to work and study.
Armenian Canadians have excelled in photography: Cavouk (Artin Cavoukian), of Toronto, is famous for his colour portraits; Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, is a world-renowned black-and-white portrait photographer; and Malak (Malak Karsh), of Ottawa, specializes in landscapes. One of Malak’s photographs appeared on the back of the one-dollar bill before that note was replaced by a coin. In other arts, Anahid Aprahamian, Hagop Koubesserian, Berge Missakian, Gérard Paraghamian, David Safarian, Arman Tatossian, and Arto Yuzbasiyan have distinguished themselves in painting, and Arto Tchakmakchian in sculpture. Khazaros Surmeyan has contributed in ballet, and Richard Ouzounian in theatre and radio. Atom Egoyan has directed several award-winning films, including Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Arto Paraghamian also produces film. Arsinée Khanjian has played leading roles in many of Egoyan’s films. Merj Fazlian combines acting with film production.
In music, notable Armenian Canadians have included Nourhan Arman, musical director of the New Brunswick Symphony; Raffi Armenian, former conductor of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra; Norair Artinian, pianist; Mihran Essegulian, composer; Gérard Kantarjian, violinist and former concertmaster with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Aline Kutan, soprano; Zabel Manoukian, pianist; Peter Oundjian, violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet; Ludwig Semerjian, pianist; Hratchia Sevadjian, violin teacher; Bedros Shoujounian, composer and choir director; and Zaven Zakarian, clarinetist. Raffi (Cavoukian) is a children’s song-writer and performing artist, and Maryvonne Kendergi is a teacher and musicologist.