Many accounts of the 109 Georgetown boys, orphans of the Armenian Genocide who were brought to Canada, often fail to mention that 39 orphan girls also arrived under the same program. Their harrowing journey from the killing fields of the Ottoman Empire to the shores of Canada form the basis of the origins of the Canadian-Armenian story. For Mariam Mazmanian and Mampre Shirinian coming to Canada was fortuitous.
Mariam Mazmanian arrived in Georgetown, Ontario in 1927, after escaping the Armenian Genocide. Mampre Shirinian had arrived three years earlier, in 1924, from the Greek island of Corfu after being separated from his family during the genocide in the town of Geyve. Mariam and Mampre would meet on the farms of Georgetown, and after marrying they would create a family of their own, having two sons, Lorne and George, who went on to carry their family’s legacy. The Shirinian brothers were raised in Toronto and have written extensively about living in the diaspora and the legacy of the Armenian Genocide.
The Georgetown initiative is one of the most notable examples of Canadian humanitarianism. The orphaned children were initially housed in Georgetown at the Cedarvale Farm, currently the Cedarvale Community Centre. This international humanitarian project was the first of its kind carried out by the Canadian government, called “Canada’s Noble Experiment.” The children were brought to the attention of the Canadian government by representatives of two organizations––the United Church of Canada and the Armenian Relief Association of Canada. Through their support and a few private sponsors, the federal government allowed the immigration of 148 Armenian children to Canada. They were raised on the farms of Georgetown and when they reached adulthood they set out to build their own lives and families in their adopted homeland. Unfortunately, not all the farming families the children worked for honored the requirement to school the children until the age of 16. Some of the children did not receive the education needed to live successful lives upon leaving Georgetown. Instead they were used as laborers on the farms until they were able to leave and go out on their own.
Lorne Shirinian is deeply connected to the boys and girls who arrived in Canada in the 1920s, as his immediate family traces its roots back to the farms of Georgetown. “I learned from an early age that being a diaspora Armenian since 1915 means having a connection to Western Armenian culture that developed over 2 millennia in its historical homeland that no longer exists,” Shirinian writes, regarding his childhood. “I had lost something I never really had.” This short tale is the beginning of a larger story experienced by many Armenians around the world; they were not privy to that world before the Armenian Genocide, and yet the sense of longing persists. It seems as though this in turn founded a sense of responsibility among the children of survivors, to aid in the rebirth of a culture that was unjustly stripped from their ancestors.
Shirinian goes on to note that the Georgetown boys and girls became a part of the first generation of diasporans created after the Armenian Genocide. His mother and father would often entertain other former Georgeotown boys and girls, recalling how their home had become “an unofficial Armenian center” periodically hosting picnics and gatherings. His connection to these survivors was strong––he was raised by them, heard their stories, grew up around the culture and received his sense of community from this environment that his mother and father had created.
Hrad Poladian, in his book “The Georgetown Boys Stories by their Sons and Daughters” writes about the lives these children built upon their arrival in Canada. In this book, Poladian compiled stories from the children and grandchildren of the Georgetown boys and girls, who shared their memories and photos of their parents and grandparents, and spoke about their own journey as descendants of orphans.
Poladian’s book also tells the story of the Georgetown Boys, among them Kourken (Kirk) Magarian. His family hailed from Ankara and like so many Armenians, were expelled from their homes, finding their way to the Greek island of Corfu. He found passage to Canada from there, after he was chosen by the orphanage of the Lord Mayor’s Fund, a British charity providing relief aid to refugees.
Like so many other Georgetown boys, Kourken had to part ways with his family as a small child. His grandmother insisted he go to Canada, finally convincing his mother it was his best hope for a good life. His group was the first to arrive in Canada in 1923. In an interview with the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education, he mentions that it took about a year for all the children to fully adjust to their new lives. He recalls the encouragement they received from the local Armenians such as Aris Alexanian, a prominent businessman from Hamilton, Ontario.
Kourken went on to marry Marjorie Gibson, and although they did not have any children of their own, he always supported the activities of the Armenian community. He is remembered for his consistent financial support to the Toronto chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation. Kourken was always willing to donate his time and money, while never asking for anything in return. Furthermore, he was one of the founding members of the Armenian Community Centre which was first located on the corner of Avenue Road and Dupont Street in Toronto. This community center was one of the rallying points for all Armenians in Southern Ontario, and a Georgetown boy played a role in its inception.
Tom Jackson is a city councillor in Hamilton and the son of Misak Toumajian, a Georgetown boy. His father hailed from Eskisehir in the Ottoman Empire and at the behest of his uncle, was sent to Canada. Jackson’s mother’s family also escaped the Armenian Genocide. His mother Verkin Ohanian was born in Marseille, after her parents fled the massacres. Jackson was born and raised in Hamilton, and has been serving his district as a city councillor since 1988. He has also been a fervent supporter of the Hamilton Armenian community, helping them acquire the financial collateral for a new community center. This location has continued to remain the home of the Armenian community of Hamilton for the last 25 years.
Jackson recalls what it was like growing up as a first generation Canadian Armenian. “My parents told me to never be ashamed,” he says, adding that this was at a time when many descendants of the Georgetown boys were teased and alienated for their identity. Despite the challenges, his parents immersed him in the Armenian culture and language––something immediately evident when he greeted me with, “Arman, inchbes es?” [Arman, how are you?] Although he was proud of his Armenian heritage, Jackson’s father changed his last name after leaving the farm from Toumajian to Jackson.
The 99th anniversary of the arrival of the Georgetown boys and girls was commemorated in 2022 by the Canadian-Armenian community, and soon thereafter it was announced that a Canadian embassy was to open in Yerevan. Regarding these two occurrences, Councillor Jackson told me he was so happy with the news and how important it is for Canada and Armenia to deepen relations. One can even draw a line from the Georgetown Boys to this new effort “to enhance the dialogue” as Mr. Jackson stated, from a noble experiment to international allies.
Councillor Jackson currently resides in Hamilton with his wife Barbara and a large extended family. He spoke of the diversity found in his district, and the sort of cultural mosaic it created. His constituents are always interested to learn about his Armenian heritage, something he has made everyone aware of in Hamilton. For the last 30 years he proudly says that he has flown two flags on his desk in his office, that of the city of Hamilton and the Republic of Armenia.
The Cedarvale Farmhouse where the children were raised was designated a historical site in 2010 by the municipality of Georgetown. In 2011, a plaque was placed at the site by the Ontario Heritage Trust, solidifying its place in the history of the province. This was made possible through the efforts of the Armenian National Committee of Toronto among other organizations, who tirelessly petitioned to preserve the memory of the Georgetown Boys.
The stories of the Georgetown boys and girls illustrate the continuous impact these orphaned children, who grew up and created new lives, had. The seeds they have sown have blossomed into thriving and prominent communities in Ontario. They came to Canada because of atrocities and horrors and continued to uphold their Armenian heritage, all the while planting their roots firmly in the communities of Southern Ontario. Their collective story is an inspiration for all Canadians of Armenian descent, but also to all who have had to begin anew in a far away land.
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Magazine Issue N10
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