The Gazette (Montreal) June 26, 2000, Editorial / Op-ed; B3
Mr. Bahaban reclaims his history: Fight to revert to Armenian
name results in a broader victory, for truth
by Harry Dikranian
In Quebec, changing your last name is often difficult and costly. Even spouses can't legally or easily adopt each other's names. A request for a change has to be supported with serious reasons. Even then, it can be denied.
And that's what happened - at first - to Jilber Bagban. The Registrar of Civil Status had no trouble with his request to change his given name from Jilber to Gilbert. But the registrar balked at his application to change Bagban, a name that had been imposed by authorities in his native Turkey, back to the original Armenian family name on his baptismal certificate, Bahaban.
That name had been carried by the family for generations. But in the 1930s, the Turkish government passed a law forcing members of all non-Turkish minorities to take Turkish names. The purpose of the new law was to obliterate ethnic identities.
In exercising his discretion, the registrar stated - astoundingly - that he was not satisfied with the reasons invoked and explained that the law requires serious, valid and important reasons to change a name.
In the end, common sense and cultural sensitivity won out. On April 25, in Quebec Superior Court, the registrar's decision was reversed. And in the process, Judge Maurice E. LagacÈ also provided the first-ever acknowledgement by a Canadian court of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and its effects on the survivors.
In appealing to the Quebec Superior Court, Bagban had added to his testimony an expert's report by a noted genocide scholar, Professor Frank Chalk of Concordia University, on the treatment by the Turkish government of the Armenian community, which the judgment quoted extensively. And he had submitted a second expert's report on the meaning and significance of the names Bahaban and Bagban.
Bahaban is a noun in Armenian that signifies "guardian, overseer, superintendent, attendant, preserver, keeper." (And to Armenians, it is obviously an Armenian name, even if it does not end in "ian" or "yan" - a suffix similar to "son" - as is commonly the case.)
Bagban has an entirely different meaning. It corresponds to a Turkish noun meaning "vineyard worker" or "gardener."
As the judge declared, "imposing the Turkish name Bagban on Armenians denies them not only the right to bear the Armenian surname Bahaban, their ancestral designation but also diminishes their status. ...
"This change of a family name was part of an assimilation process that denied this ethnic group its identity."
Judge LagacÈ cited Professor Chalk's report, which stated: "The imposition of Turkish family names on Armenian families was part of a consistent policy of Turkicizing the Armenian population of that land. In his foreword to Faik Okte's book, The Tragedy of the Turkish Capital Tax (London: Croom Helm, 1988), David Brown observes that following the obligatory adoption of surnames by every Turkish citizen in 1935, pressure was brought to bear upon the minorities to adopt Turkish-sounding surnames. Thus Istanbul Jews, Greeks and Armenians were forced to give up their traditional surnames and adopt new ones."
The judgment went on to cite Chalk again: "In order to appropriately gauge the feelings engendered among the Armenian population by that development, one must bear in mind that this policy originated and was consistently applied by governments of Turkey that have refused to acknowledge the genocide of 1915 directed against the Armenian people."
Again citing Chalk, Judge LagacÈ states, "Successive Turkish governments implemented the policy of erasing any memory of the Armenian people - except as bandits and traitors - from Turkish history. Thus those who survived the planned annihilation of roughly 1 million Armenians from 1915 to 1918, the members of the Armenian community in Turkey, were required after 1935 to bear Turkish names, which properly symbolized, for them, the effort to eradicate the history of their ancestors and the victory of those who supported that process. This development represented the triumph of integral nationalism in Turkey and buried another 65 years the chance of forward-looking Turkish leaders to develop in their country any form of modern, inclusive civic nationalism that recognized the existence and rights of minorities such as the Armenians."
According to Judge LagacÈ, "since the petitioner is now a Canadian citizen, he called upon democracy in his adopted country to change his name, from one that signifies for him oppression against his ethnic community."
Citing precedent from the Supreme Court of Canada, the judge confirmed that Canada is not a closed, homogeneous society. "It is enriched by the presence and contributions of its citizens belonging to different races nationalities and ethnic origins. The multicultural character of Canadian society is recognized in our Charter of Rights. Our judges must be particularly sensitive to the need not only to be equitable, but also to be equitable toward Canadians of all races, religions, nationalities and ethnic origins."
One would hope that it's not just the Registrar of Civil Status who takes note. Denial of the Armenian Genocide is as insipid and insulting to history as any form of holocaust denial. Independent of Turkey's own record in facing history and its continued falsifications, Judge LagacÈ has indeed set a precedent with implications well beyond the simple change of a name.
Harry Dikranian is a Montreal lawyer practicing at Sternthal Katznelson Montigny, he can be reached by telephone at 514-878-1011 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org.