Arsen Kaprielion Saroian

When Arsen Kaprielion Saroian enlisted in 1915 in Edmonton, Alberta to fight in the First World War, his life had already been fraught with terror and loss. Born in Armenia, at the time a region within the Ottoman Empire, Saroian lost nearly everything before he had even made his way to Canada.

Information on Saroian’s past is scarce, something that would make his fight for a pension difficult. His memory was often challenged and thought of as “conveniently” sparse. Yet it would seem that he had a good excuse for his lack of documentation and faded memory.

Saroian’s family lived in Erzurum, an historical hotspot of Russian-Ottoman conflict. It switched between the empires throughout the 19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century was in the hands of the Turks. Erzurum became infamous for being the site of massacres targeted at Armenian citizens, including the Hamidian massacres, which saw the murders of between 100 000 and 300 000 Armenians.[1]

The year 1909 saw a violent coup, which attempted to reestablish the Sultan and replace a more progressive government that had been in power for little over a year.[2] Armenian citizens were once again targeted, with massacres starting in the city of Adana and spreading throughout the empire.[3] Twenty-four years old at the time, Saroian said his mother urged him to flee, escaping aggression from the Turks. Perhaps his mother feared he would be conscripted into the Ottoman Army, which was always a fear for young men.[4] Whatever the reason, Saroian was the only one of his family to escape Armenia alive. He would never return to his homeland.

Saroian made the harrowing journey to England and then made his way into Winnipeg through New York. In Edmonton, he found work as a labourer, and in 1913 became a naturalized citizen. Enlisting in 1915, he went overseas with the 51st Battalion. His time in France resulted in syphilis and gonorrhoea, and while in Ypres, he was blown up in a dugout, putting him in the hospital for 8 months. His condition continued to weaken, and he was unable to carry much weight or march with his battalion, so he was often relegated to to a hospital bed throughout his service.

Discharged in 1918, Saroian found adjusting to life back in Canada difficult. He had developed an inguinal hernia, an inflammation of the abdominal area which made most movements painful, and he received only a 15% pension, which did not go far in supporting him. He was in and out of hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary for various operations.

Saroian’s file is marked by the disrespect and disregard shown to him by doctors and officials alike. He was dismissively called a foreigner despite being a naturalized citizen, suspected of lying due to his lack of documentation after he fled Armenia, and despaired of as being too “vague” due to his broken English. Despite serving his adopted country, he was never afforded the same level of respect as other veterans.

Saroian came to Canada during what Dr. Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, a scholar of the Armenian diaspora, calls the ‘early period’ of Armenian migration to Canada. Hundreds of migrants sought work and refuge from hostilities at home before the Armenian Genocide shocked the world. Arsen Saroian was one of these immigrants, and although he became a citizen and fought alongside other Canadians, it seems he was never truly accepted as a Canadian soldier.

Click here to access Arsen Saroian’s military service file at Library and Archives Canada

Citations

[1] Cohan, Sarah, “A Brief History of the Armenian Genocide”. Social Education. 69 (2005): 333.

[2] Ibid, 333

[3] Ibid, 333

[4] Kaprielian-Churchill, Isabel, “Armenian Refugee Women: The Picture Brides, 1920-30”. Journal of American Ethnic History, 12 (1993): 4.

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