By AYUB NURI and JULIE PIETERSE for Rudaw
As a Liberal Party member of the Canadian House of Commons since 1988, Jim Karygiannis is working to establish peace through dialogue between the Kurdish and Turkish communities in Canada as well as in Turkey. In an interview with Rudaw, he says that on the Kurdish issue Turkey and Iran can learn from Canada, where Francophones exist alongside Anglophones and enjoy similar rights. He adds that, because Kurds are part of the Canadian community, the Kurdish issue is also a Canadian problem. He urges young Canadian Kurds to see themselves as full citizens and become more engaged in Canadian politics. Here is his interview:
Rudaw: What sparked in you this interest in the Kurdish community, or the Kurds in general?
Jim Karygiannis: The Kurds have been struggling to find an identity, they have been struggling to find human rights, and they have been trying to find freedom of religion. The struggle of the Kurdish people has been something that interests me because I have seen what Turkey or the Ottoman Empire has done over the years, and what the Ottoman Empire did to the Armenians, to the Greeks. It seems that right now it is about to repeat itself with the Kurdish situation in Turkey.
Rudaw: Do you mean the Kurdish situation reminds you of any other nation in the region?
Jim Karygiannis: It reminds me of what my forefathers went through. My mother was from Asia Minor, and it reminds me of what happened. The last thing I want is this thing repeated. If we can work on both sides to make sure they can live next door to each other, if we can work with parameters within Turkey — not just in Turkey but also in Iran and Syria as well — if we can replicate what happened in the Kurdistan Region where the Kurdish people say, we are part of Iraq but we have our own identity… I think that would be a more powerful solution than trying to oppress people.
Rudaw: Do you have hopes that one day the leaders in Turkey would say to the Kurds, ‘Okay, let’s give you all the rights that you want?’
Jim Karygiannis: Sooner than later. I think the rights should be given to the people, I think conversations should start, I think the people of Turkey should realize that the Kurds are a nation within a nation — as we realized here that Quebec is a nation, the Francophone people are a nation. And if we can do it here, I don’t see why they can’t do it there.
Rudaw: Often Kurds use Canada as an example, where the Francophone have pretty much every right. Are there things Canada has done that Turkey and Iran can do with their own minorities?
Jim Karygiannis: Well, number one, realize that the language is different. Number two, give them the right to speak their language in that area. Number three, allow them to be taught in the language. That’s very simple. That’s the first thing. Many Kurds that I’ve spoken to in Turkey say that they want to have their human rights violations stopped, they want to have the ability to speak their language, and also to have the ability to be taught in their language. So there’s nothing more.
Rudaw: Is yours a one-man effort or does it have to do with the Canadian government or parliament in any way? And what has been the response of the Turkish government?
Jim Karygiannis: I am doing this on behalf of the Liberal Party, as a multicultural critic. The Liberal Party has supported it…
I was allowed to go into Turkey twice, I’ve been courted by the Turkish diplomats, I’m having lunch with the Turkish consulate general, so I think there is some progress. But, you know what, I wouldn’t say that we are there yet. I would like that in the next few months there will be a meeting of minds, that the Kurds and the Turks in Canada, the Kurdistan Region and the rest of the area are able to sit and say, ‘What are our differences? What can we accomplish? What is there that separates us as Turkish citizens and what can we do to foster and move for better diplomacy?’
Rudaw: In the past several years there have been semi-secret talks between the PKK and Turkey in Oslo. Are you hoping for something similar?
Jim Karygiannis: I’m hoping that a dialogue happens in Canada between the Kurds and the Turks… The sooner we are able to say look, Turkey is made of two nationalities and these two nationalities have got to co-exist, the stronger Turkey will become as an economic power. If you have got peace inside the house, the less money you have to spend on security and everything else. The amount of money that Turkey spends right now in policing the Kurdish areas — if people find their human rights — that money could be used elsewhere, and could be used for better reasons.
Rudaw: And what is the interest of your party in trying to bring peace between these two people?
Jim Karygiannis: I think for us it’s getting both sides at the table and trying to help them the Canadian way, which is the way to move forward. We cannot as a country sit out of any situation and say that it is not our problem. It is our problem; it is the problem that we must address… because there are Canadians that are from that part of the world. These people are looking at their politicians to answer their questions; they are looking at their politicians for support.
Rudaw: You once visited the town of Halabja and after you returned you brought a motion into the Canadian parliament to recognize Halabja as genocide. Can you tell us about that?
Jim Karygiannis: Going to Halabja and meeting the curator and meeting people that are alive when this happened touched me, because it was part of history. This is not history that happened 100 years ago, where the historians along the way have either changed it or distorted it, or everybody else claims that this happened verses that.
Here, it was clearly a people that were gassed, people that were bombed, and it was a clear story. Saddam Hussein didn’t like them and gassed them. There were no two sides to the story, there was one story, there was one side. When I saw the monument, the people, and what had happened, the first thing I said to them was: Look, I’d like for us to put a motion in the House of Commons, which recognizes the difficulties of the time and also recognizes it as a genocide. The people were very excited. When I came back to Canada we tried to put the word genocide, but the word was not allowed to be used, or some people had difficulty with it. These are people from the other parties. So we had to tone it down a bit and use the words ‘crimes against humanity.’ It’s half of the way there, and in the future — two months, three months, five years from now — somebody might be willing to say, ‘Okay, we need to reintroduce it, this was a crime against humanity, there was a genocide.’
Rudaw: You have been to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq twice in the past three years. Is there anything the Kurdistan Region has done that Turkey, Iran, or the countries in the region can look and learn from?
Jim Karygiannis: I think if we hold the KRG as a model and convince that similar moves are done in Turkey, I think the Kurds in Turkey will be happier, and instead of moving into secession they will say, ‘You know what, I’d like to be part of Turkey, it is a powerful nation, it’s an economic powerhouse and we want to be a part of that economic powerhouse.’ But I also like to see that the region, once it becomes a little bit more powerful, that it starts talking about dropping borders between the countries. When the problems in Syria cease, I don’t see the need for a border between Turkey and Syria. I don’t see the need for a border between Iraq and Turkey. These are neighbors, they are dealing with each other, and if this thing can work in Europe where people have dropped the borders, I cannot see why it can’t happen there.
Rudaw: Once I heard you say at a Kurdish community event that they have to step forward and do something themselves and that you cannot be their voice for the next 50 years. What do you think the Kurds can do that they haven’t done already?
Jim Karygiannis: It takes a community 20-30 years after being in Canada to get involved in politics. The Kurdish community has been here long enough. I’m not sure if they feel confident or if they feel they have the numbers, but they should step forward and get involved in politics, and encourage young Canadian Kurds to run, and encourage them to be elected…
Young Canadian Kurds should step forward and say ‘I want to run.’ This is their country, they belong, they’re Canadians, and they should be encouraged to run. They should be encouraged to participate, be it in provincial, be it in federal, or be it in municipal politics. Or just get involved, period.
Rudaw: Has there ever been an example of Canada making peace between two communities, starting here and reaching out to their countries back home?
Jim Karygiannis: There have been examples where people here in Canada have worked together, and Canada has been influential, and that’s Ireland. In the northern part of Ireland peace was reached and it was a Canadian general that actually did the work. The Irish, the Scots, the Brits, they worked together here in Canada. This individual worked with the Sinn Fein, and worked with the political arms of all the people in order to find peace. The Irish problem over the years is the biggest problem that faces the older communities in Canada — the British and the Scots and the Irish — and we were able to do that well. So, learning from that, we move forward to other communities.
Rudaw: The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is closer than any other part of Kurdistan to independence. It is a country but in name. If one day Kurdistan declares independence do you think Canada will recognize Kurdistan as an independent country?
Jim Karygiannis: I don’t think we should encourage and be lightning rods for difficulties to happen. Canada should not be the first one out there that says to the KRG ‘Go ahead and separate and we will recognize you.’ But I think that (if the) marriage that exists right there goes through a divorce, if it is an amicable divorce, and it’s a peaceful divorce, then we should move in and recognize both partners as equal partners and provide a seat at the United Nations for them.