MANOUKIAN, JAMES (Hagop or Hakob Manougian), foundry-man; b. 1884 in Armenia, son of Mansur Manoukian and Mariam Kevorkian; d. 23 June 1912 in Hamilton, Ont.
James Manoukian was one of hundreds of sojourning Armenian men who migrated to industrial centres in southern Ontario around the turn of the 20th century. His life was undistinguished, but his burial would spark one of the first Armenian protest strikes in Canada against a large industrial employer.
Massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman empire perpetrated by Turkish rulers in 1894–97 and 1909 drove Armenian men to seek foreign capital to rebuild destroyed homes, farms, and businesses. Through recruitment and a network of contacts, many from the regions of Kigi, Mud, Van, and Harput made their way to Canada.
Classified as an Asian by Canadian authorities, Manoukian probably came in 1908 or shortly afterwards and hence had to comply with the strict regulations instituted that year to curtail Asian immigration. Others followed, fleeing conscription, especially during Turkey’s wars with Italy (1911) and the Balkan states (1912). The regulations would prohibit all but 2,000 Armenians from entering Canada in the 20 years preceding World War I. Most of them were male agriculturists from similar backgrounds. They lived frugally in overcrowded, Armenian-run boarding-houses in small enclaves close to the factories that employed them.
In Hamilton the Armenians resided in the area of Sherman, Birch, and Gibson streets. The majority toiled in the implement foundries of International Harvester doing hot, filthy, heavy, and dangerous work, under constant threat of lay-off. Young and strong, they were regarded as diligent workers. Even if they controlled one of the foundries, the grey-iron works, they were not militant and seldom put pressure on the company as an organized force.
Still, there were compelling issues which could unify the Armenians and oblige the company to recognize them as a group. Manoukian belonged to Harvester’s sick and funeral benefit society. In late 1910 he was hospitalized with a tubercular ankle; the disease spread to his lungs and he languished in City Hospital until his death in 1912. Harvester paid his funeral and burial costs, but arranged for interment in a grave with another Armenian. When the mourners discovered this arrangement, they immediately objected, halted the service, returned to the factory, and walked out, an action that involved perhaps all 175 of the Armenians employed in the plant. Its superintendent adjudicated in their favour and Manoukian was buried in a single grave in Hamilton Cemetery.
Periodic pogroms of Christian minorities in the Ottoman empire, especially the Armenians, had made them highly sensitive to injustice. Unable to tolerate the indignity to their co-religionist – Manoukian most likely belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church – the Harvester workers used the only weapon they had, even at the risk of antagonizing company officials. As early as 1906 Armenian moulders at Brantford Malleable (the Pratt and Letchworth foundry in Brantford, Ont.) had resorted to a strike to protest low wages. In 1915, tormented by news of the mass murder of Armenians by order of the Turkish government, Armenian foundry-men at the McKinnon works in St Catharines would down their shovels to protest the presence of ethnic Turks working among them. These strikes epitomize the spirit of an age in which ethnic priorities interacted with work issues among North American labourers.
The Manoukian incident illustrates contrasting views of Armenian migrant labourers before World War I. One paints them as drudges victimized by exploitation and socially isolated. The cemetery and funeral-home records suggest that Manoukian had been alone and indigent: the home provided his shroud, Harvester was listed as his next of kin, City Hospital was given as his address, and he was buried in a simple grave with no tombstone. The other view depicts Armenians as part of an intimate world, a world in which the men, who were often connected as kin, as godparents, or as fellow villagers, joined together to cope and protect each other in an unfamiliar land. Insulted by Harvester’s disrespect, Manoukian’s countrymen demonstrated their disapproval by refusing to work. For them, the “funeral strike” symbolized both ethnic honour and ethnic solidarity.
Manoukian was not alone nor was he penniless. On 21 June 1912 he had made a will, which he signed with his mark. His few personal effects and $149 in cash were entrusted to two friends, Hagop Megerdichian and Israel Safarian, to distribute, some in the New World, some in the Old: an “invalid chair” was to be bought for City Hospital; $60 was to go to his married sister, Khatoon Hagopian in the village of Oğnut in the Muş region of Armenia; and whatever property he had in Armenia was bequeathed to the family he had left behind – his wife, Arousiag, and their three-year-old daughter, Parantzem.
Young James Manoukian’s poignant situation reveals the risks Armenian migrant workers were prepared to take. Other sojourners besides Manoukian died prematurely or were permanently maimed. Still others returned home, only to be slain during the genocide of 1915–23, but those who remained would carve out the foundations of Armenian community life in Canada.
AO, RG 22-205, no.8381; RG 80-8-0-476, no.34517. Hamilton Spectator, 25 June 1912. Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, Like our mountains: a history of Armenians in Canada (Toronto, forthcoming); “Sojourners from Keghi: Armenians in Ontario to 1915” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1984). Polyphony (Toronto), 4 (1982), no.2.