While residents of Halton Hills today enjoy the beauty and convenience of Cedarvale Park, few realize that the park was once home to a group of Armenian orphans. The following story was condensed from a June 16, 1976 article in The Georgetown Independent
A little known slice of Georgetown’s history is tied up with the almost forgotten tragedy that brought 109 Armenian orphans to what is now Cedarvale Community Centre more than 80 years ago. In his book “The Georgetown Boys”, Jack Apramian, one of the scared orphans who landed here half starved in 1923 tells the story.
Fleeing from the Greco-Turkish wars of 1922, refugees were packed standing up into cattle cars for a long train journey. Then they were loaded into the hold of a freighter and landed at the Greek island of Corfu. Apramian fell deathly ill in the island camp where water and sanitation were virtually nonexistent. Sadly, his mother had to turn him over to an orphanage run by the Lord Mayor of London Fund in an effort to save his life. The Fund raised thousands of dollars and convinced the Canadian government to relax stringent immigration policies and allow young Armenian orphans to come to Canada on a combined farming and education program.
In the summer of 1923, the first 50 boys arrived at Cedarvale Farm, Georgetown, through the efforts of the Armenian Relief Fund of Canada. At that time, the boys spoke no English and no one on the staff spoke Armenian. The problem was resolved when the Farm and Home Committee brought a young bilingual teacher, Aris Alexanian, to the home. The next batch of boys arrived in 1924 forcing the Committee to hire two more regular teachers for the school.
During these years, many people became involved with the farm, then known as the Armenian Boys’ Farm. Women helped darn socks and mend torn pants while merchants frequently donated goods or offered them a discount. In an attempt to Canadianize the boys, some of their names were changed. One boy whose name was Onnig Shanagayan became John Inkster. Eventually, some of the boys rebelled at the name changes, pointing out their names were all they had left of their long Armenian heritage.
The teaching of Armenian, continued by Aris Alexian, was questioned by members of the committee who felt that their full time should be concentrated on learning English. Only Levon Babayan, a prominent Toronto Armenian on the committee, urged that they continue to learn their own language as well as English. The older boys were placed in farm homes on the condition they must be allowed to continue their schooling until at least 16 years of age. A few older Armenian girls were brought over at this time but were placed directly into domestic service. The home was later transferred to the United Church and it was run as a home for girls until the late 1960s. As a Centennial project, the Town of Georgetown bought the buildings and land for a community centre.
In 1973, the boys staged a 50th anniversary reunion at their former farm home. They wandered moist-eyed around the buildings recalling who slept where. Apramiam explained to the children and grandchildren of the boys that the present Cottage was the infirmary, while the caretaker’s house was used by the supervisor of the farm. Cedarvale farm gave the 109 boys their first security in a terrifying world, and the boys have repaid Canada a hundredfold.
As Apranian puts it, “They worked and prospered as the nation prospered. None of them became millionaires, but not one of them ever lived on welfare.”
Prepared by Laurette Macdonald (Palette & Pencil)