A decades-old, mostly dormant conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited in late September has claimed the life of a Canadian citizen and continues to cause rising tensions between the two communities in Ontario.
Family members say 48-year-old Canadian Kristapor Artin was killed on the front lines in early October while fighting for Armenia in the latest bout of clashes for the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
“He was an amazing human being,” said his cousin, Nara Harutyunan, from her Toronto home.
“He was very caring and a very positive person, he cared for his friends, he loved singing so much.”
Harutyunan said Artin moved to Canada in the early 90s, when he became an active member of the Armenian community.
He also got married and raised a daughter in Canada before moving his family back to Armenia in 2011 and later joining the Artsakh Defence Army.
Global Affairs said it is “aware of reports of the death of a Canadian citizen in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Consular officials are in contact with local authorities. Due to the provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”
Artin is believed to be the only known Canadian who has been killed in the most recent escalation of the war in late September.
Canadians’ personal connections to the conflict area
Meanwhile, Armenian and Azerbaijani Canadians have held opposing rallies and mostly peaceful protests since the conflict between their countries sparked up again.
Their two countries are battling over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, also known as Artsakh — which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is ethnically Armenian.
After the decline of the Soviet Union, the Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh wanted to govern themselves or join Armenia, as they once voted to do so — while the Azerbaijani boycotted the referendum.
A brutal war for the region that lasted six years and claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people ended in 1994 with a ceasefire — but the conflict was fully reignited on Sep. 27, with both sides blaming the other for starting the latest round of hostilities.
“It is the pearl of Azerbaijan culture, there are so many beautiful Azerbaijani cities in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Laman Azizova, an Azerbaijani-Canadian whose family is from the disputed region.
She said she remembers visiting her family’s homes in the disputed lands before they were destroyed.
“Although I remember the beauty — at the same time, I can remember the cold, the insecurity, the fear that people had in their eyes,” she said.
“It’s horrible because you feel you are deprived of your right to visit graveyards and you’re deprived of the right to be a part of your culture,” she said about no longer being able to visit the war-torn area where some of her family members are buried.
Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions rise in Ontario
The conflict has led to a war of words on Canadian soil between the two communities.
Members of Ontario’s roughly 30,000 Armenian community have been holding multiple marches, including one on Saturday in Ottawa — while the more than 4,000 Azerbaijanis in Ontario have been holding rallies throughout the streets of Toronto.
Although leaders of the communities say there is no animosity towards the opposing party, both Azerbaijanis and Armenians have reported hostilities against the other.
“I am bombarded with threats, I am bombarded with comments from the Azerbaijani community, from the Turkish community” said Harutyunan. “Even on social media, I’m scared to raise my concern about peace for Armenia.”
Meanwhile, the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians (NAC) claims the Armenian community has also been aggressive towards their group.
“A few members of the community were attacked by the Armenian rally participants in downtown Toronto and we deplored that,” claimed Anar Jahangirli, associate director of the NAC.
“We’ve seen increased calls by members of the Armenian community for violence against some members of Azerbaijani community and we’ve alerted the police about those threats.”
Toronto police told Global News that it did not receive any calls for assistance or have any reports related to the matter.
Both communities looking for Canadian support
Even with increased tensions between the two communities, both have the same goal in mind: to get support from the Canadian government and people.
“I think that’s the first and utmost thing we want, is for the Canadian government to recognize the independence of the Republic of Artsakh — and really reaffirm the people’s right to self-determination and to live in peace,” Jackline Ajamian, a spokesperson for the Armenian National Committee of Canada
“They have the right to go back to their homes and either Armenia has to withdraw from the occupied lands or Azerbaijan will take action to make that happen.”
Nagorno-Karabakh officials have reported 974 of their troop members and more than 30 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far, according to the Associated Press. Azerbaijani authorities have not disclosed their military casualties, but have said that 65 civilians have been killed and 300 have been wounded.