Martin criticized for missing genocide vote in Commons

The opposition parties have criticized the PM for missing the Armenian genocide vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham is defending the prime minister's decision to skip a controversial vote in the House of Commons this week. Paul Martin was absent when MPs passed a motion recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Armenians blame the Turks for killing 1.5 million of their people between 1915 and 1923.

For decades consecutive Canadian governments have dodged the sensitive issue by calling what happened in eastern Turkey a "tragedy," stopping well short of referring to the events as "genocide."

In 1915, during the First World War, Turkish troops put down an Armenian uprising. Armenians say about 1.5 million people were killed by the Ottoman Turks, during a brutal eight year campaign.

Turkey has always fought attempts by Armenians and international human rights organizations to have the events declared a genocide. Previously, Ankara has warned countries contemplating similar action that there would be negative consequences. In some cases business contracts have been held up or denied.

Wednesday night's vote has put a strain on diplomatic relations between Canada and Turkey and divided the Liberal caucus.

Martin allowed Liberal backbenchers a free vote on the motion recognizing the Armenian genocide. But Martin ordered his cabinet to vote against it.

The government had warned beforehand that if the motion passed it would anger Canada's NATO ally.

The motion said: "That this House acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915 and condemns this act as a crime against humanity."

When it came time for MPs to vote Martin wasn't in the House. The vote passed easily, 153-68.

NDP foreign affairs critic Alexa McDonough accused the prime minister of ducking a tough issue. "I think it's the same gutlessness. I think it's a screaming absence of leadership," she said.

But Graham came to Martin's defence. "It quite often happens that the prime minister can't be present in the House for votes. He was otherwise occupied that night," he said.

Martin wasn't the only minister to miss the vote.

In spite of the order that cabinet oppose the motion Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and International Trade Minister Jim Peterson left the House before the vote. Public Works Minister Stephen Owen was there, but abstained.

"I was not comfortable with the Bloc (Quebecois) resolution. I certainly wasn't going to vote for it but I was uncomfortable voting against it," said Owen.

The Turkish government has already expressed its anger over the outcome of the vote. Graham says he wants to speak to Turkey's foreign minister to explain that Canada's official position hasn't changed.