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Canadian International Council – Canada's hub for international affairs » Chile’s 1973 Coup, 40 Years Later: Observances, Part Two

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Chile’s 1973 Coup, 40 Years Later: Observances, Part Two

CIC Saskatoon Branch | September 12, 2013

Canadians and Chile: The first 9/11

– by John Foster (part of the active engagement in 1973) and Bob Carty; published on, September 11, 2013

The Canadian response to the Chilean coup d’etat of September 11, 1973 was a contradictory mix of official resistance, personal courage and citizen activism energized by Canadian churches with a persistence that outpaced government refusals.

From an emergency meeting at the Ecumenical Forum in Toronto on September 12, a coalition of church folk, the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), trade unions and students organized to demand that the Trudeau government refuse to recognize the military junta and open our doors to refugees from Chile. Soon, an Inter-Church Committee on Chile was organized (ICCC)

On September 14 the leaders of the Anglican and United Churches and the head of the Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote the Minister of External Affairs to caution “against precipitous recognition of the unconstitutional regime…” and to urge” the Canadian government to offer safe conduct and assistance to those refugees and many Chileans who wish to come to Canada” The Government, pleading the necessity of assuring the safety of three Canadians at large in Chile, and arguing that the generals were the de facto government no matter how they came to power, delayed only 18 days until September 29 to recognize the regime.

Meanwhile some 17 Chileans sought and received protection in the Canadian Embassy, bravely accepted in the Ambassador’s absence by first secretary Marc Dolgin.

On October 3, even as thousands were being rounded up, tortured and executed by the Chilean military, Canadian External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp assured church leaders that Chile was “normalizing”. Canadian ambassador Andrew Ross, in his cables to Ottawa, was confidentially advising the Minister that the killings were “abhorrent but understandable,” that the prisoners being tortured and killed in the National Stadium were nothing more than the “riff-raff of the Latin American left”. The Ross cables largely reflected the worldview of the U.S. whose hand was everywhere evident in the overthrow of the Allende government.

Thus began a constant tug of war over facts on the ground. Canadian church leaders and civil society activists had their own information sources – notably the courageous early calls with Canadian-Chilean Florrie Chacon in Santiago (given national coverage on As It Happens) and church-organized fact-finding visits to Chile – all reporting a desperate scene in Chile.

When Ross’s cables were leaked by Bob Thomson, a whistleblower then working at CIDA, exchanges in the Commons got hot. NDP MP John Harney confronted Mitchell Sharp with the failure of Canada to respond to Chile with the same generosity offered to Hungarian refugees in 1956. In the press Ambassador Ross’ “grotesque” misperceptions were cited as “a classic example of how not to engage in diplomatic reporting.”

Pressure mounted in November – internationally from the UN High Commission for Refugees and nationally, from journalist and church witnesses and citizen cards and letters. On the 19th, the Chile-Canada Solidarity network occupied government offices in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal on the 19th. Meanwhile Allende’s widow Hortensia Bussi was welcomed by large audiences as she toured Canada, meeting Prime Minister Trudeau on the 28th.

In this context the government decided to send Geoffrey Pearson from External Affairs and a senior immigration official south on November 20. Pearson would later explain that the Ross cables had aroused concerns in official Ottawa – they “seemed to be pretty hysterical, so people wanted to know if he was telling the truth.”

After talking to other embassies and the Chilean churches, Pearson cabled Ottawa on November 24, advising a more sympathetic approach; many of these Chileans would make good Canadians he concluded. Rejecting the Ambassador’s approach, his findings validated what the churches had been saying: Chile was a refugee emergency.

And the government of the day listened. On November 26 the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy decided that some 300 to 1000 refugees should be accepted under reduced criteria, with public support for resettlement.

Church representatives met with Ministers Sharp and Immigration Minister Robert Andras on December 3 noting that many in danger could not walk into the Embassy, fill out forms and await procedures. Visa approval was slow and RCMP security concerns meant that out of 1000 applications only 184 were approved in November and December, 55 of them given safe haven in the Canadian Embassy on December 10 and 11.

Getting them to Canada was another matter, as airline space was very limited. NDP M.P. Andrew Brewin called for an airlift, and a further church and academic delegation on December 27 pressed Sharp and Andras again.

On January 10, 1974 a Canadian Forces Boeing 707 was sent to Santiago and brought 137 refugees to Canada. “Special Movement Chile” was finally operational and more than 4,000 applications were in process.

As the junta’s repression continued the churches focused on political prisoners seeking to bring 100 of them with their families to Canada. In December General Pinochet denied he had any political prisoners, but would gladly release common criminals if other countries would accept them. The churches saw the opportunity, Minister Andras agreed, and two church representatives were sent south in early January, 1975 to work with Chilean allies and Canadian immigration personnel, interviewing prisoners and their families and speed approvals. In the summer of 1975, as 96 men and 4 women from this programme arrived in Canada, the churches approved a proposal for a second 100 families, and the Minister agreed.

While many Chilean exiles returned to Chile after the recreation of democracy twenty-five years ago, many remained part of Canada, contributing in Parliament, the labour movement, academia and the arts and sciences. Brazilian refugees from Chile founded the Latin American Research Unit at York University, one of the first such institutes in Canada, and one of these refugees, Heberto de Souza, would live to go home to become Brazil’s most famous champion against hunger, corruption and injustice.

Throughout this period one is struck with the access that church advocates and solidarity networks had to the Canadian media, and with the recurring dialogue the churches established with key cabinet ministers. The scrimmage over information went to the church team and their Chilean allies.

The battle to open the Canada’s portals to refugees from Chile led to a renewed Canadian citizen interest in foreign policy, and reforms in refugee policy. The new awareness of Latin America bloomed into an unprecedented movement of citizen solidarity with Argentina and Central America within a few years.

Citizen engagement and readiness to help eventually brought more than 7,000 Chilean refugees to Canada. These actions are a signal to anyone who seeks a renewal of Canadian policy in the face of tragic emergencies like the two million seeking refuge from the Syrian civil war.

John W. Foster teaches political science at Carleton University and was chair of the Toronto Welcome Committee for Refugees from Chile. Bob Carty as a journalist covered Chile for three decades under dictatorship and democracy. CIC-Saskatoon thanks John Foster and Bob Carty for their actions during these events, for permission to use this article, and for their work in keeping all of us informed and engaged.


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