40th Anniversary of the coup in Chile: How solidarity in Canada saved lives and changed Canadian policy

by Pablo Vivanco

President Salvador Allende moments before his execution while the military coup unfolded on September 11, 1973. Santiago, Chile

President Salvador Allende moments before his execution while the military coup unfolded on September 11, 1973. Santiago, Chile

In the early hours of September 11th, 1973, the Chilean armed forces enacted their plot to overthrow the democratically-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.  By 8:00am, the navy captured the port of Valparaíso, the army had closed many radio and television networks, while the air force bombed the ones that remained on air.  One hour later, amidst the imminent attack from tanks stationed outside and jet fighters flying overhead, President Allende, who had enacted numerous democratic reforms that redistributed power and national wealth to the Chilean working class, gave an emotional farewell speech to the country over radio.

By the afternoon, despite resistance from Allende and others, the US-backed army led by General Augusto Pinochet had completely seized control of the country.  Allende was found dead in La Moneda, the presidential office which had been bombed.

Once in control, the armed forces of Chile along with the Carabineros (the national police) began to round up supporters and activists of the socialist government.  Those captured were transferred to concentration camps set up across the country in soccer stadiums, abandoned mining outposts and other locations, where thousands were tortured and executed.

In the midst of this state terror, many Chileans began looking for refuge in other countries, seeking desperately for support from church groups and embassies.  Numerous diplomatic corps moved quickly and boldly to support refugee seekers including the embassies of Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, France and Sweden among others representing countries that correctly viewed the coup as a travesty.  The Canadian government however, was not among these nations.

Canadian Ambassador to Chile, Andrew Ross, considered leftists to be “riff-raff” and spoke favourably of the coup in cables back to Ottawa. “The country has been on a prolonged political binge under the elected Allende government and the junta has assumed the probably thankless task of sobering Chile up.”  By September 29th, 1973, the Trudeau government recognized the military junta, becoming one of the first countries to do so while also providing a $5 million credit line to the dictatorship.

In the months following, Canadian policy did a dramatic about-face with its position on the coup and perhaps more importantly, on those Chileans seeking refuge.  This change however, only came about as a result of monumental and even heroic efforts of conscientious people in Canada.

At a recent event in Toronto commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup organized by CASA Salvador Allende – a Toronto based organization of Chilean-Canadians – Chilean exiles recognized over 30 people who worked tirelessly to challenge Canada’s position and to open up avenues for accepting refugees from Chile.

John Foster, a member of the Latin American Working Group at the time, recalled how Ross’ cables indicating that “the situation was stabilizing” in Chile and that “no Chileans wanted to come to Canada”, were shaping the position taken by the Canadian Foreign Minister at the time.  Working with rogue, sympathetic officials in the Canadian Embassy, Foster and others began efforts, namely through church organizations that were also working with church groups in Chile, to raise awareness among the public in Canada while also pressuring the Canadian government.

Numerous solidarity committees were set up across Canada and Quebec undertaking events and lobbying.  By November, activists had brought Hortensia de Allende, President Allende’s wife to meet and give talks and to meet with Canadian officials and the media.  On November 29th, 1973 Mrs. de Allende met with Prime Minister Trudeau, asking Canada to accept refugees and to not lend credit or legitimacy to the dictatorship.

By Christmas, the government had agreed to create a special designation and process to allow for up to 1000 refugees from Chile.  George Cramm, a Canadian who flew down to Chile on behalf of solidarity and church organization on this program, recalled how they had to fight with immigration officials over the process for accepting refugees, as officials did not want to take need into consideration.  The persistence of Cramm and others forced Canadian officials to make need the criteria for accepting refugees.  Given the lack of flights available during the holiday period, activists from Canada were also able to pressure the Canadian government to secure the use of a Canadian military plane to bring the first 100 people from this program into Canada.

The early 1970s was the beginning of a period of a more open immigration policy in Canada, which reflected Canada’s rapidly expanding economy and filled labour shortages. However, without the efforts, humanitarianism and solidarity of people like Foster, Cramm and numerous others who worked tirelessly, there would have certainly been many more camps and mass graves created by the imperialist-backed regime in Chile.