By Kathy Price
Kathy Price leads AI Canada’s campaigning on human rights issues in Latin America.
It has come to be known as “the other 9-11” – an infamy that changed the face not only of Chile but of Canada too.
September 11 marks 40 years since a bloody military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende. The US-backed coup installed a brutal military dictatorship, unleashing years of vicious repression against anyone suspected of supporting Allende. Thousands were tortured, disappeared or murdered. The persecution, in turn, forced thousands of refugees to seek a safe haven in Canada, enriching the fabric of countless communities.
I was a communications student at McGill University at the time and a new member of the university’s Amnesty International group. My introduction to the terror that was transforming Chile’s democracy came via an encounter I have never forgotten. As part of a university video project, I interviewed a newcomer to Montreal; Bernabe Videla Torres, a refugee from Chile.
I remember the gentle dignity in Bernabe’s face as he told me about his work as a trade unionist in Antofagasta and how he had been imprisoned without trial and tortured. I can still hear the urgency in his voice as he explained that thousands of other Chileans were facing the same or even worse treatment at the hands of the military, their belief in social justice viewed as a disease to be obliterated by force. It was a wake-up call for Canadian action to denounce the dictatorship and protect its victims.
Our government’s initial response was more than disappointing. Canada was among the first countries to recognize the Pinochet regime, just weeks after the military coup. To add fuel to the fire, diplomatic cables sent to Ottawa by Canada’s Ambassador in Chile, were leaked to MPs and the press, igniting concern over the ideology driving Canadian policy. In the leaked cables, our Ambassador referred to grave human rights violations by the Chilean military as “abhorrent but understandable” and described the victims as the “riff-raff of the Latin American left”.
The uproar that ensued, together with the untiring activism of Canadian churches, trade unions, students and Amnesty members, produced positive results, opening the door to enable persecuted Chileans to find refuge in Canada.
Thousands of Chilean asylum seekers were granted Canadian citizenship. They helped sensitize Canadian communities about ongoing repression in Chile and create a strong solidarity movement to press for change. They brought beautiful music, inspiring ideals and warm hearts. They enriched Canadian organizations with their commitment to human rights and social justice, and helped to build new ones. In Toronto, where I moved after finishing my university studies, I witnessed the dedicated contributions of exiled Chilean doctors and psychiatrists who became a moving force in a newly created centre to support traumatized survivors of torture. Chile was the poorer for losing the amazing Chileans who were forced to seek refuge in Canada during the Pinochet dictatorship. But our country benefited immensely from the influx of exiles.
It is a lesson that seems lost on the current Canadian government, which continues to strip refugees of their rights and close the door to victims seeking a safe haven in Canada from persecution in Mexico, Colombia and other places of human tragedy.
We would do well to reflect on these realities as we mark the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile. May it be the occasion to honour those whose lives were stolen from them in Chile, to support important efforts to achieve truth and justice amidst repressive laws entrenched by the Pinochet regime , and to raise our voices forcefully for a Canada that upholds the rights and safety of refugees .