Throughout its history, Canada has been a country of immigration, and often a place of refuge for people who have suffered oppression in their countries of origin. In the recent past, one such group consisted of Chileans who fled their homeland in the wake of the military coup d’etat led by army general Augusto Pinochet, which toppled the elected government of Unidad Popular leader Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. With the overthrow of Chile’s experiment in democratic socialism and the military reign of terror that followed it, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, many associated to varying degrees with Allende’s government, left the country. Often they did so under duress or out of fear for their lives and those of their families. In many cases, those fleeing persecution had no plan for escaping to a particular country; they took shelter wherever they could. In this context, Canada became by early 1974 a place of refuge for Chileans forced from their homes, and would remain so for the next two decades. While Canada never became as important a destination as other nations, it nonetheless has played a significant role in the Chilean diaspora.
The Chilean refugee crisis provoked mixed reactions among Canadian government officials and the general public. Canadian officials were justifiably criticized for inaction and for the mixed messages they sent in the months that followed the coup. Pressure from both within and outside of the country helped to force the ministers of External Affairs and Manpower and Immigration to take action to expedite the acceptance and entry of political refugees in to Canada. In the context of the Cold War, however, the political ideology of the refugees proved to be an impediment to government action.
While the government reaction to the Chileans was marked by inaction, indifference or outright hostility, the reaction of the Canadian public was decidedly more favourable. Concerned church groups, such as the Canadian Council of Churches, as well as spontaneously formed citizens’ organizations rallied to assist the exiled newcomers in the entry and settlement process. It must be stated that this positive reaction was not unanimous. The January 14, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star carried a story and photo of a small group of demonstrators parading in front of the Walker House Hotel where a group of recently arrived Chileans were being temporarily housed. Carrying placards bearing statements such as “Death to the Red Pest”, “No More Marxists – FLQ was enough”, and “Keep Marxist Gangsters Out of Canada”, they claimed to be “objecting to Canadian tax money being spent on ‘riff raff’”. One protester, “who said he speaks some Spanish, claimed he told a small group of nervous Chileans outside the hotel ‘Allende got what he deserved. Down with Marxism’. He said he judged by the expression on their faces that they understood what he was saying”. (Toronto Star, January 14, 1974. p A 11.)
However, it should be emphasized that while the overthrow of Allende and the arrival of the first refugees provoked polarized reactions among some Canadians, they were not issues that seem to have concerned the country’s silent majority. Coverage of Chile and the refugees tended to peak at important moments, such as September 1973 and January 1974, and then largely fade from the public eye. While the Canadian Council of Churches and its allies continued their lobbying efforts to secure the admission of a greater number of refugees throughout 1974 and into the following year, these actions took place largely behind closed doors. Similarly, organizations formed to help the refugees continued to operate over the years, but these were run by a small number of dedicated individuals and had little impact on Canadian society as a whole. While the fall of Allende and the refugee crisis it provoked temporarily put a Latin American country on the radar of Canadian consciousness, it was no more than a blip that appeared suddenly and disappeared just as quickly.
The entry of Chilean nationals into this country has not fundamentally altered its demographic make-up nor had a large effect on the political and economic life of the nation. However, it can be argued that the arrival of the post-coup refugees represented the first direct large-scale encounter between Canadian society and the people of a Latin American nation. Though social scientists have divided Latin American immigration to Canada into five waves, with Chilean refugees falling into the third of these, the earlier two waves were relatively small and seem to have passed largely unnoticed by the Canadian public. The press coverage given to the Pinochet coup and the admission of fugitives from the crackdown at certain moments constituted much more information about Latin American issues than normally appeared in the public eye. Though it is impossible to quantify, it is my opinion that increased press coverage and, more importantly, an increased physical presence of Chileans in cities and towns across the country helped to create a greater awareness of a part of the world to which Canadians had traditionally paid little attention.
An important consequence of the Chilean presence in Canada has been the formation of organizations designed to serve the Latin Americans in this country. In practical terms, this has been the most important impact of the refugees’ arrival. Studies and testimonies have shown that the Chileans who arrived in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Unidad Popular government brought their political convictions and social activism with them. In some cases, groups and services run for and by Chileans have transformed into entities serving the growing Canadian Latin American community as a whole. Examples of this include the Arauco housing cooperative in Toronto and various associations and publications in Alberta, as well as the television news programme “Nosotros” and the radio programme “Hispanoamérica” in Edmonton. In other cases, Chileans have been instrumental in forming and working in pan-Latin American organizations that have helped subsequent political and economic refugees from the Spanish-speaking world to adjust to life in Canada. With a Latin American community that now numbers around 700 000 and continues to grow at a rate of 6-8% a year, the presence of local and national organizations to serve its social and cultural needs is vital. While Chileans have not been alone in constructing the infrastructure of the Latin American community, it seems clear that they have played a substantial role. In this way, the Chilean refugees have left their mark on Canadian society.
The entry of the Chilean refugees was instrumental in opening the eyes of Canadians to a part of the world to which they were traditionally blind. While this new-found awareness of Chile, and as a result, of Latin America, should not be exaggerated, nor should it be discounted. For the first time, a numerically significant, high-profile group of people from the Spanish-speaking world established a presence in Canada.
Born in Toronto, Francis Peddie studied his bachelor’s degree at York University, and completed his Master’s in Latin American History at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he also worked as an English teacher for several years. He is currently completing a doctorate in History at York University. His thesis topic addresses the impact of the migration of Chilean refugees to Canada in the 1970s.