Unwilling Host: The Admission of Chilean Refugees to Canada, 1973-1975

Francis Peddie

The objective of this article is to explore the attitude of the Canadian government toward the first wave of Chilean refugees (1973-1975) fleeing the Pinochet regime, as evidenced by the words and actions of officials working for the ministries of Manpower and Immigration (the forerunner of today’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration), External Affairs, and the Department of Justice. In the context of the Cold War, the admission of refugees associated with the political left was not without its problems. At times, the attitude of these representatives of the Canadian government came under heavy criticism both inside the country and from foreign organizations for a perceived unwillingness to cooperate fully in the resettlement of Chileans whose lives were in danger. In spite of the obstacles to the acceptance of Chilean refugees in Canada, resistance was overcome with the help of organizations both inside and outside the country.

Immediately after the coup began on September 11, 1973, 19 asylum seekers burst into the Canadian Embassy on the tenth floor of an office tower in downtown Santiago. Consular officials gave them shelter on the grounds that they were fleeing from insurgents attacking a government recognized by Canada. However, the acceptance of these fugitives set a precedent of assistance for Chilean refugees that some federal government officials found troubling.

Bombing of La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace (Image courtesy of www.september11news.com)

First of all, Canada was not a signatory to the Caracas Declaration of 1954, a treaty which recognized the right of political asylum in foreign embassies, an accepted tradition in Latin American nations. As such, the government did not technically have any obligation to assist those fleeing military repression. In addition, the embassy had no Spanish-speaking Canadian staff to deal with the asylum seekers and clearly explain the government’s position. This may seem surprising when considered today, but given Canada’s traditional indifference to Latin America until the late 1960s, it does not seem to have been an unusual situation. A final consideration that influenced the initial foot-dragging of Canadian consular officials was the attitude of the ambassador himself. As was later leaked to the public, Ambassador Andrew Ross quickly advised the Foreign Affairs Minister to recognize the military government. In Ross’ estimation, it was “wrong for Ottawa to view the takeover as ‘a rightist coup’”; he further stated:

“In overthrowing the Allende government, Chile’s military and police have accepted an exceedingly difficult and probably thankless task. Our regret that extraconstitutional and undemocratic means were adopted must be tempered, in my view, by the following main considerations…” (1)

The considerations mentioned by Ross included the anarchy that reigned in Chile prior to the coup due to political intransigence on all sides.

An additional factor that caused the Canadian government to hesitate on the question of granting refuge to Chileans seems to have been the perceived ideological positions of those persecuted by the military regime. In the context of the Cold War, the ministries of Manpower and Immigration, External Affairs and the department of Justice all showed signs of reluctance to admit leftist refugees. While other countries – notably France and Sweden – instituted emergency measures to expedite the immigration process for fugitives from the junta, from September to December the Canadian government insisted on sticking to the letter of the law, especially where it pertained to security clearances provided by the RCMP. Chileans encountered delays and missed opportunities to take shelter in other nations despite External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp’s statements in the fall of 1973 regarding Canada’s “willingness and desire” to help refugees located in six camps run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). While the Canadian government assumed the official position of having to adhere to its rules and regulations regarding immigration, it was obvious to critics both inside Canada and out that questions of political affiliation were delaying the admission of Chilean refugees.

Criticism of the government’s handling of the Chilean refugee issue surfaced soon after the coup and continued well into the following year. Although this criticism came from many sources, two particular organizations stand out. Within Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches played an important role in pressuring the federal authorities to do more for the persecuted. On the international front, the aforementioned UNHCR consistently expressed disappointment at Canadian recalcitrance on the issue and contrasted it with the accommodating attitude of other nations. This internal and external pressure acted to keep the refugee issue in the public eye and effectively put the Canadian government on the defensive, obliging it to take actions it perhaps would have preferred to avoid.

As early as September 17, 1973, the Canadian Council of Churches initiated a campaign to pressure the government to take action. In a press release, the organization underscored its position that action should be based on humanitarian, rather than political, considerations:

“Since these refugees are in danger of their lives, under a very repressive military regime, we have only one option: to do what we can to save these lives. Canada opened her doors to refugees from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Uganda. If we refuse to open our doors to people who are in danger under another type of political regime, this would mean that we had acted from political rather than humanitarian motives.”(2)

Between October 1973 and January 1974, the Canadian Council of Churches sent three delegations to Ottawa to meet with Sharp and Minister of Manpower and Immigration Robert Andras to appeal for action on the Chilean refugee issue. Representatives of the organization, such as Reverend Robert Smith, who had led a delegation to Chile to conduct a first-hand investigation of conditions in the country, also applied pressure through appeals to public opinion in the press. In an eloquent opinion piece published in the Toronto Star in early 1974, Smith underlined the lethargic nature of the government response; in a country where thousands had already been killed and many more detained and tortured, Canada had admitted only 55 fugitives into its embassy. Of the 2,700 applications for admission to Canada, only 388 had been processed and accepted, while the rejection rate stood at two-thirds. He attributed this to misplaced Cold War fears, comparing the situation to that of the Hungarian refugees of 1956:

“Now other people who have taken a stand against the injustice of totalitarian rule cause us uneasiness. We may ask ourselves if these people are different, or have we changed…They have taken a stand for those things that represent the greatest values of our nation. They have suffered for freedom. They have suffered for justice and right. They have been closer to the edge of tomorrow than we dare to tread. They will only enrich the life of our country.” (3)

Concluding his piece, Smith called for the government to use the respect it enjoyed abroad to do more to end the war being carried out by the junta against its own citizens. He further called on the business community to use economic pressure against the regime and the news media to shape public opinion and educate Canadians about the horror of the situation in Chile. These actions were needed because “[t]he Chilean today has no voice of his own. He relies on the conscience of the world.”

The critical posture adopted by Canadian organizations such as the Canadian Council of Churches was echoed by the UNHCR throughout late 1973 and into the following year. Ernest Schlater, the chief of the UNHCR mission to Chile, complained of Canada’s lack of action and attitude toward the problem. He accused Canada of treating it as an immigration issue rather than a humanitarian concern, approaching the camps as if they were a marketplace to recruit highly qualified immigrants rather than a place of temporary shelter for persecuted individuals and families. Other press reports reveal that UN officials viewed the Canadian approach as restrictive, contradictory and ultimately demoralizing for the very refugees it was meant to be helping; some even suggested that the Canadian activity in the camps was doing more harm than good. The small number of Chileans granted asylum in the embassy or permission to enter Canada put the nation near the bottom of the list of countries taking action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, comparing unfavourably to nations such as Argentina, Mexico and France. The UNHCR also criticized the fact that Canada insisted on refugees renouncing any political activity as a condition of admission and turned down those who would not do so, a clearly political consideration not demanded by other receiving nations such as France, Sweden and West Germany.

While it is not clear that this external criticism played a significant direct role in spurring the government to adopt a more positive approach to the Chilean refugee crisis, it did inform and give weight to the arguments of the domestic pro-refugee lobby. Using the information emanating from Chile through the UNHCR, a group of concerned Canadian organizations submitted a highly critical report to the government in October, 1974, at a moment when the already inadequate measures being taken in Chile were on the verge of being further scaled down. Ultimately, the continual pressure applied by the various groups in Canada on the refugee issue seems to have had a positive, if limited effect on government policy. While the government continued to adopt a cautious attitude toward refugees who supposedly might pose a threat to public safety, by February 1975 Canada had accepted 1188 Chilean refugees, in addition to a larger number who entered designated as immigrants.

The Chilean refugee crisis of 1973-75 marks an important moment in Canadian history for a number of reasons. For one, domestic and international pressure arising from the humanitarian crisis forced the Canadian government to deal with a situation it would have preferred to ignore. While ideological considerations ultimately limited the number of refugees accepted, the effective lobbying of interest groups ensured that the government was forced to confront the issue as a humanitarian, rather than immigration issue. The controversy caused by the Canadian attitude and actions was also instrumental in forcing the government to reappraise refugee concerns and immigration policy. The result of this would be a more formalized, “neutral” policy governing refugee admissions in subsequent years that would prove to be beneficial to later waves of Latin Americans who have sought shelter in Canada.

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.

(1) Quoted in “Canada’s Ambassador Says Chilean Coup Prevented a Civil War”, Toronto Star, September 26, 1973. pp. A1, A3.
(2) Gerald E. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977. p. 246.
(3) Robert Smith, “Chileans Today Relying on the Conscience of the World”. Toronto Star, January 12, 1974. p. B2.

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