Review by Martin Boyd
The Spanish-speaking community is now one of Canada’s largest minority language communities. According to the 2012 national census, there are 441,000 native Spanish speakers in the country, making it Canada’s second most widely spoken minority language. Because it has grown so rapidly – from almost nothing a mere 50 years ago to its considerable size today – Hispanic Canadian history is a field still very much in its infancy. Fortunately, however, it is a field that is beginning to attract the attention of historians like Francis Peddie, whose examination of the experiences of Chilean exiles – a group of extreme importance to the establishment of this country’s Spanish-speaking community – constitutes a valuable contribution to the library of Canada’s multicultural history.
Peddie’s study moves from the general to the particular, beginning with an overview of the broader historical Cold War context that precipitated the US-sponsored military coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, and the consequent Chilean diaspora in the years that followed. Specifically, the first chapters examine the domestic circumstances that led to the Chilean coup, while also outlining Canada’s traditionally “open door” immigration and refugee policy prior to 1973, and its initially sluggish response to the Chilean refugee crisis. Ottawa’s slow reaction was clearly the result of Cold War fears of infiltration by “leftist extremists”, a point which refugee advocates seized upon to question whether the government’s refugee policy was based on humanitarian or merely political concerns. Ultimately, the fear-mongers were assuaged (or at least silenced) by arguments like the one expressed succinctly by the then Canadian Immigration Minister Robert Andras: that the Chilean refugees were “young, well-educated and adaptable people” who would integrate successfully into Canadian society.
After outlining the historical context, Peddie gradually closes his focus in on the personal stories of exile, drawing on oral histories compiled in a series of interviews the author conducted with twenty of the 6,000 Chilean exiles who came to Canada between 1973 and 1978. From this point, the structure of the book follows a chronological logic that progresses through what might be viewed as the classic series of psychological stages of exile: the initial culture shock upon arrival in an unfamiliar land; the slow and painful process of adaptation; the changes and ruptures in relationships resulting from the new cultural context; and finally, the decision of whether to return to Chile or remain in Canada, which had become a permanent home for most exiles by the time Pinochet’s military dictatorship finally abdicated in 1989. Although some Chilean exiles tried returning to Chile in the 1990s, the story of many of the participants in Peddie’s study appears to be a story of a long and often painful evolution from Chilean exile to Chilean Canadian, a process whereby Canada, which for most was initially only a temporary refuge until they could return home, became an integral part of a new, hybrid identity.
In addition to mapping the challenges faced by this pioneering group of Hispanic immigrants to Canada, Peddie’s book also documents their considerable contributions to their adopted country. The organizations they established or joined in their first years of exile – such as the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples in Toronto or the Escuela Salvador Allende Spanish schools in Saskatoon, Toronto and Montreal – served to create the first community support networks for Hispanics in this country, while other initiatives launched by Chilean exiles, such as the Arauco housing cooperative or the Canadian Centre for the Victims of Torture, expanded beyond their Chilean roots to provide valuable services to the broader Canadian community.
The thematic structure of Peddie’s book has the effect of painting a series of collages of the exile experience rather than a set of discrete individual biographies. At times the fluid movement between oral histories poses a challenge to the reader to keep track of the different voices contributing to the collage (there is an appendix at the back of the book containing the profiles of interviewees, which is worth consulting regularly to help distinguish these different voices), but this fluid exchange of voices, anchored by Peddie’s own clear narrative voice (which is always articulate but never overly technical), serves to remind us that Chilean exile was an experience not of isolated individuals, but of a cohesive community whose sense of solidarity gave them strength, and helped them to lay the foundations for the waves of Hispanic migrants that would follow them to the Great White North.
In the context of the current global refugee crisis and Canada’s exemplary response to it, Peddie’s book constitutes a timely examination of another historical instance where Canada overcame the xenophobic paranoia afflicting other nations to set an example of humanitarian action in a cynical world. But it also serves as an important document of the experiences of a group of young, well-educated and adaptable Chileans who traversed the hemisphere to flee persecution, and ultimately helped establish what is now one of the most thriving and vital communities in the Canadian multicultural mosaic.