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President’s message / Fifty years after the Pinochet coup —  support for academic refugees then and now

President’s message / Fifty years after the Pinochet coup —  support for academic refugees then and now

By Peter McInnis

9/11 has, for obvious reasons, been commemorated as a notable date of historical infamy. Yet another September 11 is worthy of recognition — the 50th anniversary of the notorious Chilean coup d’état of 1973.

Chile had decades of incremental civil and economic progress abruptly curtailed when the combined military forces under General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected Unidad Popular government and assassinated President Salvador Allende. The broader context for this was decades of overt and subversive intervention by western governments, led by the United States.

The details of “Operation Condor” throughout South America are worthy of further examination, but that September, Chileans were subjected to an authoritarian regime and a “war of annihilation” bent on violently purging all oppositional voices. The ensuing bloodbath claimed over 3,000 lives and imprisoned, tortured or “disappeared” another 28,000 until democracy was restored in 1990.

Not surprisingly, the Pinochet junta immediately directed its enmity towards academics. Many professors at the Universidad de Chile in the capital Santiago and other educational institutions quickly realized their lives, and those of their families, were in grave danger. Those that escaped initial mass detainment in the Estadio Nacional, or subsequent incarceration, made hasty plans to flee. Many were essentially stateless, as only 3 per cent of Chileans had passports.

Some of those seeking shelter went to adjacent Argentina and onward to other nations. A significant number chose Canada. These coup refugees would eventually number over 6,000.

Prior to the coup, Canadian academics had expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Chile. Following September 11, 1973, they joined other religious and secular groups in calling for emergency acceptance of refugees.

As reported in the CAUT Bulletin at the time, our association was among the voices demanding action. In October, CAUT passed a resolution that the federal government apply the same open policy towards Chileans as it had previously with those fleeing turmoil in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Uganda. CAUT members and their faculty associations, notably York and Western, also pushed for concrete action under obligations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to which Canada was a signatory member.

Despite the best efforts of CAUT, the Inter-Church Committee on Chile, the Latin American Working Group, and the Coalition on Canadian Policy toward Chile, the initial diplomatic stance of Canada was largely unsympathetic. In a series of telegrams to Ottawa, Canadian ambassador to Chile Andrew Ross advised the government to resist accepting refugees, describing them as the “riff-raff of the Latin American left.” In a chilling reminder of the “none is too many” comment of Canadian officials toward Jewish refugees prior to the Second World War, Ross characterized the Pinochet junta as engaged in the necessary cleansing of political dissidents and the claims of widespread murder as exaggerated.

Other Canadian diplomats were moved by the humanitarian crisis and attempted to offer what help they could muster. In an ill-advised move, Canada officially recognized the Pinochet regime in late September 1973.

Just as the situation for prospective Chilean refugees to Canada appeared dire, a personal intervention by the widow of Salvador Allende to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the political embarrassment from the leak of the Ross telegrams, resulted in a temporary program to accept political refugees known as the Special Movement Chile (SMC). By the expiry of the SMC in December 1978, most junta refugees had gained admission to Canada. In a testament to the determination of those Chileans, many of whom were academics, some of their children have gone on to distinguish themselves as scholars.

The CAUT Refugee Foundation, later founded to initially aid those fleeing the consequences of the Vietnam War, was also influenced by the events in Chile. Canadian scholars have long been actively supportive of people adversely affected by war and civil unrest. CAUT has supported academics and their families in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Argentina, Guatemala, Colombia, South Africa and Iran.

The Canadian record historically towards refugees is uneven, but our academic community has time and again supported those in need. At a time of growing international hostility towards refugees, Canadian scholars must remain mindful of our obligations to support our colleagues in the defence of democracy, academic freedom and human rights.

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