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As Syrian refugees arrive, a reflection on Winnipeg’s response to Chilean refugees, 1975-76

By Michael Dougherty


A collective shudder went through the small group as a Winnipeg police car approached along Broadway near the Legislative Building. The wary newly arrived Chilean refugees had been living under a brutal military dictatorship since the U.S. assisted military coup d’etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende two years earlier on Sept. 11, 1973. Summer of 1975 had seen the first trickle begin arriving in Manitoba as part of a wave of federal government sponsored victims of state violence.  

I stepped into the street and waved the police car to a stop, explaining the fear the new arrivees held of police because of their lived experience under the Chilean dictatorship. The officers got out of their patrol car and warmly greeted the newest Manitobans to help allay their concern.

By October 1975 close to 500 Chilean refugees had come to call Manitoba their home. By the summer of 1976 this number would almost double. Responding to the pressing needs of the arriving refugees the Canadian Chilean Working Group of Manitoba formed in 1975 with the generous assistance of mainly local Roman Catholic and United churches. Then Sister Marjorie Beaucage and I co-chaired it and Rev. Hugo Unruh served as the secretary-treasurer. Practically, my task through this ecumenical effort was to assist in the early phase of the Chileans’ adjustment to Canadian life. I accompanied them to Immigration interviews, served a translator, and among other jobs took them on orientation walks like the one described just to get them out of the old hotel near the CNR station on Main Street where they had been billeted while dealing with settlement issues and awaiting apartments.

The Bosco Centre at 87 Isabel became our hub and storage point for clothing, furniture and household supplies. It also provided initial office space for the bilingual program co-ordinator whom we hired directly out of the arriving Chilean community of refugees. Ruben Tucas applied himself mightily to meeting the basic needs of the community and initial efforts at community education on situations that had caused the Chileans to seek refuge in Canada.

Right away problems surfaced with ill-prepared immigration officials seemingly concerned more with departmental bottom lines that addressing the basic needs of these refugees. They placed newly arriving families in an aging near skid-row hotel just north of the CNR train station. I recall sitting with families in the dowdy restaurant as strippers walked through on the way to their performances. The restaurant staff possibly because of language problems just put plates of food in front of the families without any reference to menus or personal choice. When our working group tried to establish how much the refugees were entitled to spend on food daily and other basic rights questions, we were stonewalled.

Fortunately we could avail ourselves of the generous office of the then Attorney-General Howard Pawley. A call from the Attorney-General to come to a luncheon meeting in his office would be answered immediately by federal bureaucrats. The immigration officials would arrive to see us sitting there. Minister Pawley would eat his brown bag lunch with us while we asked the questions we couldn’t get answers from on our own on settlement issues. (I sadly noted the death of this genuine social advocate and former premier of Manitoba in Windsor, Ont., on Dec. 30.)

Ruben Tucas would spend much of his time in liaison efforts with the local federal Manpower office trying to get jobs for arrivees. The normal immigrant stories of a psychologist making beds at a downtown hotel or the deputy police chief of Chile’s largest city, Santiago, stocking shelves at a Liquor Commission warehouse were typical of their early days. As well, many of the refugees had been imprisoned and some tortured. Their families experienced fear, uncertainty and repression, only to be reunited with their missing relative at the Chilean airport just as they boarded their direct flights to Canada.

Some of them must have thought initially that coming from summer in Chile to a bitter Winnipeg winter was just an extension of their punishment. Our response and understanding of the psychological trauma they had gone through was certainly inadequate by today’s still evolving standards, but we did the best we knew how. This included finding the resources to assist in again relocating individuals to other cities, even countries where they would be reunited with family, friends or find the help they needed in some other way.

Early on it became apparent that the Chilean refugees would be tagged as “communists” by some with all the Cold War baggage this implied. We even became aware of believed RCMP scrutiny on the growing Chilean community at events such as when the Chilean Association organized a Chile National Day silent march on Sept. 18, 1976. The march followed a line from Memorial Park up Colony to Portage over to Donald then on to the U.S. Consulate across the Assiniboine River for a wrap-up protest rally there.

Just as we approached the parkade behind the Hudson Bay building at Colony and Portage, I noticed two men in civilian garb snapping photos of everyone from between cars on the third level as we walked by. Holding the bullhorn I had been given in order to provide bilingual marshalling directions as needed, I used it to inform the marchers in Spanish what was happening and asked them to turn and wave at them. The two men quickly disappeared. An earlier overnight break-in at a Point Douglas meeting of Chilean support groups from across the country didn’t do anything to diminish our suspicions.

The fear provoked by the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a high-ranking minister in Allende’s government, in Washington, D.C., in September 1976, reached into Manitoba. Chilean community members reported seeing suspicious individuals that they believed were members of DINA, the notorious Chilean secret police, operating in Winnipeg. Other refugee communities across Canada reported similar surveillance and intimidation tactics. I sat in on meetings acting as a translator between RCMP and threatened Chilean community members recounting their experiences.

The “communist” concern persisted with some negative consequences. While living in Morris, Man., in early 1977, I tried to organize a cultural evening for the community with a performance of a Chilean music and dance group. The gym at Morris Collegiate had been booked, tickets printed and ads placed when use of the gym was suddenly revoked. I later found out that statements like, “We shouldn’t make it easy for commies to come to Morris,” allegedly made by town elders, resulted in the cancellation of the group’s local performance.

The Canadian Chilean Working Group of Manitoba evolved. Settlement issues gave way to community education and solidarity efforts. The Chilean Association emerged on its own to become the voice of the Chilean community as it took root in Manitoba. Reconstructing lives, adjusting to a new country and culture and overcoming prejudices and fear took time but the positive results are obvious today. The Chilean refugee community has enriched Manitoba in many ways. Some of the original refugees returned to Chile with the restoration of democracy in the early 1990s, some even with Canadian spouses. Many other families stayed on and are now beginning their second and third Canadian-Chilean generations.

The arriving Syrian families will face similar challenges. Some backlash is already apparent as we bizarrely hear of all Muslims being labelled as “terrorists.” We can all hope that the warmth and support of our communities again will overcome fear and prejudice. Government transparency and positive engagement will be essential. Community education will be critical and likely the faith community of Manitoba will again be taking a lead position in welcoming our newest Canadians.

In the end these new families will immensely enrich the lives of the volunteers about to assist them and strengthen our communities as all refugees and immigrants to our rich cultural mosaic have in the past. All they want is peace and a chance to earn their bread. We can surely give them that and together we will all gain much more.
Michael Dougherty is a member of the co-ordinating committee of Yukon Cares, a community group sponsoring a Syrian family of 11 soon to arrive in Whitehorse, Yukon.