Escaping Pinochet, Chileans Found Home in Quebec

by Vincent Simboli in Montreal

The willingness of Chilean refugees to assimilate into Quebec’s unique social context following the 1970s was at the forefront of a panel discussion on the contributions of the Chilean immigrant community in Quebec. 

On February 11, approximately 250 people gathered at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) to attend “Réfugiés et immigrants au Québec: une longue histoire de solidarité internationale à partir de l’expérience chilienne” (Refugees and immigrants in Quebec: a long history of international solidarity from the Chilean experience). 

The panel was hosted by the Comité pour les droits humains en Amérique latine (Committee for Human Rights in Latin America, CDHAL) and various local partner organizations. 

Panelist José del Pozo, a Chilean-born professor of History at UQAM who emigrated to Quebec in 1974, explained that, despite challenges, Chileans integrated quite well into Quebec society compared to other immigrant groups. 

Chilean integration in Quebec

In French, del Pozo explained that Chileans arriving in 1970s Quebec found many similarities between their new and old homes at political and social levels. Like Chile, Quebec is a broadly secular society despite having a largely Catholic population. 

Del Pozo said that there is a strong desire for social justice among both populations, and each has a culture with common ‘Latin values’ from the French and Spanish colonies.

However, del Pozo continued, Chileans had difficulty integrating with Quebecois and Canadian society. Chile is a notoriously homogenous nation with a population that is 88.9 per cent white or non-Indigenous. Upon arriving to Quebec, Chileans “defined themselves in terms of alterity as they had not been exposed to ethnic diversity,” said del Pozo. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Chileans integrated quite well into Quebec society compared to other immigrant groups.[/quote]

Despite this, del Pozo’s analysis of the Chilean integration to Quebec society determines that in cultural terms, their integration was fast and impressive. 

There is no “Chilean Ghetto” in Montreal, and there has been a large number of mixed (Chilean/Quebecois) couples with children. 

By the 1990s, Chilean-Canadian politicians were running for office in Quebec — only one generation after the major wave of immigration in the 1970s. 

However, in economic terms, Chilean immigrants to Quebec saw a “catastrophic increase in unemployment rates in the 1980s, and incomes among Chilean immigrants were always inferior to the provincial average,” said del Pozo.

Del Pozo presented a series of statistics that showed that the unemployment rate of Chilean immigrants in Quebec spiked in 1991, climbing to 27 per cent — more than double the provincial average. 

From 1973 to 2011, the median household income of Chilean immigrant families was approximately $6,000 CAD lower than the provincial average. 

Violence in Chile under Pinochet

Clotilde Bertrand, a lifelong activist and Québec Solidaire candidate for Argenteuil in the 2014 provincial elections, spoke at the panel as a former coordinator of the Centre international de solidarité ouvrière (International Workers’ Solidarity Centre, CISO)

The CISO and other Quebec socialist groups and labour unions have denounced Canada’s complicity in the violence committed against Chileans under dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Many Chileans fled the country following the coup d’état on September 11, 1973, which resulted in the death of the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The coup was supported by the Chilean military and the U.S. government, and installed General Augusto Pinochet as dictator during a 17-year rule. 

Under Pinochet, thousands of Chilean civilians were tortured, killed or disappeared.

CISO traveled to Palestine and across Latin America, including Chile under both Allende and Pinochet, in the 1970s to gather global support and foster cooperation between leftist anti-imperialist groups. These groups united under Quebec syndicalist Michel Chartrand’s principle of “même ennemi, même combat” (“same enemy, same battle”). 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Many Chileans fled the country following the coup d’état on September 11, 1973.[/quote]

Pressure from groups like CISO in Quebec successfully persuaded Canada’s federal government to recognize Chileans fleeing the regime as refugees. 

Canada’s hesitance to accept Chilean immigrants’ claims to refugee status was reflective of its allegiance to American foreign policy. Until the 1976 assassination of Allende’s Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington DC, American foreign policy was staunchly supportive of Pinochet. 

This successful lobbying of the Canadian government to accept Chilean refugees’ claims as legitimate established a precedent, and other trade partners began denouncing Pinochet and welcoming Chilean refugees.

Quebec shows solidarity with Chileans

Immediately after the coup d’état, worldwide solidarity movements began to spread information about what was happening in Chile. 

Quebec was no exception, and the Comité Québec-Chili (CQC) grew into a major collaborative organization between labour unions and politically-involved Chileans in Quebec. 

Panelist Suzanne Chartrand, a founding member of the CQC, explained that the language used when educating Quebecers about the situation in Chile was critical. 

From 1973-1980, Chartrand and her team insisted in their educational tours of Quebec that it wasn’t so much Pinochet who was responsible for the violence in Chile, but rather “economic imperialism” of the multinationals within NATO-affiliated nations who allowed the coup to happen. 

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Worldwide solidarity movements began to spread information about what was happening in Chile.[/quote]

These tours were designed as consciousness-raising initiatives to pressure the Canadian government to condemn Pinochet’s actions and to encourage Quebec residents to welcome Chilean refugees into their communities. 

They were particularly effective in creating a popular movement of labour activists across Trois-Rivieres, Québec City, Sherbrooke and Montreal. 

Thanks to their sacrifices, “the Chileans who came were a gift to Quebec,” said Bertrand. And by the same principle, the Quebecois activists who were willing to help in the fight against tyranny in Chile were very important there. 

Bertrand concluded her emotional address with a heartfelt message shared by all the panelists: “We thank you, Chileans, for choosing Quebec!”

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