Skip to main content

Claudio Duran came to Canada as a refugee after a coup d'etat on his native Chile 40 years ago. , photographed at his home in Toronto, September 04 2013. Photo by: Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

First came the sound of low-flying planes, then of explosions. Marc Dolgin, the young diplomat in charge of Canada's embassy in the Chilean capital of Santiago, huddled by the radio at work and soon realized the bombs were falling on the presidential palace.

It was Sept. 11, 1973. The military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet had begun, opening a dark chapter of torture and repression for Chile. And over the next few days, Mr. Dolgin would make a fateful decision that would help reshape Canada's foreign policy, galvanize Ottawa to create an immigration category for refugees and alter forever the lives of thousands of Chileans.

Across the city that day, a young leftist professor named Claudio Duran realized that he was in mortal danger as the tanks rolled in and the junta began rounding up anyone suspected of supporting the dead president, Salvador Allende. With nothing more than the clothes he was wearing, he went into hiding, slipping through the shadows as he moved from the home of one friend after another. After about a week, he and his family turned up at the Canadian mission seeking refuge. Mr. Dolgin let them in.

There was no diplomatic precedent for his decision to offer shelter to Chileans who were fleeing the widening net cast by the junta. Six years later, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took most of the staff hostage, the Canadian embassy famously helped six American diplomats evade detection and fly home – the dramatic "Canadian caper" that was fictionalized in last year's Oscar-winning film Argo.

But 40 years ago, at the time frightened Chileans were scrambling to get into any foreign embassy in Santiago that would harbour them, Mr. Dolgin as Canada's representative was treading into uncharted territory. While Canada had long welcomed people fleeing Communist countries and others, and signed the international convention on refugees, its laws did not yet establish a status for refugees fleeing political persecution.

The Chileans were being hunted by a right-wing regime that had overthrown a socialist president – and Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the Pinochet regime, two weeks after the coup.

"The regulations on what to do when people are in trouble were pretty vague," said Mr. Dolgin, long retired from the foreign service and now living near Gatineau, Que. "The one thing that was clear was [that] we were in no position to grant asylum because we were in no position to get people out of the country."

The Canadian ambassador to Chile at the time, Andrew Ross, was in Buenos Aires and unable to return immediately. Mr. Dolgin, then first secretary, was in charge. He made the decision to start accepting people at his own home and within a week, moved them to the ambassador's residence, where he assumed they would be better protected under diplomatic immunity.

Some 16 people, including the Duran family, settled in as best they could in the residence, sleeping on mattresses in a large upstairs room. "They said they were going to help us get to another country – Peru or Mexico – or we could stay with them until we could come out," Mr. Duran recalled.

Outside the protection of the residence, the military was starting what would be a deadly wave of repression. The capital was under strict nighttime curfew, dark and quiet save for the oppressive rhythmic whoosh of helicopters overhead and sudden bursts of gunfire. At one point, Mr. Dolgin went to rescue Canadians caught up in the sweeps and held in the National Stadium that later became a notorious detention and torture centre. When he ventured out after curfew one night to talk to the residence staff about the "guests" who would be coming, he was pulled over and interrogated by a truck full of soldiers.

While Mr. Dolgin searched for options, getting little response or direction from Ottawa, Canadian church groups and other activists were organizing on their behalf and raising an alarm about human rights violations by the junta.

Then in late September, an obscure government worker leaked diplomatic cables in which Mr. Ross, the ambassador, referred to Latin American leftists as "riff-raff" and expressed relief at the overthrow of the Allende government. "I was angry," recalled Bob Thomson, the former Canadian International Development Agency worker who found and passed on the cables.

He said he wanted Canadians to know "what kind of foreign policy was being developed in response to the coup based on the ambassador's advice." The leak did more: It created momentum to bring persecuted Chileans to Canada and ultimately to include refugees as a special class in its immigration act.

Nearly a month after the coup, the little group of Chileans in the Canadian ambassador's residence in Santiago got good news: they would leave for Canada within a few days. A Canadian immigration officer flew in to process them as immigrants, as refugee status didn't yet exist. They would arrive on "ministerial" permits. On Oct. 6, Mr. Duran's extended family came to say goodbye, dropping off his young son, who had remained with relatives, along with a suitcase and some money, the equivalent of about $180. The Duran family and the others got into two vans, each with Canadian flags flying, and drove to the airport before curfew set in. Armed military personnel were everywhere.

The Chilean military had given the Canadians clearance to put them on a plane, but that didn't relieve anyone's anxiety. At the airport, Mr. Dolgin and Mr. Ross, the ambassador, walked the group carefully and protectively every step of the way, through every checkpoint, right out onto the tarmac. The Chileans walked up the steps to the passenger plane – final destination, Montreal – and took off for new lives in Canada.

By some estimates, 200,000 Chileans fled or were forced into exile during the Pinochet years. Canada, according to government statistics, took in 7,000 Chilean and other Latin American refugees after the coup. From 1973 to 1990, nearly 3,100 people were killed, including 1,200 who disappeared. In all, according to the Chilean government, more than 40,000 people were killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons in that dark time.

Now President Sebastian Pinera has issued a plea for anyone with information about those forcibly "disappeared" by the country's 1973-1990 dictatorship. "Truth is lacking for example when it comes to knowing the circumstances of how they died and the places where the persons who are still disappeared are buried, because that will bring relief not only to their family members but all of society," he said on Thursday.

The experience indelibly marked the lives of the Canadians involved.

"I guess it was among the most dramatic and emotional moments of our lives, to that point and since," said Mr. Dolgin.

Mr. Duran, who taught philosophy at York University and became a citizen in 1978, said he is still overcome by anxiety when he hears a helicopter – a reminder of the "frightening routine" that marked the junta's early weeks in power – even when he is at home, in the Tornoto suburb of Scarborough. He is acutely aware of what he escaped.

"I have friends and relatives who disappeared," he said, "and now we know what happened to them. They were treated with horrible cruelty." The coup 40 years ago, Mr. Duran added, is "in our own essence … The decisive moment of my life, before and after."

Interact with The Globe