When my father was in his early 20s, living in Chile, the democratically elected socialist government was toppled by a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, and backed by the CIA. My father along with other Chileans protested and did everything they could to try and return things to how they were prior to the dictatorship. Or how they were promised to be. My father wanted everyone to have access to what the upper classes had always had access to: free healthcare and education. Access to good paying jobs. See, the poor in Chile are mostly Indigenous. Discarded, without any rights nor access to their land, the socialist party had sought to include them in what they were fighting for. What my father was fighting for. Most Chileans are descendants of Spanish colonizers and Indigenous peoples, including my father, who’s ancestors are Mapuche. The fight was not only the right thing to do, but personal in many ways.
What happened next is quite tragic and universal of dictatorships: dissidents (or those suspected of being dissidents) were swiftly incarcerated, tortured, killed or they “disappeared.” My father, along with many others, was jailed and tortured.
Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s PM at the time, decided to help the cause. He and other governments condemned the actions of the Chilean dictatorship and, with the help of the Roman Catholic Church, coordinated the release of those incarcerated and arranged for their travel to Canada. Here they arrived as political refugees. I would not be here would it not be for the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic Church.
My whole life I’ve been led to believe that Canada is a haven for those of us who are descendants of refugees — forever grateful for giving us life. And in many ways, it has been. But at what price?
It was a PR campaign, you see. While the world was praising Canada for helping “those poor Chileans,” under Pierre Trudeau’s government, residential schools went from being church-run to government-run (January 1969). Trudeau even wrote a white paper in 1969 which basically “…proposed to abolish all legal documents that had previously existed, including (but not limited to) the Indian Act, and all existing treaties within Canada. It proposed to assimilate First Nations as an ethnic group equal to other Canadian citizens.*” Many people — Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — strongly opposed it. It was as if the then-Canadian Government was trying to get rid of everything (evidence?) and then like, clear itself of all its wrongdoings without acknowledging nor apologizing for its part in the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
So you see, Canada Day and being Canadian is a toughie for me. And if my dad had known that he was leaving one country where he was fighting for Indigenous people to have equal rights, only to go to another where their rights were also taken away, he would have stayed in jail. My dad was a stubborn young man of principles. Still is, in his older age. I’m sure he’s as conflicted (if not more) as his daughters are.
I will spend the rest of my life trying to learn and unlearn and teach my children the price our lives have cost. I’m not even 40 so I’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of time to make things right.