Montreal·In Depth

How 1 man brought Fidel Castro to Montreal in April 1959

Claude Dupras, then 26 and president of Montreal's Junior Chamber of Commerce, invited Fidel Castro to visit Montreal just three months after he'd seized power in Cuba, never expecting him to accept the offer.

Organizer of Castro's trip recalls telegram from Cuba, death threats, RCMP security detail

Claude Dupras, left of Fidel Castro, invited the Cuban leader to visit Montreal. Here they are seen taking a tour of Sainte-Justine Hospital. (Montreal Junior Chamber of Commerce)

It started with a telegram.

Claude Dupras, then the 26-year-old president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Montreal, invited Fidel Castro to visit the city for a toy drive to benefit Cuban children.

Dupras never expected the Cuban leader, who just three months earlier had seized power in the revolution, to accept his invitation. 

Then he got the head's up: Castro would be in Montreal April 26, 1959.

CBC Montreal's Daybreak host Mike Finnerty spoke to Dupras about the visit and what it was like meeting Fidel Castro.

What led you to invite him to Montreal?

I heard from the media that he was coming to New York. He's going to go to Princeton University and the United Nations. And I said to myself, "Why don't we invite him, wouldn't that be an idea?" 

I spoke to my board, and we decided to invite him. We had to send a telegram: At that time there were no emails.

This was, for us, just a publicity stunt. We were sure he would never accept our invitation. It would be unbelievable.

But suddenly, about 10 days later, I'm in my office, and a guy comes to the door and gives me this telegram. I open it and read it, and it says, "Dr. Castro will be in Montreal April 26."

Claude Dupras, right, was the president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Montreal. They organized a toy drive for Cuban children in Montreal and asked Fidel Castro to attend. (Montreal Junior Chamber of Commerce)

What was your reaction to that?

I nearly fell off my chair. I said it was impossible.

[The telegram] was written April 1. I said, "Someone is playing a trick on me." I put it aside and thought it was a joke. But during the night, I looked at it and said, "Maybe it's true."

So I called the telegram office and gave them the number and asked, "Where did this telegram come from?" And they told me, from Cuba. So then I believed [it].

You didn't go through official Canadian diplomatic channels?

No, this was strictly a personal gesture from the [Junior Chamber].

As a matter of fact, I tried to meet ministers and friends of mine to ask Mr. Diefenbaker or Mr. Duplessis to come, and everybody refused to greet him or anything like that.

This is the telegram Claude Dupras received confirming Fidel Castro would be coming to Montreal. (Montreal Junior Chamber of Commerce)

Was there any problem getting him into the country?

No. But three or four days after hearing back, an RCMP inspector came to my office and said, "Cancel this visit. It's impossible. We cannot accept that."

I said, "What are you talking about? This is the greatest publicity stunt we ever had. And you want me to cancel it? Never."

He said, "Look, you're going to get killed, maybe."

I said, "What do you mean I'm going to get killed? What kind of a story is this?" 

And he said, "We have these military trials going on in Cuba. And Fidel has killed more than 100 people because they were all former torturers that were known and were bad people. But the parents of these people all left, and they're in New York, and some are in Montreal. So there's a danger there."

"Also, there's this guy, Meyer Lansky, who's the leader of the Mafia and just built the Riviera Hotel in Malecón. And he wants to make this part of Havana into Las Vegas. These gangsters are going to kill you."

"If they don't kill him in New York, they're going to try and kill him in Montreal."

I was young. I just didn't believe it. 

It turned out that it was true. There were people trying to kill Fidel Castro

Of course, it was true. I took a risk without even thinking. In fact, I was a little aggressive. I said to this inspector, "Your job is to protect him and to protect me and my members." 

And they really protected us. At one time the inspector called me at the hotel and said, "There's 30 officers there."

Fidel Castro held a news conference in Montreal on April 26, 1959. Claude Dupras, left of Castro, said 150 reporters from across Canada attended. (Montreal Junior Chamber of Commerce)

What sorts of things did Fidel do in Montreal?

We had one day.

We were supposed to go at 1 p.m. to Sainte-Justine Hospital. He was late. We went to Sainte-Justine, and there was a nice and interesting visit organized with children. After that we got back to the hotel, there was a press conference. We had about 150 newspaper people from Montreal and Canada. 

Then we had a dinner of business people with the Chamber of Commerce. We decided to invite the 50 most important business people of Canada for a dinner with him and his ministers, so that maybe we can open some commercial avenues for these companies.

After that we brought him downtown. We organized a toy drive campaign in a hall. We had five, six thousand people there. So he came in and made a speech. He was applauded. Then we brought him back to the hotel. Next morning, I picked him up and went to the airport, and we went back to Cuba.

Fidel Castro met some of the children being treated at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital while on an organized tour. (Montreal Junior Chamber of Commerce)

What was he like?

He was very calm. He was very polite. He looked very intelligent. He was interested. When you talked of something, he looked you right in the eyes. And then he would explain a lot of things. He was a big man.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak