Chilean Montrealers remember another 9/11 — the 1973 coup
'It's been 50 years of struggle,' says vigil organizer
Hortensia Agurto was almost relieved when she read that her family's immigration application to Canada had been denied. It was the summer of 1975 and she didn't want to leave Chile despite the fact that it had been in the grips of a military dictatorship for almost two years.
The Canadian government didn't think she had to leave anyways.
"According to the decision, my husband in particular didn't qualify — he wasn't in danger," remembers Agurto.
Two months later, Raúl Jaime Olivares Jorquera was assassinated. He was 25.
Jorquera had worked for the presidential guard of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president who had been overthrown in a coup d'état led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973.
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"It's incredible how 50 years have gone by," said Agurto about the day when Chilean troops bombed the presidential palace with Allende inside, kickstarting the 17-year dictatorship.
Agurto and her two-year-old daughter were allowed into Canada almost immediately following Jorquera's death after her application was reviewed.
On Monday, they both stood in Montreal's des Amérique park, where members of the community had gathered for a vigil commemorating the anniversary of the coup.
Agurto helped organize the event as a member of the Colectivo 11 de Septiembre Chile-Montreal — the September 11 collective — a Montreal group she helped found in 1999.
A large banner wrapped around a couple of tree trunks showed the faces of a few of the thousands of people who were executed during Pinochet's time in power or who disappeared at the hands of the state and are presumed dead.
"I had the chance to bury my husband, to go and see his grave whenever I'm in Chile but the families of the disappeared, it's a permanent torture for them [so] I fight thinking about them," said Agurto.
The Quebec-Chilean connection
There are several other events taking place this week in Montreal to commemorate the anniversary, including an exhibit at the Écomusée du fier monde, a museum about the working class, which runs until Oct. 22.
"The situation in Chile quickly made headlines here in Quebec," said historian Geneviève Dorais, who helped put together the research for the exhibit, which explores Allende's legacy in Quebec.
Quebec trade union leader Michel Chartrand had spent time in Allende's Chile to learn from the socialist movement and later mobilized to create the first Quebec-Chile solidarity group almost immediately after the coup.
"That group was fundamental in the 70's to spread information on the situation in Chile to inform the Quebec public," said Dorais. The solidarity group also provided support to incoming refugees.
Around 2,000 Chileans immigrated to Quebec in the early years of the dictatorship, according to a 2016 report by the province's Immigration Ministry
Among them was Ricardo Peñafiel's family. He teaches at the Université du Québec à Montréal's (UQAM) political science department and is the director of GRIPAL, a research group specializing in Latin American politics.
"The Canadian embassy didn't want to receive Chilean refugees because it was afraid of communism," he says, referring to the dominant Cold War ideologies of the time.
Just under 7,000 Chileans were taken in as refugees in Canada between 1973 and 1978 — a number Peñafiel says pales in comparison to the 37,500 Hungarians escaping communism that Canada accepted in 1956 and 1957.
Keeping the memory alive
Agurto wasn't into politics at all when she met Jorquera at a family function back in 1969. Now retired, she says she's spent most of her time in Canada focused on activism work.
"All of this is like continuing his struggle that I took over after him," she says. "It's been 50 years of struggle and we each carry it in our own way."
A recent poll in Chile found that Pinochet's ideals have slowly begun to creep up again in Chile amid the economic, social and political crisis engulfing the country today. In 2023, 36 per cent of respondents to the poll said the 1973 coup was justified. About a third of respondents age 35 and under shared that opinion.
"Today the polarization [in Chile] is extreme," says Peñafiel. "It's really sad because a year ago we thought we had succeeded in ending the dictatorship's legacy," he added, referring to the election of leftist president Gabriel Boric.
In 1975, Agurto came to Canada with the goal of denouncing her husband's murder.
"Today my principle goal is to mobilize, keep the memory alive [and] continue to support the Chilean people," she says.
With files from Shahroze Rauf