Bob Thomson: Blowing the whistle on Chile’s 1973 brutality

Monday, December 9, 2013
Relatives of victims tortured and executed during the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, take part in a rally marking the 1973 military coup in Valparaiso, September 5, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez.
Originally published for the National Post A flood of memories rushed to my mind when I was informed that CJFE would be honouring me for my role in shaping Canada’s response to Chile’s 1973 coup d’état. My action was a result of youthful anger at our ambassador at the time, Andrew Ross, for his apparent acceptance of violence against people he called “the riff-raff of the Latin American left.” Following the coup d’état, Augusto Pinochet’s forces were killing and torturing thousands of people. Canada chose to recognize these thugs as the official Chilean government. It was the result, I thought, of our ambassador’s reports and his judgment that the military would quickly restore democracy. As a junior foreign-aid bureaucrat working for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), I felt I had no power to influence government decisions. As it turns out, I did have some power — the power of information. In leaking those cables (known as the Ross cables) to a member of Parliament, who exposed them in the House of Commons and released them to the press, I publicized a controversial point of view that brought out a flood of alternative expressions of the Chilean reality. But that needs to be put into context. I was the guy who threw some gas on a fire and got burnt, losing my job at CIDA in the process. But there were many, many other actors: Canadians and Chileans who also were angry at the Canadian ambassador’s perspective of what was happening in Chile. Church, union, NGO, human rights groups and a few sympathetic diplomats had a very different view of the coup than that of Ambassador Ross. They worked hard to change Canadian refugee policies, and successfully organized to bring thousands of Chileans to Canada. They played as important a role as me, and they too deserve to be honoured. (Bob Carty’s 30-minute 2003 radio documentary “The Long Flight,” produced for CBC’s The Sunday Edition, is an excellent journalistic overview of this complex multi-actor process.) After losing my job at CIDA, I was never able to obtain security clearance for government employment. This was despite a 1985 recommendation from the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) that I be granted clearance, despite two Federal Court of Appeal decisions in my favour and despite a 1991 Supreme Court of Canada recommendation that the legislation governing SIRC be re-written if the body was to have the authority to effectively prevent such abuses by CSIS. I had an opportunity to visit Chile in May 1987 when I led an evaluation of post-earthquake housing projects supported by CIDA through Canadian churches and NGOs. General Pinochet was still in power, and on that trip I had what was the most frightening moment of my life. On May 1, Santiago was blacked out because a guerrilla group had blown up crucial hydro pylons. The subway was closed, so I had to walk back to my hotel after dinner with visiting Canadian poets. I was stopped by a police patrol; they found pamphlets from that morning’s May Day parade in my bag. Pointing their rifle barrels to my ribs, the officers proceeded to question me aggressively. I was terrified they’d find the contact information for families of political prisoners a Canadian NGO had asked me to visit on their behalf. I cursed myself for having the information on my person and potentially exposing them to danger. But in an amazingly ironic moment, the sergeant questioning me found a Canadian Embassy pamphlet signed by then ambassador Michel de Goumois , a pamphlet handed to me by the poets not half an hour before, inviting Chileans to a reading of Canadian works. He let me go. The next morning I recounted my story to a Catholic human rights worker while driving to a social housing conference. She told me that had I been a Chilean, the police would have taken me to a clandestine house, stripped me, hung me from my ankles, doused me with a bucket of cold water and returned three hours later to find out who I was. Cursed by one ambassador, I was inadvertently spared that ordeal by another. What have I learned during my 45-plus-year sojourn around Latin America and other parts of our diverse world, a voyage much changed by the altered career that followed my act of whistle blowing? Freedom of expression goes hand in hand with the voices of that expression. Free expressions come with implications that we can easily miss if we rely only on our own cultural narratives. Several years ago, for instance, an Algonquin friend told me I didn’t understand something because my first language was English. She pointed out that the majority of words in English are nouns, while the majority of words in Anishinabe languages are verbs. They see the world from a perspective of action and process, while we see the world from a perspective of things. It was a profound revelation. In regard to Chile, I was a catalyst in a complex, multi-actor process, and I have no regrets despite (perhaps even because of) the life-changing impact it had on me. I wasn’t hurt as badly as Chelsea/Bradley Manning or Julian Assange or Edward Snowden have been for their recent whistle-blowing and their imprisonment or flight into exile. Or the many journalists in Canada and around the world, in both mainstream and alternative media, who risk their lives or reputations to bring us hidden facts, alternative voices and interpretations. In 1998, I was attending an event and seated at the same table was a Chilean refugee. He told me he was in Canada thanks to some guy who leaked cables from the Canadian embassy. When one of my colleagues identified me as that whistleblower, the Chilean-Canadian got up, walked around the table and threw his arms around me. Yes, it was worth it.

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