Chile honours instructor for his humanitarian efforts

By Costa Maragos Posted: January 16, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Dr. John Foster (l), instructor in the department of politics and international studies was honoured at the home of Alejandro Marisio Cugat, Chile’s Ambassador to Canada.
Dr. John Foster (l), instructor in the department of politics and international studies was honoured at the home of Alejandro Marisio Cugat, Chile’s Ambassador to Canada. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sandell

Dr. John Foster, an instructor in the departments of politics and international studies and justice studies, has been recognized by the government of Chile for advocacy for refugees and human rights that began in the 1970’s.

At a Chilean Embassy reception in Ottawa recently, Foster was recognized for his work that “generously contributed to saving lives and protecting thousands of Chileans during the dictatorship.”

“The honour was unexpected and a nice surprise,” says Foster.

The military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which commenced on September 11, 1973, created a humanitarian crisis in Chile. Dissidents were jailed. Others were murdered. Many clamoured to get out of the country.

At the time, Foster was a graduate student at the University of Toronto and employed at the United Church national office.

He had been to Chile in 1992 attending a United Nations conference in Santiago.

He says he experienced the hospitality of Chileans, met leading figures in the Allende government and visited many aspects of Chilean life, work and music. Seeing the murderous Pinochet dictatorship unfold, Foster and others went to action.

John Foster U of R
Dr. John Foster (shown in the far left) as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, with Chilean students and church activists. They lobbied foreign affairs officials in Ottawa.

Within a week of the coup, Foster, Chilean students from Toronto Universities and church activists visited Ottawa to meet foreign affairs officials.

“We pressed the government to receive refugees from Chile and not recognize the Pinochet government,” says Foster. “We were not treated warmly by the department of foreign affairs.”

At the time, the Canadian government had accepted people fleeing the communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and Hungary but had no experience with political refugees from Latin America.

The Latin American Working Group, with allied community groups across Canada launched an aggressive letter writing campaign and petitions to change Ottawa’s mind. Contacts in Chile were linked with Canadian broadcasters and reporters.

On October 3, the first of four high level meetings with cabinet representatives was held by a delegation of church leaders from the Catholic, Anglican and United Churches.

A group of refugees had entered the Canadian Embassy in Santiago. When the Canadian Ambassador’s hostility to their presence became public, Parliamentary and citizen pressure became irresistible.

The pressure worked.

Three months after the coup the government agreed to bring in the first wave of Chilean refugees.

“We succeeded to bring the first plane load in January of 1974 with a promise of more to come,” says Foster who was born in Abernethy, Saskatchewan and raised in this province. “We had a lot of hoops to go through. The RCMP had security concerns and so on. One of the initiatives the churches came up with was to bring political prisoners and their families to Canada if they wanted to come. A colleague from the Anglican Church, George Cram, travelled to Chile to visit prisons, interview prisoners and their families and facilitate transfers. It was a pioneering enterprise."

Foster was first chair of the Toronto Welcome Committee for Refugees from Chile.

“It was a grassroots movement and very practical,” says Foster. “We had to find people who spoke Spanish. We tried to line up medical appointments and language training. We had to find housing and so on. It’s all the things those assisting the Syrian refugees are dealing with today.”

By early 1975, it is believed nearly 12 hundred Chilean refugees had moved to Canada. At least 7,000 came in all.

The Pinochet regime ended with a plebiscite and national elections in 1988-90.

The current President in Chile has come forward to recognize the hard work and advocacy of those in Canada who made a difference.

“Foreign citizens facing the dilemma between taking action at their own risk or choosing the part of indifference, chose to act and create a network of solidarity, compassion, justice and friendship,” says Alejandro Marisio Cugat, Chile’s ambassador to Canada.

Marisio praised Foster’s “tireless work and strong commitment on behalf of human rights in Chile and his active involvement with institutions like the Toronto Welcome Committee for Refugees, the Inter-Church Committee on Chile and its successor the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America.”
“These Canadian institutions, as well as many others, played a crucial role in educating Canadians about the situation in our country and the rest of the region, in addition to advocating for the implementation of policies that benefit refugees and their families and organizing support networks to take care of those Chileans who arrived in Canada with the hope of starting a new life.”
The reception, which was attended by former Chilean refugees, also recognized diplomats David Adam, Mark Dolgin and Bob Thomson, former official with the Canadian International Development Agency.
Aside from teaching at the U of R, Foster continues to research Canadian relations with Latin America.

Foster has a long association with the U of R. He was a lecturer in the Department of History when the U of R was a campus of the University of Saskatchewan. Over the years he’s been a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the Department of Justice Studies. Foster is based in Ottawa and teaches two online course offered at the U of R.
He returns often to his home province of Saskatchewan.