Shaking earth and preconceptions

Hector Bravo and his family planned to begin their trip home to Canada last Friday from Santiago, the capital of Chile. A bird strike, though, on a turbine of their arriving plane meant an overnight delay.

Hector Bravo and his family planned to begin their trip home to Canada last Friday from Santiago, the capital of Chile. A bird strike, though, on a turbine of their arriving plane meant an overnight delay. Air Canada arranged to put the family of five and a nephew travelling with them up at the local Sheraton Hotel. They thought that they would be homeward bound last Saturday.

Once my neighbours across a back alley in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the Bravo family had found a refuge in Canada in the mid-1970s during the dark, brutal days of the Pinochet dictatorship in their Chilean homeland. Carlos Bravo, the patriarch of the clan, had worked as an electrician at a mine in northern Chile. He also held the position of shop steward for his union there.

When the troops under General Pinochet violently seized control in a coup d’etat on September 11, 1973 which was openly supported by the United States, people like union activists became targets of repression. Jailed without any recourse to legal protection or a functioning judicial system, Carlos faced torture of various kinds including mock execution. The Canadian government eventually opened its doors and allowed hundreds of political prisoners and their families like the Bravos to start new lives here.

Then just in his early teens, Hector Bravo along with his brothers and sisters faced the daunting challenge of learning a new language and acclimatizing to very different culture and environment. They met that task, became Canadians and have reared their families here. However with the restoration of democracy his parents, Carlos and Marta, whom the younger Bravo’s had just visited, returned home to Chile.

A little after 3:30 a.m. last Saturday the 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck. The severe shaking lasted for over three minutes. “Literally, I couldn’t stand up (the hotel) was shaking so much and I kept falling back on the bed,” noted Hector’s wife, Prisca, a Prince Albert police officer, in a Prince Albert Daily Herald telephone interview from Chile. They fled to the street in their pyjamas as a strong aftershock severely damaged the hotel some twenty minutes later.

Luck and distance from the epicentre of the quake some 300 kilometres southwest of the inland capital spared the Bravo family. Hundreds of Chileans lost their lives in the quake and the subsequent tsunami. The country suffered literally billions of dollars of physical damaged. The country still also bears the burden of the damage wrought by the 1973 to 1990 military dictatorship. Economic policies put in place during that period dramatically worsened economic inequality in this South American country. Growth at all costs trumped the social well-being of the citizenry.

Ariel Dorfman, Chilean author and professor at Duke University, lived through the 9.6 magnitude earthquake that devastated Chile in 1960. In a CNN commentary last Tuesday Professor Dorfman stated that ” It is obscene to compare cataclysms as if they were contestants in a horror show – this one cost so many billions, that one so many lives…”. However the 1960 quake “was a lesson in solidarity that I never have forgotten – those who were most deprived gave so much, cared so much, sacrificed so much for their wounded compatriots. If Chile is more opulent now, it has also become a more egocentric and individualistic society where, instead of a vision of social justice for all, the citizenry is for the most part engaged in a frenzied race toward ever more consumption and subject, of course, to the accompanying stress and anomie.”

Ariel Dorfman believes that a fundamental solidarity deep within the Chilean people will lift it “up from its desolation.” Somehow we must tap into that wellspring of our humanity here in the Yukon as well. Our generous response to neighbours, near or far, in distress is one way we show this. Yearning towards a vision of social justice for all is certainly another.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact