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Pierre Beemans

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Part of the price for a fully retired life is being pretty well out of the loop. It was in a line-up at the supermarket on Holy Saturday that I learned of the death of Dwight Fulford, some four years ago. He wasn’t a close friend - more of a good acquaintance, really, as we ran into each a couple of times a year at the Bytowne Theatre or some neighbourhood function in Alta Vista. Nonetheless, the news left me feeling that I had lost something: a chance, perhaps, to say goodbye and to remind him of why I held him in such high esteem.

It goes back to 1975, when Dwight was Head of Post in Argentina and I was in Buenos Aires as the working head of the Canadian delegation to one of those endless UN conferences on how to improve the world (this one was on technical cooperation among developing countries). As ambassador, Dwight was the formal head of delegation, but he made it clear when I checked in to the embassy that he had lots of other things on his plate and would be happy if he could show up for only the opening and closing sessions.

Buenos Aires in 1975 wasn’t the happy place that I had first known in 1962. The generals were in power and the ‘Dirty War’ was in full swing: union leaders, journalists, student radicals, progressive priests, leftwing politicians and just about anyone with the wrong kind of books were being rounded up and questioned -- if not jailed, tortured and tossed out of planes over the South Atlantic. A few militant groups, notably the ‘Montoneros’, were trying armed resistance but theirs was a hopeless cause.

Little of this touched the several thousand foreign delegates to the conference as we shuttled between our luxury hotels, the splendid congress centre, the posh receptions and the superb restaurants. Statements were delivered, delegates were caucused by region, language and special interest, resolutions were hammered out, plans of action approved, and after ten days only the closing speeches remained. Dwight had driven over for the occasion and when he had made the final Canadian intervention, we chatted quietly in our seats and waited for it all to wind up.

That was when his driver slipped into the hall and whispered a few words in the Ambassador’s ear. He touched my arm and said, “Something’s come up at the Embassy. You might want to join me for this.” It seemed that a young woman and her 4-year old son had come into the Embassy early in the afternoon and, after closing hour, were refusing to leave and asking for protection. We took the elevator up to the Embassy offices, nodded to the two police duty guards standing outside the door, and followed the secretary into a closed office where the woman and her child were waiting.

It seems that she had received two visits from the police asking her for the whereabouts of her husband, known to be a sympathizer of the Montoneros. She had told them that she hadn’t seen him for two years, that he was in hiding somewhere unknown, that she had received neither news nor money from him, and that she wanted nothing to do with him or his politics. The police didn’t believe her and in the second visit they told her that if she didn’t know, she certainly had ways to find out; if she didn’t provide them with an answer in 48 hours, she would be arrested and interrogated more ‘formally’, and she could say good-bye to her child. She and her son had left their house with just the clothes on their backs so as not to arouse suspicion, and had looked for an embassy that was accessible. Canada happened to be it.

I asked Dwight if he believed her story. “Of course,” he replied, “this is happening every day in Argentina. Just the fact of coming here like this makes it impossible for her to return home. Their lives are in danger but they can’t stay here.” Dwight went out to the police guards outside the doors, told them he was locking up for the night, thanked them for their attention and wished them a pleasant night with their families. As soon as they were gone, we took the elevator with the woman and the child down to the basement garage. After the driver checked carefully, we bundled them into the ambassadorial limousine and drove away.

When he dropped me off at my hotel (I was leaving the next morning), I asked Dwight where he was going to take them. “I don’t know yet,” he said, “and no need for you to know. I’ll figure something out. Good night and have a safe trip home.” Dwight was not a person for long speeches.

I learned some years later when our paths crossed again that he had found a place for them to stay while he made arrangements to get them out of the country. I gather it was worked out through the good offices of the Papal Nuncio. If he had been found out, of course, he would have been ‘ persona non grata-ed’ within hours, probably with an even frostier fate awaiting him on his return to Ottawa.

Dwight wasn’t our flashiest or our most grandiloquent ambassador, and I am sure that there were many more of our diplomats who would have shown equal nerve and decisiveness, as Ken Taylor did. But Dwight Fulford’s courage and willingness to take a major risk for the sake of a complete stranger that September day in Buenos Aires in 1975 have marked him in my memory as the very model of a good and honourable man, someone whom I feel it a privilege to have known.

Pierre Beemans

April 2, 2013

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