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Remembering Canada’s support for the Greek military dictatorship

Following the 1967 coup, Greece became the second fascist member of the NATO alliance

Canadian PoliticsEurope

A tank taking up position in Athens during riots in which nine people died when students demonstrated against NATO and the rule of the Greek dictatorship, November 20, 1973. Photo courtesy Keystone/Hulton Archive.

Last week, tens of thousands of Greeks marched in remembrance of the Athens Polytechnic massacre, a student uprising against the fascist military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Protests were also held outside the US embassy, with some protestors carrying a bloodstained Greek flag to draw attention to Washington’s support for the seven years of trauma that occurred under the dictatorship.

The Polytechnic rebellion began on November 14, 1973, and ended three days later, when the government sent tanks crashing through the university gates. Forty students were killed and over one thousand were injured. In the aftermath, military dictator Georgios Papadopoulos was overthrown by an even more right-wing officer Dimitrios Ioannidis, who ruled for one year before the regime’s disintegration.

The right-wing Greek colonels seized power in Athens on April 21, 1967, shortly before a scheduled election that would likely have brought Andreas Papandreou of the social democratic Centre Union to power. Following the coup, Greece became the second openly fascist member of the NATO alliance, alongside António de Oliveira Salazar’s Portugal.

The establishment of the military dictatorship in Greece was supported by NATO powers, including the US and Canada. In the lead-up to the scheduled election, US Ambassador to Athens Philips Talbot prodded Prime Minister Panagiotis Kanellopoulos to declare that “the Greek nation would never be delivered to the communists or to Andreas Papandreou. It would be saved for real democracy.” The coup occurred shortly thereafter, with Washington’s ardent support.

Canada, like all NATO members except Norway and Denmark, did not condemn the coup. Instead, Ottawa took the public line that it did not involve itself in the domestic affairs of other countries—hardly a sincere position given Canada’s deep involvement in the military coup against Ghana’s socialist President Kwame Nkrumah one year earlier.

Following the coup, tens of thousands of Greeks fled the country. Many ended up in Canada, where they organized protest marches against the military dictatorship and called on Ottawa to end its collaboration with the junta.

In response to protests against Canada’s support for fascist Greece and Portugal, Secretary of State for External Affairs Mitchell Sharp stated that “to offer specific, pointed criticism of these allies would do little to enhance private overtures to these governments.” Sharp also claimed that Canada’s good relations with fascist Greece allowed Ottawa to “exercise some positive influence” in the country, although what this influence entailed was unclear. This is the same excuse that the Pierre Trudeau government used to justify Canada’s continued business relationship with apartheid South Africa at a time when the majority of the world was calling for the economic isolation of the regime.

Meanwhile, the RCMP monitored anti-junta groups in Canada. They infiltrated political meetings, sought information on protestors from right-wing Greeks who supported the junta, and occasionally visited the homes of pro-democracy organizers to question them about their involvement with “communist activities.” Katherine Pendakis, who interviewed Greeks who were politically active in Canada during the junta years, found that many were forced to organize pro-democracy protests under “inhospitable conditions created by Canada’s anticommunist political culture [and] RCMP surveillance.”

The RCMP were not the only ones monitoring Greek pro-democracy activists in Canada. From its official embassy, the junta was spying on these individuals, sometimes using right-wing Greeks to collect information. The junta conducted similar spying operations from its embassies in other NATO countries, but still retained the organization’s support.

While endorsing Western interventions in left-leaning countries in the Global South, Ottawa refused to support pro-democracy forces in Greece, arguing that such an action would amount to unwarranted interference. “Whatever one may think of [Papandreou’s] objective,” Sharp wrote, “it is clear that, if the Canadian government endorsed it, it would be intervening in the domestic affairs of a friendly and allied country.”

For whatever reason, Ottawa did not consider the junta’s spying activities on Canadian soil to be “intervening in the domestic affairs of a friendly and allied country.”

It was not until 1973, the year of the Polytechnic massacre, that the Canadian government voiced its official disapproval for political developments in Greece, noting “regret” over the colonels’ “failure to normalise the Greek political situation.” By that point, thousands of pro-democracy activists in Greece had been imprisoned, tortured, killed, and forced into exile.

Before this year’s march in remembrance of the 1973 massacre, Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou released a statement noting that “[t]he Polytechnic Uprising was the beginning of the end for the seven-year dictatorship and the foundation of transition to democracy.”

Dimitris Koutsoumbas, the General Secretary of the Greek Communist Party, stated: “The events and marches 49 years later show that the messages of the Polytechnic uprising—such as ‘out with the US and NATO, the bases of death’… against poverty and unemployment, for public and free education and health, against state repression, fascism, eavesdropping and surveillance that is, the very dictatorship of capital—they are still relevant, timeless and alive to this day.”

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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