Me and Idi Amin's victims


Posted 01.31.07

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The original conversations on 10.17.72 were in French but the translations capture the essence of the event described.)

"Bonjour, Gervais," I said into the mouthpiece of the telephone.

"Robert, Michel Lachance, Immigration!" said the voice in my ear. It contained an uncharacteristic note of . . . not panic, not excitement but more of cautious concern.

Michel was one of the most effective senior managers in the Public Service of Canada. The task he had as Administrator for Manpower and Immigration afforded lots of opportunity for him to be in a flap but he was widely perceived as unflappable. This morning, I could hear wings begin to unfurl.

"How can I be of service?" I inquired.

"Did someone forget to tell you they were moving and they want service up and running in their new offices by 3 p.m. today?"

The group I was responsible for co-ordinated telecommunications requirements for government departments in Quebec. Whether it was opening a new office or relocating three hundred people to a new location, we acted as the technical interface with the telephone companies and other telecommunication service carriers.

"No, it's nothing that simple, "Michel countered. "I just received a call from the Minister's office in Ottawa."

If he hadn't had my full attention before, it was all his as of that moment. Any request from the office of a Cabinet Minister meant that results were expected - period.

"It seems that we are going to be receiving some visitors in Montreal beginning this Friday," Michel continued.

I relaxed a bit. Visitors were nothing unusual with their special requirements for telephones, Telex service and data lines back to some HQ office somewhere.

"Friday," I repeated, as I wrote it on my pad. "Any idea of what number, what time or where they are going to want to set up?" The wheels began to turn in my mind about who I would need to contact to make this happen.

"As a matter of fact," Michel said, pausing for effect, "I have that information right here for you. Are you ready?"

"I'm ready." I was never in my life so not ready for what came next.

"There will be between 5000 and 10,000 people who will begin to arrive on Friday about p.m. at the old Longue Pointe Defense Base on rue Hochelaga," he said.

His words tumbled down the corridors of my mind.

"All major government departments will be there - M & I (Manpower amp; Immigration), Health, RCMP, Public Works -- but I have no idea how many from each; that information is being worked on at the moment and I'll have to get back to you," he said.

The last thing I needed at that moment was more information. What I did need was a few moments to gather my thoughts.

"Is this a new development of some sort or did someone just forget to include us in some planning?" I asked conversationally.

"No, this happened last night." Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau advised the United Nations that Canada would accept some of the South Asians that Idi Amin is expelling from Uganda.

"Either expelling or killing, it doesn't seem to much matter to Amin…He has ordered them all to be out of the country by November 8 or else."

There had been news reports over the last several months about seizures of property in Uganda, killings, and sudden disappearances of people who resisted new laws proclaimed by Idi Amin. But Africa seemed to be so far away. Now it had just gotten much closer.

A loud whistle escaped through my pursed lips, loud enough to elicit a comment from the other end of the line.

"Hey, my ears. Be careful!"

"Sorry, Michel! I'm just trying to get my mind around how big an elephant this is,"

""There will be a telex in your hands shortly with a lot more detail. I wanted to give you a heads-up because you're going to need all the time you can get to make this happen.

My first call was to my contact at Bell Canada. "Walter Emile, whatever you have planned for the rest of the week, forget it. You are going to be busy until Friday, at least."

Over his initial protestations, I provided what background I had.

"Are they all crazy?" Emile asked. "This is already Tuesday morning!"

"Yes, and the clock is running, Emile. Please be in my office in an hour. If you can find someone from Inside Plant and Installation & Repair, they will no doubt appreciate the advance warning. See you in an hour."

My next call was to my wife to tell her how I would be spending my time for the rest of the week.

"It is a good thing we are doing, she stated. "It makes me proud to be a Canadian. I'll see you when I see you."

The previous recollections are burned into my mind with letters of fire. The events of the next three or four days are much less clear. It seemed that every time we resolved an issue, there was another one wrapped inside it.

For example, Longue Pointe looked to be about the right physical size for the task at hand. Problem solved. Wrong. Problems begin.

Because much of it had not been used for a long time, it would need to be aired, washed, fumigated, and checked for weight load. There were some problems with the unused plumbing and the electrical wiring was old twisted cotton wire and many of the receptacles didn't work or arced when something was plugged into it. Not all of the light switches worked, either.

Before we could begin to install distribution cable, we needed to know what departments would be located in what rooms of what buildings and what skeleton services they needed. They all, of course, objected to the 'skeleton services' but there was no possible way for us to re-create the regular office environments for all the departments and people involved.

But, even this long after the event, I am compelled to say the following: Every staff member who was assigned to the project by Bell Canada and CNCP Tel gave about 150 percent of what they were asked to do. I was very proud to be associated with such a fine, dedicated, and focused group of individuals.

There were many, many other issues - the entrance cable onto the property was old, paper-wrapped cable that needed replacing - but for what capacity? Had anyone considered where the media would be? What services would they need? On a practical note, some sort of portable toilets would be needed? How many? Where to install them? Would they interfere with anything else? How about representatives from the city for housing services? Who was attending to their needs?

Suffice it to say that, even though much of the telecommunications gear was temporarily mounted on 5/8 inch plywood, or that the cable ran over the rooftops on Large "X" frames, when the first busload of Ugandan refugees came through the gates at about 4:30 p.m. on Friday, October 20, 1972, direct from Mirabel Airport, the services all worked and Canada was "Open for Business."

I hadn't really thought about the incident for many years. Then, one day in the summer of 1978, I was in Toronto visiting with my counterpart, Bob Mitchell and two of his managers, Sal and Dilu. At lunch, someone brought up the question of the most interesting, frustrating, or unusual situations that we had experienced. When it came my turn, I recounted the story detailed above.

"Wow!" said Sal. "I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like. It sure wasn't like that when I came here from Italy."

Dilu Kalsi sat quietly in his chair for a few minutes before joining in.

"I can imagine it," he said quietly as he looked right into my eyes. "Our family was on the second bus that rolled through those gates at Longue Pointe. I was sitting in the very front seat, right opposite the driver. I was really anxious to see what my new country looked like. I wondered what those big white "Xs" were on the roofs of the buildings. Now I know the rest of the story.,."

I realized, once again, how grateful I was to be a Canadian.

An excellent account of the trials to which South Asians in Uganda were subjected, by the Amin regime, at the following URL:


Bob Gervais writes in London, Ontario

Copyright © 2007 Bob Gervais/Log Cabin Chronicles/01.07