NEWS
11/26/2016 23:00 EST | Updated 11/27/2017 00:12 EST

Fidel Castro welcomed by crowds, shunned by politicians during 1959 visit

MONTREAL — The route from the airport to his Montreal hotel was supposed to be a secret, but Fidel Castro wouldn't stay in the car.

He kept saying "stop, stop, my people, my people," recalled Claude Dupras, who helped to arrange Castro's brief visit to the city in 1959.

Somehow the word had gotten out, and the newly-established Cuban leader insisted on stopping the car three times to shake hands with the crowds who lined the streets, often over the heads of the nervous police officers trying to keep him safe.

"He wanted to meet everyone, he wanted to shake their hands," said Dupras, now a retired engineer.

It was only by a series of "slightly unbelievable" circumstances that Castro made his hastily-arranged first visit to the city, Dupras recalls.

Montreal's junior chamber of commerce had recently held a toy drive for Cuban children, and Dupras, then the organization's 26-year-old president, sent Castro's office a telegram inviting him to come accept the toys in person.

Dupras, who now admits the gesture was intended mostly as a publicity stunt, said he almost fell off his chair when Castro accepted.

The visit, tacked on to the end of a U.S. tour that included stops in Boston and New York, took place only four months after Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista to ascend to power.

It was originally supposed to be for three days but was later shortened to a single day and almost cancelled altogether just days before it was scheduled to begin.

"We had no time, and the plans kept changing, right up to the last minute," said Dupras.

When Castro finally arrived on April 26 -- bringing two planes instead of one — several hundred people at the airport burst through the barricades set up by police, rushing forward to meet the new leader.

The hastily-arranged visit ran smoothly, although Dupras says Castro constantly ran late and rarely stuck to the itinerary.

He deviated from the planned tour route during a visit to Sainte-Justine hospital, where a new mother got the shock of her life when Castro unexpectedly popped into the maternity ward as she nursed her baby.

He also took part in a press conference, where he was interviewed by future Quebec premier Rene Levesque, then a journalist.

If the crowds on the street were eager to meet the young revolutionary leader, politicians seemed more reluctant to appear in public with him.

Despite being notified of the visit, neither then-prime minister John Diefenbaker nor any of Quebec's political leaders came to meet Castro.

Decades later, Castro would receive a markedly warmer reception during his second visit to the city, when he served as an honorary pallbearer at Pierre Elliott Trudeau's funeral in 2000, along with Leonard Cohen and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

Castro was greeted by calls of "Viva Fidel" as he entered the church, and later embraced grieving members of the Trudeau family.

The announcement of Castro's death at the age of 90 has been met with a mixed reception in Canada. While has been praised by some, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, others have described him as a dictator and criticized his human rights record during his decades of iron rule.

Dupras, who enthusiastically praises Castro as a "great man," says he doesn't remember any protests during the 1959 visit.

"He was the biggest star in the world at that moment," he said. "Fidel Castro, we talked about him every day for a month."