Canada’s forgotten veterans: Honouring the soldiers who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War
On Sunday, No Stone Left Alone will hold remembrance ceremonies in more than 55 communities, in an effort to reach its goal of having a student place a poppy on the headstone of every Canadian who has served in the country’s armed forces.
A small group of volunteers will host a similar memorial, visiting the graves of who they consider to be Canada’s forgotten soldiers — those who fought in the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from July 1936 to April 1939.
Pamela Vivian of Victoria, B.C., is organizing a trip to cemeteries across Metro Vancouver on Sunday, placing a white rose on the graves of Canadians who fought in Spain. She hopes to find volunteers to visit each of the more than 220 known graves of Spanish Civil War veterans across Canada.
“They’re not recognized here in Canada, no one talks about them, barely anyone knows about them,” Vivian said.
“When you start doing the research you start falling in love with them and feel terrible that nobody knows about them and nobody’s acknowledging them. So it’s just a little way to pay tribute to these people.”
More than 1,600 Canadians fought alongside the Spanish Army against insurgent forces and did so against the wishes of the Canadian government, which had — like many other Western countries — decided to stay out of the conflict between the democratically-elected Republican government and the Nationalists led by Gen. Francisco Franco.
In the near eight decades since the Spanish government fell to Franco, whose dictatorship gripped the country for nearly four decades, the federal government has done little to recognize the contributions of Canadian soldiers who were part of the International Brigades that fought against the rise of fascism in Spain.
“A lot of veterans of the Spanish Civil War and International Brigades would say that the cause that they fought for in Spain was the same cause that Canada fought for during the Second World War,” Michael Petrou, author of Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, said.
“These were brave men who tried to do the right thing at a very difficult time in history, and they did do the right thing.”
When Canadian soldiers — known collectively as the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion or Mac-Paps — returned home in 1938, months before the Republican defeat, they were greeted as heroes by the public.
They did not receive such a warm welcome from the Canadian government.
Shortly after returning home, some tried to enlist in the Canadian military to fight in the Second World War, but were turned down despite their battlefield experience. Others hid the fact that they fought in Spain from enlistment officers so they could return to fight fascism in Europe.
Many Spanish Civil War veterans said the RCMP spied on them well after the war ended because of ties to the Communist Party of Canada.
“There was a certain amount of hostility from official Canada, certainly throughout the Cold War,” Petrou said.
The legacy of the Mac-Paps, and the Spanish Civil War itself, is a complicated one. Since they were never part of the Canadian military, their contributions were not acknowledged by the government. The Mac-Paps, who have all since passed away, never received veterans’ benefits and were not part of Remembrance Day ceremonies.
The fact that many who fought in Spain had socialist leanings and were members of the Communist Party of Canada further complicates their legacy.
Petrou notes that many of the soldiers were drawn to the party due to its strong stance against fascism.
“No one was standing up to fascists except for communists,” he said. “I think Canadians were anti-fascist first, most of them, and were drawn to communism as a result of that.”
The majority of the Mac-Paps were working class immigrants from Europe, who came to Canada to flee the turmoil that followed the First World War.
According to Petrou, Canadian soldiers in Spain were considered anything but strident communists.
“They were kind of anti-authoritarian, irreverent leftists. They weren’t dogmatic party stalwarts as some of their U.S. and European colleagues were.”
Petrou notes at the start of the Second World War, many of the Mac-Paps defied the Communist Party, which urged members to stay out of the conflict, saying “most good communists should have nothing to do with it.”
Many in the International Brigades became disillusioned after Republican forces came under the influence of the Soviet Union.
As the war progressed, the Germans and Italians supported Franco’s Nationalists. World powers such as the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and France, chose not to take sides and Republicans accepted support from the Soviets.
WATCH: Spanish Civil War veterans honoured in Vancouver on Remembrance Day
As the Soviets’ influence grew, so did the divisions among the disparate groups fighting for the Republic. Many Canadians, along with other members of the International Brigades, saw their idealism crushed by the harsh realities of Soviet realpolitik.
″It was the most complex war in modern time,″ novelist William Herrick, an American veteran of the Spanish Civil War, told the Associated Press back in 1986. ″There were bad guys, good guys, bad guys with the good guys.″
Most Canadians who fought in Spain received little recognition while they were alive.
The most well-known Canadian in Spain was Norman Bethune, who worked as a medic during the war and went on to fame for his work in China.
The last known Canadian Spanish Civil War veteran, Jules Paivio, died in 2013 at the age of 96.
One soldier who did get to see the impact of his service was Jimmy Higgins. While in Spain, he helped a young boy survive a bombing in the town of Corbera. Higgins later said to him in broken Spanish, “Yo… Canadiense.” [I am Canadian].
The boy, Manuel Alvarez, later emigrated to Canada and spent nearly 40 years trying to find the Mac-Pap who saved him.
He finally tracked him down in Peterborough, Ontario.
“It’s impossible to believe that that young boy could be alive today,” Higgins said as he sat next to Alvarez for an interview in 1980.
Over the years, the Mac-Paps have received some public acknowledgment.
There is a large monument near the B.C. legislature in Victoria, and another in Toronto. In 2000, then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson spoke at the unveiling of a monument in Ottawa honouring the Mac-Paps. All the memorials have been privately funded.
Pamela Vivian said the memorial in Victoria helped her unravel a personal connection to the war.
Her great-uncle was one of the more than 400 Canadians who died or went missing during the Spanish conflict, something her family never really discussed.
“I knew my great-uncle died in Spain. My grandmother told me that, but she wouldn’t tell me anything else… people didn’t talk about it.”
“It wasn’t until I saw the plaque in Victoria at the legislature that I realized, oh my God, he was in the International Brigade.”
On Sunday, she will travel to several cemeteries in Metro Vancouver to pay tribute to the Mac-Paps. She has set up a Facebook page for others looking to do the same in other Canadian cities.
Petrou says formal recognition from the Canadian government may never come. He does think, however, that every effort should be made to keep their memory alive.
“I think recognition in whatever form — ceremonies, monuments, or whatever — is entirely justified,” he said.
“These were people who recognized the threat of fascism before most of their countrymen did. With all the complexities of the war, all the ugliness of that war, that’s the bottom line — they recognized fascism for what it was and they fought it. That deserves recognition and deserves thanks.”
— With files from Margeaux Maron and Caley Ramsay
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