Canada and the Spanish Civil War

Machine gunners of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion at the Battle of Belchite (1937).

It goes without saying that not all veterans are remembered, but it’s interesting to note which ones we choose to remember, and which to forget. When you think of Canada’s war dead, what comes to mind? Afghanistan? The World Wars? Maybe Korea? How about the Spanish Civil War? If thoughts about the latter have never really crossed your mind it is because little effort has been put towards maintaining the legacy of the 1500+ Canadians who participated in the 1936-1939 conflict. Those who died though are not even in Canada’s Book of Remembrance in Ottawa. This leads me to two questions: what was the extent of Canadian involvement in the Spanish Civil War and why have we forgotten these veterans?

In 1931, King Alfonso XIII abdicated the throne and the Spanish Republican government was elected. They introduced a sea of democratic reforms that decreased the power of the Catholic Church and the nobility. Spain was already a divided country, but now the lines were more distinctive. On one side you had the Nationalists (the army, church, and monarchists) and on the other were the Republicans (democrats, anarchists, socialists, and communists). This led to a failed coup attempt by the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, and eventually devolved into the outbreak of the Civil War.

One of the most iconic photos from the Spanish Civil War, Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death. Better known as The Falling Soldier (1936).

Most countries, including Canada, issued a policy of non-intervention in regards to the war. However, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the Nationalists; the former used the conflict as a testing ground for weapons that would later be used in World War II. Meanwhile, the Republicans were weakly supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico. Their greatest foreign support came from the thousands of volunteers who streamed into the country to try to preserve the young democracy. International volunteers by and large joined the communist International Brigades as soldiers. Early Canadian volunteers were dispatched mainly with American battalions such as the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the George Washington Battalion, before a separate Canadian one was established in 1937. They called themselves the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion or the “Mac-Paps.” (Named for William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, who leaders of the Rebellions of 1837).

So who were the Mac-Paps? Working class Canadians who generally fell on the left side of the political spectrum due to their experiences as recent immigrants during the Great Depression. 75% of them were born outside of Canada. Many of these individuals had fled Europe to escape from the rise of fascism, only to face widespread anti-immigrant/anti-semetic sentiment and a poor economy. As such, they were sympathetic towards not only the struggle of the Republicans against the fascist Nationalists, but towards the ideologies of the Communist Part of Canada. In fact, the recruitment campaign in Canada was organized by the Communist Party.

Cover of the pamphlet, Hello Canada! Issued by Canada’s Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. This pamphlet told the stories of members during the Spanish Civil War.

Members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion en-route to France.Members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion during the Spanish Civil War.

Getting to Spain wasn’t easy though, especially after the Canadian government under Prime Minister Mackenzie-King passed the Foreign Enlistment Act in 1937, outlawing participation by Canadians in foreign wars. So how did the volunteers get over there? After getting the green light from a recruitment station in Toronto or Montreal, volunteers traveled by ship to France where they were guided through a series of hotels and residences to sneak them by foot across the Pyrenees Mountains, over Spanish border. The government was aware that somehow Canadians were still participating and so they began to refuse issuing passports to individuals they felt would go to Spain and had RCMP spy on leftist activities.

Dr. Norman Bethune performing a blood transfusion during the Spanish Civil War.

Members of the Mac-Paps in front of a downed plane.

The Mac-Paps were involved in five major campaigns, but despite some victories, in the end they were always fighting a losing battle. With an overall lack of international support, in addition to internal division and being outmanned by the Nationalists, sometimes historians wonder how the Republicans were able to last for three years. In the end, Spanish Prime Minister Negrín decided to withdraw the International Brigades in September 1938 in the hopes that the German and Italian militias would be withdrawn as well by Franco. This never happened and Madrid fell just over six months later on March 28, 1939. Between 400 and 700+ of the 1,546 Canadians* known to have fought in Spain lost their lives.

Two members of the Mac-Paps pose for a picture during the Spanish Civil War.

Pablo Carbonell, a Mac-Pap Brigadier, killed in action in Teruel, Spain.

After the fighting stopped, you would think the soldiers would have been able to come home, right? Wrong! Remember how the Canadian government was less than thrilled about all of these Canadians leaving the country to participate in a foreign conflict? Well, they were not exactly ecstatic about all of them coming back. Most did not come home until a whole year later in 1939. Their return was not supported financially by the government, so members of the Mac-Paps had to scrap together money and take another convoluted journey (detour through Europe and/or USA) to get back home. Upon arrival, they had to prove they were either Canadian or British subjects and some were barred entry entirely. Despite the government’s somewhat hostile behaviour no one was ever officially charged under the Foreign Enlistment Act.

Members of the Mac-Paps coming home in 1939. When they arrived in Toronto and Montreal, they were met by crowds of people. The Canadian public did not share the government’s angst towards the Mac-Paps. Rather, the activities of the Mac-Paps were well-followed in newspapers and due to anti-fascist sentiment, members were seen as heroes for trying to help the Republicans.

Nevertheless, this treatment foreshadowed the shape that their postwar legacy would take. To this day veterans still have trouble getting formal recognition at home for their involvement in the Spanish Civil War. In addition to not being in our official Book of Remembrance, their sacrifices are not commemorated in federal war memorials, nor are they mentioned during Remembrance Day services. During their lifetimes, they did not have access to services or benefits for veterans. Also, reportedly they were barred from re-entering the service to fight with the Canadian forces in WW2.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom for their postwar legacy. In 1995, a plaque about the Mac-Paps was finally created and monuments dedicated to the battalion were unveiled in Victoria, BC and Ottawa, ON in 2000 and 2001 respectively. The fact remains though that we still don’t hear much about Canadian involvement in the Spanish Civil War. On the one hand, yes, these soldiers were part of a war that win or lose had no overt effect on Canada.** It just seems odd how one group of Canadians who fought fascists in Europe is esteemed and the other is disregarded entirely.

The reason behind their difficulty getting recognition probably has more to do with their association with communism more than anything. Can you imagine Harper, or any Prime Minister before him celebrating communist veterans? Yeah, me neither. Communism remains a “dirty word” within western politics so for the foreseeable future Canadian involvement in the Spanish Civil War will most likely remain a footnote in our history textbooks.

1995 plaque dedicated to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.


* As with most wars, there are statistics disputes. Library and Archives Canada has a list of 1546 Canadians who fought during the Spanish Civil War, however numbers as high as 1700 can be found. In addition, LAC estimates that only about 400 of them were killed, but some researchers place the death toll at 721.

** One could argue that since the Spanish Civil War was a testing ground for Nazi weapons, technically it did effect Canadians eventually.


Sources

“Introduction,” Canada and the Spanish Civil War. Accessed from: http://spanishcivilwar.ca/introduction

“The Mac-Paps,” Momryk, Myron. Canada: A Country by Consent. Ottawa: Artistic Productions Limited. 2011. Accessed from: http://www.canadahistoryproject.ca/1930s/1930s-10-mac-paps.html

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10 thoughts on “Canada and the Spanish Civil War

  1. franbrz says:

    I kind of feel the same way about Canadians in the Boer War – not that it was a war for a particularly good cause, but a lot of Canadian volunteers took part, and it’s just not something you hear about very often, e.g. at Remembrance Day. It made me realize that we do kind of selectively recognize these things (I think casualties from the Boer War are officially recognized, but like I said most people never hear about it). The Spanish Civil War is another good example!

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    • cadeauca says:

      Yeah, the Boer War is another good example because it definitely isn’t really talked about all that much. I don’t think it was ever brought up as a subject in one of my history classes until university! You’re right about Boer War volunteers being officially recognized. Apparently 267 were killed and they are listed in the Books of Remembrance.

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      • Dawna Woodliffe says:

        I am the niece of Bill Brennan and I have a copy of this movie. I live in midland Ontario. you can contact me by email if you wish.

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  2. Tiger Prawn says:

    There was a documentry called the Last Cause…..its 162 minutes long and canadian made and financed by my father william brennan ….He hosted a reunion every couple of years for the vets of the international Brigades in missisauga at 945 meadowood road in the late 70 and 80 s.Steve Franklin was a director . I would love to watch this movie , documentry again to better understand it as well as see the only footage of my father but I dont know how to access it. Title:LAST CAUSE, THE Title year:1975Unused title(s):The International Brigade: The Mac Pap (Working Title)Original dialogue(s):EnglishRunning time:162 min 52 sec
    Thank you Mr Mont

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    • cadeauca says:

      The only thing I can think of is to perhaps contact the National Archives of Canada and see if they can help you with your search as according to the Oral History Centre, they seem to have some of the footage of the interviews. Good luck!

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    • Dawna Woodliffe says:

      Hello Tiger Prawn I am the niece of Bill Brennan and I have a copy of this movie. Have I ever met you? You can email me if you wish to contact me further about this movie.

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      • Nancy Phillips says:

        Dear Dawna:

        My cousin Paul Wendorf served with the Lincolns, and in a letter to his wife on New Year’s Eve 1937/1938, there are charming comments by one William Brennan, Toronto. I have been looking for a family member to send his comments on to, and came across your name.

        Let me know if you’d be interested in seeing what William wrote, and I could scan the Paul’s letter, and send it on to you.

        Nancy Phillips
        Albuquerque NM

        Liked by 1 person

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