Meanwhile, the lack of aid and comfort to the more than one-fifth of Canadian adults who were unemployed, was glaring. It was also galvanizing. The Depression had hit western Canada particularly hard–the very Prairies where so many immigrants had been shuttled off to settle and work the land had gone from being the nation’s breadbasket to being on its bread line. The average unemployment rate in Canada was 22%; it was higher in the west. Drought and poverty forced men to ride the rails, and set immigrant workers at each other’s throats. Ethnic slurs proliferated; anglocentrism revealed its rotten core. Only the left offered an alternative, one which set oppressed Canadians en masse against the federal government, and would later unify the diverse groups in the International Brigades in Spain. Dorothy Livesay notes:
Three Snarls of a Disgusted ColonialIFreedom, in Spain, exhaled a groan.Her champion, England, scribbling notes,Refused as yet to throw a stone,And only held the stoners’ coats.IIO Ananias! what a waste!Iscariot too! such gifts misplaced!For, living now, you’d both be setTo shine in Britain’s cabinet.IIILet Britain’s leaders, if they choose,Be cushions for Benito’s hips,And lick the heels of Adolf’s shoes:But damn them! must they smack their lips!–Lorne Mackay, in The Canadian Forum
Apparently, Franco was not a foreign cause for French Canadians, any more than fighting England’s wars had been for Canadians during the Great War and the Boer War had been for their anglophone counterparts. The hypocrisy was blatant, but it was taboo for the mainstream newspapers to talk about it. Smug blindness to the Spanish republican cause was the rule of the day.A combination of dire poverty, disillusionment, and idealism meant no shortage of commitment among the internationalist volunteers. But the forces of the left were poorly armed, with obsolete weapons. Worse, they had more ideological divisions amongst themselves than their fascist enemies did, and seemed more determined to eliminate each other than wipe out their common foes. A poorly timed separatist movement in Catalonia, along with indiscriminate purging of “enemies within”, decimated what should have been a unified republican battle front. Franco’s fascists, backed by Hitler’s newly formed air force and that of Mussolini, had easy pickings.
Amongst the deprived, the effect on the single unemployed men was electric. They read of the international brigades that were forming, rallying volunteers to save the Spanish republic from fascism. Although it was illegal for a Canadian to serve in a foreign cause, 1200 young men and some young women managed to get visas to France and from there joined a freedom trek across the Alps. But in Quebec the reverse happened: the Catholic church called for volunteers to aid Franco, and got them.
Wrote the Canadian novelist, Morley Callaghan, a progressive Catholic who condemned his church’s support for the fascists: “Men often find it necessary to wear strange masks to support unholy causes. The spectacle of devout foreign legion thugs and pious, infidel Moors, ancient enemies of the Christian Spanish people marching to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers leaves me very cold indeed.”Solidarity from abroad became crucial for the Spanish republican forces to survive. Canadian aid led to medical innovation, as Dr. Norman Bethune set up the world’s first mobile blood transfusion service, with funding and supplies sent by the
Battle Hymn for the Spanish RebelsThe Church’s one foundationIs now the Moslem sword,In meek collaborationWith flame and axe and cord; Deep-winged with holy loveThe battle-planes of Wotan,The bombing-planes of Jove.–Lorne Mackay, in The Canadian Forum
There would be many more falling “in angry loneliness” than there would be comrades to raise their fists to the moon in memory.The volunteers were, in most cases, absolutely raw recruits, lacking all military training. Many had come from pacifist backgrounds; they had never held a gun in their lives. Their idealism was the one thing that pulled them through; they made up in political conviction what they lacked in soldiering experience. They learned quickly; their survival skills as out-of-work laborers provided the necessary physical and mental hardihood for them to become one of the best fighting forces on the republican side. Unlike the intellectuals of the local brigades, who were unused to roughing it, the Canadians needed little hardening. They already had it in them thanks to the struggles they had faced at home.
Red MoonAnd this same pallid moon tonightWhich rides so quiet–clear and high–The mirror of our pale and troubled gaze,Raised to a cool, Canadian sky,Above the shattered Spanish mountain topsLast night rose low and wild and red,Reflecting back from her illumined shieldThe blood-bespattered faces of the dead.To that pale moon I raise my angry fist,And to those nameless dead my vows renew:Comrades who fall in angry loneliness,Who die for us–I will remember you.–Dr. Norman Bethune
From a dustbowl they came; in a dustbowl many died; to a dustbowl the few survivors would return.Despite some brilliant guerrilla tactics (such as stealing rifles and ammunition from the fascists, a trick that would also be used to great success twenty years later by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary guerrillas in Cuba), and a heroic last push that set Franco’s forces back 25 miles, in the end the International Brigades were defeated. The survivors made their way home, where a suspicious Canadian government quarantined them on the trains from Montréal to Toronto. Yet everywhere the trains stopped, bands of admiring supporters turned up on the platforms, shouting encouragement to the returned soldiers, wishing them well, thanking them for their sacrifices.
from The Censored EditorWho can say Our sons must die?Who can say why?Some say for breadwe gave these deadDust is their bread–Kenneth Leslie, in New Frontier
The returning Mac-Paps were easily recognizable, even in civvies. They were painfully thin and had that haunted look that so many recently demobilized soldiers get when the violence of yesterday is still fresh in their minds. Some were disabled and clearly had their fighting days behind them. Others practically stepped out of one war and straight into another as World War II broke out, enlisting in the Canadian armed forces in order to fight another band of fascists, one that had given Franco his victory in Spain–Hitler’s Nazis. But the irony of a ringing call to fight for democracy was lost on the Canadian government, which had forbidden the first real pro-democracy fighting forces from striking out for Spain when fascism drew first blood. The Mac-Paps were barely remembered, except among their own, until quite recently. Today they are recognized, though they are still much overshadowed by those who fought in the two world wars. Real honor has been too long coming.Consider this post a little effort toward setting that record straight.
from The Censored EditorYou ask me whyOur sons must dieThis then, is why:To stand up straightIn the narrow gate,Once to stand straight.Is that all, then,Once to be men?That is all, then!–Kenneth Leslie