Los Canadienses: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War

I’d been looking for this NFB documentary for a couple of years now, ever since I picked up a used copy of Dorothy Livesay’s book, Right Hand Left Hand, in which the great Canadian poet chronicles what life was like for her as a leftist woman during the Dirty Thirties. This documentary is mentioned in it. As yet, the NFB has not made it available for purchase on its website. I wish it would, as this film is a window onto a largely forgotten piece of our history. It was made in 1976, the year Franco died and Spain returned to democratic rule. By then, nearly 40 years had passed since the Spanish Civil War.

One of the questions that affected the Canadian left most during that time, as Livesay noted, was the tension between the causes of peace and antifascism. When Spain’s democratic, leftist republican government was attacked by Franco’s forces, the question was resolved for many in favor of antifascism. More than a thousand Canadians enlisted in the International Brigades. At first, they joined the US-based Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Brigades. Eventually, they formed their own–the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. Many never came home; those who did were either ignored by the general public or persecuted by anticommunist fanatics.

Ironically, Canada’s government, like Britain’s and that of the United States, paid pious lip service to democracy while letting the fascists of Europe run roughshod over it. It was illegal for Canadians to fight in the International Brigades, but not to give aid and comfort to the Franco-fascists.

Three Snarls

of a Disgusted Colonial


Freedom, in Spain, exhaled a groan.

Her champion, England, scribbling notes,

Refused as yet to throw a stone,

And only held the stoners’ coats.


O Ananias! what a waste!

Iscariot too! such gifts misplaced!

For, living now, you’d both be set

To shine in Britain’s cabinet.


Let 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

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:

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.

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.

Battle Hymn for the Spanish Rebels

The Church’s one foundation

Is now the Moslem sword,

In meek collaboration

With flame and axe and cord;

Deep-winged with holy love

The battle-planes of Wotan,

The bombing-planes of Jove.

–Lorne Mackay, in The Canadian Forum

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 Collective Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner of the modern New Democratic Party). The International Brigades were soon to follow. They went disguised as simple tourists. But since Canadian passports were not valid for travel to Spain (the government, aware of the pro-republican sentiments brewing, had made all travel to Spain illegal), the volunteer soldiers had to sneak in across the closed French border. They received a hero’s welcome, and later distinguished themselves in the battle for Madrid, holding it for the republicans until the very end of the war.

Red Moon

And this same pallid moon tonight

Which 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 tops

Last night rose low and wild and red,

Reflecting back from her illumined shield

The 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

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.

from The Censored Editor

Who can say

Our sons must die?

Who can say why?

Some say for bread

we gave these dead

Dust is their bread

–Kenneth Leslie, in New Frontier

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 Editor

You ask me why

Our sons must die

This then, is why:

To stand up straight

In the narrow gate,

Once to stand straight.

Is that all, then,

Once to be men?

That is all, then!

–Kenneth Leslie

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.

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1 Response to Los Canadienses: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War

  1. rww says:

    “Collective Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner of the modern New Democratic Party)”
    I believe you mean “Co-operative Commonwealth Federation” (CCF)

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