From Ottawa to Spain and back again: Canadians in the SCW
In June 1935, nearly 2,000 young, unemployed, and angry men living in western Canada and intent on demonstrating their discontent hitched a ride on a train of boxcars to Ottawa. The men who participated in the “On-to-Ottawa Trek” were fed up with the abhorrent conditions in Prime Minister Richard Bennett’s ‘relief camps’ and inspired to take action by members of the Communist Party. When the train reached Regina, their peaceful demonstration quickly degenerated into a bloody street fight after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) ambushed them, breaking up the protest before it ever really got started. A year later, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco led a coup against the democratically elected Republican government, many Trekkers associated Franco’s brutality with the violence they had experienced at the hands of the Mounties during the “On-to-Ottawa Trek”. Of the approximately 1,700 Canadians who volunteered to fight with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, about 500 had participated in the bloody “On-to-Ottawa Trek” in the summer of 1935.
On 8 June 2013, I drove to Ottawa to commemorate the Canadian participation in the Spanish Civil War and ‘finish’ the On-to-Ottawa Trek begun 78 years ago. My passion for studying the International Brigades began in my first year at Oberlin College, yet as a dual Canadian-American citizen, I found that a much greater historiography exists for the American-based Abraham Lincoln Battalion than the Canadian-based Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. Indeed, the Mac-Paps and other Canadian volunteers have received little attention from scholars outside of Canada, even though Canadians were the largest contingent of the International Brigades proportional to their country of origin. Therefore, I decided that I should learn more about Canada’s role in the Spanish Civil War.
On 8 June, I met with Canadian journalist Michael Petrou, author of Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. We discussed just why the Canadian participation remains largely forgotten. According to Petrou, this memory loss arises from the fact that the Canadian volunteers were a much more “eclectic and ethnically diverse” group of men than their American peers. Shortly after their return to Canada, a new war broke out in Europe. The Canadian government declared war against Germany, two years before the United States did. Indeed, between the rapidity of world events, and the general lack of influence of the Communist Party among the Mac-Paps, they rarely stayed in touch after the war. Only in the years just prior to the foundation of the Mackenzie Papineau Memorial in Ottawa did the surviving veterans and their friends and family come together to organize a public monument recognizing their legacy.
After my interview with Michael Petrou, I walked over to the Mac-Paps monument, unveiled in October 2001. It stands amongst monuments honoring the Canadian Royal Air Force and Canadian artillerymen. In this understated way, it acknowledges Canadians’ first fight against fascism. Indeed, during the unveiling ceremony, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson remarked:
“It is fitting that we recognize, 65 years later, the historic moment for which these men and women went to fight in a foreign war, a war which was not their own, a war in which Canada was not involved as a nation.
“It is fitting also that a memorial to them be erected in this beautiful park in the nation’s capital. . . . Canadians do things for many reasons. We have a free society in which we give each other room to make decisions, to express ourselves, to have different political points of view. And the Mac-Paps decided that this cause was important enough for them to face the anger of their own government; to face the consternation of many of their fellow citizens at that time and for decades to come; and to face a life afterwards in which very few people would take the least interest in the kind of idealism that had sent them to Spain in the first place.”
Moved by the prominence, size, and beauty of the monument, I returned to my hotel room to prepare for my interview with Dr. Amber Lloydlangston, curator of a new exhibit at the Canadian War Museum entitled “Peace: The Exhibition.” In our talk, Lloydlangston said that she wanted to “show the different ways that Canadians seek peace.” The exhibit begins with an examination of Canada’s role in Afghanistan, arguing that those who supported the war and those who opposed it both took action for their version of peace. The next section of the exhibit is a small yet impressive section on Canadian participation in the Spanish Civil War. Included in this section are a “not valid for travel in Spain” passport, a pamphlet sold to raise money for the Mac-Paps, and a six-year-old’s drawing of his experiences in Spain. While Lloydlangston insisted that this exhibit did not constitute a formal recognition of the Mac-Paps by the Canadian government, I was pleased to see such a popular museum putting forth an effort to teach its visitors about the debate surrounding the volunteers. And, as Lloydlangston and I enthusiastically agreed, it’s an absolute thrill to see an actual “not valid for travel in Spain” passport in real life.
The recent death of Jules Paivio, the last Canadian volunteer signifies a new chapter in the teaching of Canadian participation of the Spanish Civil War. However, as I learned on my Ottawa trek, this history it is by no means forgotten. You just need to know where to look for it.