Group photo of the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion holding their unit flag.
Group photo of the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion holding their unit flag. Credit: Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion photo gallery / University of Victoria

The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (1937-1938) will forever be one of the most important revolutionary memories of the working class in Canada.

The battalion was named after the leaders of the revolutionary democratic uprisings of 1837 in both Upper and Lower Canada, now called Ontario and Quebec.

After France, Canada sent the greatest number of volunteers per capita to fight fascism in Spain as part of the International Brigades, an effort closely associated with the Communist Party.

Close to half of the Canadians are now buried in Spain (721 of 1,546; most were in the battalion), but the International Brigades’ sacrifices wakened hundreds of millions of people to the fascist danger.

The volunteers went to Spain illegally, defying the Liberal Mackenzie King government’s “balanced” response to fascism — in reality the encouragement of fascism.

During the war, the United States continued supplying petroleum to Spain’s rebel fascists, France’s socialist (in name) government embargoed weapons to Spain’s democratic government and Nazi Germany tested its aviation on the defenceless cities of Spain. Altogether, 40,000 people from 53 countries answered the Spanish government’s call for volunteers to crush general Franco’s fascist revolt.

Before the Second World War, Canadian governments pretended they had no foreign policy, as if it was contracted out to Britain. Yet Liberal or Tory government ministers cheered Germany’s rearmament, opposed sanctions against Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia and supported the 1938 Hitler-Chamberlain Munich Deal which carved up Czechoslovakia and spawned a 120-word non-aggression treaty (The Guardian, October 1, 1938.)

All these policies are condemned even today by everyone who comprehends the need for a democratic peace, requiring the abolition of nuclear and other weapons of mass annihilation, mutual and universal disarmament and so on.

As indistinct as the realization may be at this time, the solution to the rise of present-day arms races – including the U.S.-China race — lies with the same forces that defeated fascism, namely the vast majority of humanity led by working people who have not sold out to the arms dealers and wealthy imperialists.

Nine days before the Munich Deal, Spain withdrew the International Brigades to prevent France and Britain from recognizing Franco’s belligerent rights, a step that would have elevated Franco to the same status as the democratically elected government.

Finally allowed to return to Canada in 1939, many Mac-Pap veterans faced discrimination and lost their jobs. Some were not allowed to join the regular armed forces to fight Hitler.

All were denied official recognition, veteran benefits (including health care) and military pensions.

* * * *

Canada’s Mac-Paps heard Spanish communist leader Dolores Ibárruri address the International Brigades in a farewell speech in Barcelona with these now-famous words:

“It is very difficult to say a few words in farewell to the heroes of the International Brigades, because of what they are and what they represent. A feeling of sorrow, an infinite grief catches our throat – sorrow for those who are going away, for the soldiers of the highest ideal of human redemption, exiles from their countries, persecuted by the tyrants of all peoples – grief for those who will stay here forever mingled with the Spanish soil, in the very depth of our heart, hallowed by our feeling of eternal gratitude.

From all peoples, from all races, you came to us like brothers, like sons of immortal Spain; and in the hardest days of the war, when the capital of the Spanish Republic was threatened, it was you, gallant comrades of the International Brigades, who helped save the city with your fighting enthusiasm, your heroism and your spirit of sacrifice…

They gave us everything — their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations — and they asked us for nothing. But yes, it must be said, they did want a post in battle, they aspired to the honor of dying for us.

Banners of Spain! Salute these many heroes! Be lowered to honor so many martyrs!

Mothers! Women! When the years pass by and the wounds of war are stanched; when the memory of the sad and bloody days dissipates in a present of liberty, of peace and of well­being; when the rancor have died out and pride in a free country is felt equally by all Spaniards, speak to your children. Tell them of these men of the International Brigades.

Recount for them how, coming over seas and mountains, crossing frontiers bristling with bayonets, sought by raving dogs thirsting to tear their flesh, these men reached our country as crusaders for freedom, to fight and die for Spain’s liberty and independence threatened by German and Italian fascism. They gave up everything — their loves, their countries, home and fortune, fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and children — and they came and said to us: ‘We are here. Your cause, Spain’s cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.’

Today many are departing. Thousands remain, shrouded in Spanish earth, profoundly remembered by all Spaniards.

Comrades of the International Brigades: Political reasons, reasons of state, the welfare of that very cause for which you offered your blood with boundless generosity, are sending you back, some to your own countries and others to forced exile. You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on heards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.

We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain — return!

Return to our side for here you will find a homeland — those who have no country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship — all, all will have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people who today and tomorrow will shout with enthusiasm.

Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!”

Darrell Rankin

Darrell Rankin grew up in a union family opposed to the war in Vietnam and the US corporate takeover of Canada.  He was part of the Canadian Peace Congress’ 100,000-name petition campaign against deploying...