‘Premature anti-fascists’: The effort to remember a group of lesser-known Canadian veterans

Imagine it is 1936.

World war is on the horizon and forces of fascism are taking hold in Europe. Benito Mussolini has ruled Italy with an iron fist for over a decade, Adolf Hitler has risen to power in Germany, and nationalist forces are threatening to do the same in Spain.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Canada, groups of people are coming together and collectively deciding that something has to be done before the scourge of evil threatens more innocent people.

Over the following year, the bravest of these citizens took the ultimate plunge: travelling across the country, over the border to New York City, then travelling across the cold ocean waters to Europe where they would link up with forces trying to maintain order in the Spanish Republic.

The Spanish Civil War is a conflict not many people think about on Remembrance Day, largely overshadowed by the Second World War following shortly after and seen as a distant event localized to the Spanish people.

But this was not the case.

At the height of the fighting, thousands of troops in international brigades supported the left-leaning Republicans to push back against Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. They came from far and wide, including the Soviet Union, Mexico, France, the United States and Canada.

The Canadians eventually formed the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, a group of about 1,500 troops who fought for the ideals they believed in, even though it was in a country thousands of kilometres away. Tragically, over 700 paid the ultimate price and never returned home. Those who did make it back had to fight again so the country would recognize their service.


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Members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion march in Spain.


Fast forward to 2021, and a group of Canadians — many of them descendants of veterans who fought in the Spanish Civil War — try to spread the word and get recognition for these lesser-known veterans.

“They were called premature anti-fascists,” said Ray Hoff, a volunteer with a group dedicated to commemorating the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. “To them, it was a way of fighting back against Hitler because they could see what was happening in Germany at the time.”

And given the fact soldiers from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were in Spain to support the Nationalists, these may have been the first Canadians to take arms against the belligerents of the devastating war that would follow only years later.

It was not only a resistance to far-right nationalism that formed a bond between the Canadian troops.

“One of the things that unites a lot of the people that went to Spain was their involvement in the labour movement and also in protests across Canada at the time of the Great Depression,” added fellow volunteer Pamela Vivian.

Many were committed members to the Communist Party of Canada, including the battalions’ commanding officer Edward Cecil-Smith. In the case of veteran Bill Kardash, he even became a Member of Parliament for Manitoba upon returning from the war and sat in the House of Commons as a representative for the Labor-Progressive Party, as the official Communist Party was banned at the time.

The celebrated Dr. Norman Bethune was also a member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, developing the use of mobile army medical units for the Republicans, and is one of only a handful of publicly-acknowledged Canadian veterans in the war. He was also an early advocate for the socialized medicine that is a key part of Canada’s identity.

“A lot of them were political. A lot of them were part of left-wing movements,” said Hoff. “They volunteered to fight fascism before it was popular to do so.”

The sacrifices of these veterans in the Spanish Civil War went largely unrecognized, even though many of them also went on to serve in the Second World War as well. This is because they were not fighting for Canada in the conflict and are not considered in the same light as those who fought in the world wars or more recent battles under the Canadian flag. This also means they did not qualify for veteran’s benefits.


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A newspaper clipping from 1987 shows Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion veterans being honoured 50 years after they served in the Spanish Civil War.


But for the volunteers like Hoff and Vivian, this does not mean they should be ignored.

They are part of an ongoing effort to gain recognition, along with a coalition of other supporters who take time on Remembrance Day to go out of their way and commemorate their role in the Spanish Civil War by visiting graves and the few monuments that are in place around the country.

One such monument is in Ottawa, but Veteran’s Affairs told CityNews there are still no plans to officially mark those who served. Monuments have also gone up in Toronto as well as Victoria and Fernie in B.C.


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A monument honouring the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion stands in Ottawa. It is one of only a handful of monuments paying tribute to the nearly 1,500 Canadians who served in the Spanish Civil War.


There is also a connection to Alberta, although no monuments have gone up inside the province yet.

“We know that there’s 25 graves — people that came back and are buried in Alberta — in Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge,” said Vivian.

“Some were eastern Europeans who were living in the prairies, or they were loggers in B.C.,” added Hoff.

In some cases, its these volunteers that end up informing people that their relatives fought in Spain.

“Each year we find somebody new,” said Vivian. “In Alberta, we found the grandson of one of these international brigade members. So he’s going to volunteer and he’s going to pay tribute this November 11 with flowers and hopefully along the way learn more about his grandfather.”

Vivian’s own great uncle went to Spain and died in the conflict. Hoff’s father also fought with the battalion.

This is an important part of the movement, to humanize the veterans and develop a more complete history of the role they played so many years ago.

As it is extremely hard to pinpoint who all the veterans were and what they did after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, Canadians are encouraged to reach out to the group at macpaptribute@gmail.com to ask for more information and maybe find a family connection to the battalion.

When it comes to the question of why this is not common knowledge for Canadians, it’s suspected it is more about a lack of information on the Spanish Civil War itself rather than any animosity towards the troops.

“A lot of people think it’s the Spanish-American war from 1898, and it isn’t,” said Hoff. “I like to consider it the first battles of the Second World War. The men who went from Canada were fighting Hitler and Mussolini long before Canada recognized that they were going to be a threat directly to Canada.”

“People are inspired by this group of people,” said Vivian. “When they find out about the Mac-Paps and the international brigades, and all the people who went to Spain and were passionate about what they believed in, they’re inspired by this group.”


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Every year, volunteers pay tribute at the graves of Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion veterans on Remembrance Day.


There is some literature on the subject as well, including Not for King and Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War, written by Tyler Wentzell and released in 2020.

However, moving ahead, it will largely fall on the shoulder of volunteers to keep the memories alive and make sure future generations know about the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.

“From our point of view,” said Hoff, “it’s trying to make sure that nobody gets forgotten and everybody gets remembered.”

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