Speech on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion Monument
Ottawa, Saturday, October 20, 2001
I first became acquainted with the members of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion – the Brigadistas – about 30 years ago. At that time when I met them, there were just over a hundred left.
To me, the Spanish Civil War was a very important historical event marking the those tumultuous years of the 1930s – years of economic depression so remarkably evoked in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. It was an event that inspired and incited film and art: Picasso's painting of the destruction of Guernica; Frederic Rossif's film, To Die at Madrid, and, even recently, Ken Loach's remarkable film, Land and Freedom. It was about a struggle to contain fascism, a struggle that didn't work, for, shortly afterwards, that struggle broke into a full-scale world war, in which Canada played her prominent part.
All I really knew at the time when I first met the Mac-Paps was that about 1,500 of them went to Spain to fight against fascism for the Republican cause. That they went to Spain to support a democratically elected government against a military coup. And that the military was supported by the armed might in the 'thirties of Nazi Germany and Italy. Less than half of those 1,500 returned to Canada a few years later. The rest were killed. And except for France, no other country gave as great a proportion of its population as volunteers in Spain than Canada.
I understand that, today, of that audacious and committed band, there are fewer than a dozen left. 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. I would like to thank M. Beaudry and the National Capital Commission for their part in making this commemoration visible and lasting.
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.
They were fighting for an ideal. They were fighting against fascism, which was like a rehearsal for the war to come. These men of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XVth International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army gave of themselves a passionate attachment to a civil war half a world away.
People of very diverse backgrounds supported these volunteers – people like Graham Spry, the founder and father of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was he who spearheaded the assessment as to what medical supplies and skills would be required in the war zone.
And shortly afterwards, a volunteer was dispatched from Canada by the name of Dr. Norman Bethune.
Bethune was responding to an article written by Graham Spry, calling for the creation in Spain of a Canadian-sponsored hospital. This extraordinary and eccentric figure of great passion and medical genius, who came from Gravenhurst, Ontario, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister, was one of the first two volunteers in Spain. And it was there that he developed the dramatic innovation which helped to save hundreds of lives on those battlefields and thousands later in the war in Europe – the transportable blood transfusion unit.
About ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with the American nurse who had helped Bethune with these transfusions. And her witness to history and to him stays with me. A year ago, I dedicated a statue to Norman Bethune in his birthplace – Gravenhurst. Recognition is now being paid to Bethune and to the others who went to fight for this cause.
As Victor Hoar and Mac Reynolds say in their colourful and poignant history of the war: "Men went to Spain to fight fascism, to defend democracy. A number certainly went to seek adventure. A few even to get away from their wives ... A specific horror of fascism gave the volunteers the courage to venture abroad. It sustained them even after it was patently clear that the [other side] would win, and that they would lose."
Maurice Constant – who is here with us today and whom I met thirty-odd years ago – was a student at the University of Toronto, aged about 18, when he went to hear André Malraux speak about the Republican cause at Hart House in 1936. He was so moved that he asked Malraux what he could do to help. And Malraux said: "Go to Spain." So he did. He was extremely young, but was one of the few Canadians to serve on the Brigade staff, becoming adjutant of the intelligence section at a very early age.
Like the other Mac-Paps, he fought in the battles of The Retreats, Teruel and The Ebro. Now, so many decades after these events, these Canadians are being remembered for their actions.
But others have recognized them before us. The Spanish people and the Spanish government have remembered the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion. In 1996, the Spanish government invited the surviving members back to Spain, and honoured these Canadians with Spanish citizenship. To have played such a role in the development of another country is unique. For that alone, it is something that we should commemorate, because it is a part of our history as Canadians and as citizens of the world. And history, as Edmund Burke has said, is "a pact between the dead, the living and the yet unborn."
Bethune, besides being a medical doctor and a genius, was also poet. And he wrote in his elegy, Red Moon, the following words.
"Comrades who [fell] in angry loneliness,
Today, we are giving the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion a lasting memorial – here, where it should be, in their own land.