Jules Paivio, cartographer, architect, teacher, and Canada’s last veteran of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), died last week at 97. No bands played. Unconscionable, but there you go. The official silence over the passing of this, the last member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, was in keeping with the public shunning endured for 75 years.
Raised by Finnish parents in Sudbury to believe in justice, liberty and fair play for all, Jules sneaked out of Canada at 19 to join the Canadian Mac-Pap Battalion in Spain. Objective? Stop fascism in its tracks.
One has only to think of the great names of the 1930s — Hemingway, Bethune, Malraux — to understand that the Spanish Civil War turned the world on its end. In total, 1,700 Canadians joined 36,000 other foreign nationals to oppose Hitler’s and Mussolini’s efforts to prop up Generalissimo Franco, the new fascist dictator on the block.
As for Jules’ war, he was captured and lined up against a wall for execution, only to be saved at the last instant by a passing Italian officer in search of prisoners for exchange. The rest of his war was spent in a state of semi-starvation in a prison camp. But for Jules, the hardest blow came from the ongoing shunning dished out by successive Canadian governments upon return.
Today, few Canadians have heard of the Mac-Paps. There was a time when we held them in high esteem. Back in my high school days in the ’50s, a classmate’s father had served with them. My chums and I were awestruck. We knew the background — they were Canadian volunteers to a just cause. As for me at the time, with one brother dead at Dieppe in 1942 and a second a North Atlantic navy vet, the Mac-Paps were heroes of the highest order. Hadn’t they drawn first blood against Hitler and Mussolini in Spain two full years before the Second World War was declared? Hadn’t they taken on Franco’s German- and Italian-equipped fascists with nothing but leftover First World War arms? Hadn’t the German Condor Legion tested their Stuka dive-bombers and Messershmidts on them — giving us Guernica in the process? Weren’t 400 of them dead on Spanish soil?
Defeated or not, the average Canadian in 1939 saw the Mac-Paps as heroes. Not so Mackenzie King. He and his government were having none of it. So much so that when the shooting stopped they tried to prevent their return. And when the survivors did limp home, battered and bleeding, the government set the RCMP on them.
Over the decades, there was to be no official silent moments for these heroes or parades to mark their valour. And even though these men had come home with war smarts, the Canadian military saw to it that large numbers of them were denied another go at the fascists in the Second World War.
Seventy five years have passed, yet the Mac-Paps still get no respect. To this day, the government ignores their legacy and the National Museum of Canada is completely silent on them. It was only through the untiring efforts of vets like Jules Paivio and the aid of Governor General Adrienne Clarkson that they finally got a monument 10 years ago.
So, what sin did Jules Paivio and the other heroes of my youth commit to warrant 75 years of shunning?
It’s important to note that the government feared these men even before they left for Spain. The Great Depression was in full swing and many of the volunteers had spent years drifting back and forth across the country in search of work. In the process, they terrified the government by flirting with wild political solutions to the misery around them — unionism, socialism, communism, anarchism.
Most worrisome for authorities was the fear that these radical young men would return not only with ideas of fomenting revolution but with the war smarts to make it happen. This fear grew as the Spanish Civil War raged on and the communists wrestled control of the Republican side. By 1938, Moscow was virtually running the fight against Franco’s fascists.
So it follows that when the boys finally got home in early 1939 the government was in no mood to roll out the red carpet. What the authorities failed to see was that the fire had gone out of these volunteers; that the idealism and quest for revolution they’d left with, had been extinguished by the brutality, corruption and mismanagement of the cause they’d championed. In short, they returned disillusioned with communism.
The government was still in a stew about what to do with them when the Second World War broke out. That they’d broken Canadian law to go to Spain suggested they should be punished. This would have found favour in Quebec, where public opinion had been with Franco. But these veterans were popular in English Canada and coming down hard could dampen enthusiasm for the war effort now ramping up. Prime Minister Mackenzie King, ever the pragmatist, weighed his options and decided that keeping favour with Quebecers trumped displeasing Anglophones with whom the new war was popular.
In the end, the Mac-Pap volunteers were sent to Coventry rather than to jail. The RCMP hounded and kept dossiers on most of them into their old age.
Jules’ story is not unusual for the Canadian veterans to Spain. They stuck together over the decades, longing for recognition. Now the last of them is gone but their families remain, and the bitterness lives on. It’s been 75 years. Time for our government and the National War Museum to recognize them at last.