Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mackenzie-Papineau Brigades of the 1930s: Yesterday’s Heroes Would be Today’s ‘Terrorists’

by Corrie Sakaluk
As a regular feature, Basics will cover important events in the history of popular struggle in Canada.

Though our school’s official history books ignore it and our government has always tried to stop it, there is a long history of revolutionary political organizing and international solidarity amongst Canadians.

One example is the Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade of 1936-1939, formed to fight in solidarity with the Spanish Republicans in resistance to fascism during the Spanish Civil War. These brigades were organized by the Communist Party of Canada and were made up almost entirely of workers who became politicized after witnessing the Great Depression of the 1930s, the crisis of capitalism that destroyed thousands of people’s lives and livelihoods.

This brigade fought with great enthusiasm and discipline, despite a powerful fascist opposition backed by Nazi Germany and Italy and a complete lack of support from any of the Western democracies.

The Canadian state actually did everything possible to stop working-class Canadian citizens from showing international solidarity with our working-class brothers and sisters in Spain. In April 1937 the Canadian government made it illegal for Canadians to fight in the Spanish Civil War.The Canadian government refused to issue passports to those who they thought might be going to fight in Spain and they sent the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to spy on the organizing of activities to aid the anti-fascist struggle.

Canadians who wanted to serve in Spain had to travel under false pretenses. For the most part they went first to Toronto, where they met at the headquarters for the operation at the corner of Queen and Spadina.

When it was time to return to Canada, the Canadian government ignored and persecuted members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade. They were kept from returning home after the conflict was over, some were arrested in France, others were investigated by the RCMP and denied employment.

The Canadians who died in the Spanish Civil War are not included in the Books of Remembrance in the Peace Tower and their sacrifice is not commemorated on federal war memorials or in Remembrance Day services. Those who survived the war are not entitled to veterans’ benefits.

These tactics of the Canadian state should come as no surprise given what we see today and what we saw about the Winnipeg Strike of 1919 in the last issue of BASICS. There is much more to our history than we are taught in Canadian schools. The Mackenzie-Papineau brigade is an inspiring example of a working-class people’s army that heroically fought the spread of fascism.

721 of the 1,448 Canadians known to have fought in Spain against the fascists lost their lives.