Canada's "MacPaps" and the Spanish Civil War (Hr. 1)

Making a last stand at the

Making a last stand at the "Battle of the Ebro river". Some got across before they blew the bridge, some didn't, some drowned trying to get over.

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A couple of months ago, a colleague here at the CBC came across a treasure trove. Documentary producer Steve Wadhams found hundreds of old tapes in the basement of the Broadcasting Centre. They contained 60 interviews with Canadians who volunteered to go to Spain to fight for a government under attack from a military coup launched in 1936 by General Francisco Franco. Franco was supported by Hitler and Mussolini.

The war in Spain was widely seen not just as a Spanish affair, but as an attempt to stop fascism in Europe.

These men have come to be called the "MacPaps", after Mackenzie and Papineau, two feisty rebels of Canada's 19th century. They were miners, loggers, labourers, farm workers, salesmen, architects, accountants. Many of them were unemployed, many had spent time in the relief camps set up by the government of RB Bennett.

About 1600 Canadians went; more than 400 of them were killed.

One of the biggest battles the Canadians fought in, was in August, 1937 - the battle for Quinto. It was a long, hot, dusty and deadly assault - a battle won, but at great cost.

Many of the Canadian volunteers were taken prisoner during the three year war in Spain.

The only major power to come to the aid of the Spanish government was Stalin's Soviet union. Stalin also told the Communist International to organise the 40,000 volunteers who came from all over the world, into the International Brigades.

And here we encounter another lost archive. Not lost actually, but hidden for half a century by the cold war.

After the Spanish war ended in 1939, the records of all the international brigades were taken to Moscow, where they sat out of reach of Canadian historians.

In the early 1990's, when things opened up - the national archives in Ottawa sent a man to Moscow with 5000 dollars - in cash - to get copies of these microfilmed documents.

Because of the involvement of the Soviet Union, to many Canadians the MacPaps will forever be seen as "Stalin's stooges". When they limped home in early 1939, it wasn't to a hero's welcome.

You can hear recordings of the Canadians who fought - and died - in the Spanish Civil War on CBC Radio's Living out Loud. Check out the Living Out Loud website for an interactive timeline of the war, including clips and archival photos.