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November 01, 2005

Remembering the Spanish Civil War on this Remembrance Day

Remembering the Spanish Civil War on this Remembrance Day
by Chris Arsenault
Special to Canadian Dimension

As poppies adorn every respectable lapel, cannons blare and politicians make
speeches praising sacrifice for country in this, the year of the veteran,
one group of Canadian freedom fighters dwindles without a penny in pensions
or official recognition.

Jules Pavio was 19, working in a Sudbury department store when he decided to
head for Spain along with more than 1200 other Canadians, to join the fight
against fascism.

The year was 1936. General Francisco Franco lead a military coup against
Spain’s elected leftist government. Western democracies, trying to appease
an increasing aggressive Adolph Hitler, issued an arms embargo against the
Spanish Republic.

"I saw the agony of the Spanish people on the news reels and it touched
me," said Pavio, now 88.

The Spanish Civil War is seen by many historians as the classic case of
right versus wrong: an elected government supported by peasants, workers and
small business people standing against a fascist dictator backed by the
military, industrialists, large land owners and Church officials.

It inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his famous Guernica, Ernest Hemmingway’s
For Whom the Bell Tolls and scores more poetry, prose and intellectual
discourse.

Mackenzie-King’s Liberal government forbid Canadians from fighting in the
war, so Pavio with other young communists, anarchists and believers in the
Republic bussed to New York, sailed to France, and crossed into Spain
joining 40 000 others in the international brigades.

"I didn’t tell my folks I was going," he chuckles.

Pavio received three weeks of training with old Canadian Ross Rifles, before
being shipped to the front, trying to defend Madrid (the Spanish Capital)
from fascist encirclement. After three months of trench warfare and some
intensive training he was put on a campaign to break through enemy lines.

"They (the Spanish people) were always happy they had international
volunteers helping them. Everyone understood No Pasaran, (they shall not
pass) so if they didn’t speak English they understand no pasaran and that
fist, that salute," reminisces Pavio. In 1996, the Spanish government
invited surviving veterans back to Spain, and honored them with Spanish
citizenship. Nearly half the Canadians who served died fighting fascism.

The attempts to break fascist lines was unsuccessful. And the tide turned
against the anti-fascists. The left, as it so often does, turned on itself.
"The Trotskyites cut our supply lines," said Pavio.

While Franco’s fascists received planes, weapons and soldiers from Germany
and more than 100 000 Italian troops, Pavio’s Republican side had no
international support, other than a few Soviet military advisers and an
insufficient supply of weapons. "We always held out that the democracies
would come around and provide us with weapons. But it was not to be," he
said.

Pavio was captured and spent a year in a prison camp facing beatings with
rifle butts, burns from cigarettes, constant interrogations and a bad case
of scurvy. He was freed in a swap for Italian prisoners in 1939 as the war
winded down and Spain succumbed to Fascist control.

“It was in Spain, that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet
be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage
is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so
many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy,"
remarked French writer Albert Camus after the Fascist victory.

After his release, Pavio made it to France and hoped a steamship home in
secret, "so there wouldn’t be demonstrations in our honor". Thousands still
turned out at Toronto’s union station to greet one group of returning vets.

"When we got back, we resumed our political activity and tried to find
jobs," he said. But for Pavio, the call came again soon. When World War Two
broke out, he had married but enlisted again, legally this time, teaching
map reading in Pettiwawa because the army wouldn’t send him overseas.

The government and veterans groups continue to deny official recognition for
Spanish Civil War fighters. "Veterans benefits are only available to
veterans who served in a war in which Canada was an official participant,"
said Janice Summerby, spokesperson for Veterans Affairs.

"Obviously, many Canadians went on their own to serve but did so without
government encouragement. This is an issue that has been debated in the
house of commons and various governments have decided to stick with the
status quo," she said.

Trade unions, student groups, and progressive entertainers
have fundraised over the years for memorials in Vancouver, Toronto and
Ottawa.

When speaking of the situation today, after the fall of the Berlin wall and
the old model of socialism, Pavio, still a communist, admits, "there is not
that clear understanding of right and wrong, where you can serve and do your
bit. It was kind of a unique situation at the time, there were a people who
you could help and support, that’s why it was so easy to get volunteers to
go," he said.

So what’s left for the idealistic youth of this generation: sickened by
military occupation, religious fanaticism and corporate fundamentalism? To
book off to Iraq to fight America’s immoral and illegal occupation? With
who? Sexist charlatans like Muqtada el Sadr? To fight for the admittedly
beautiful yet pragmatically problematic dream of Cuban socialism? To stand
with Nepal’s Maoists whose pathetically outdated rhetoric instructs them to
organize the working class in a land of rural poverty?

Our narratives- in this post-modern era (spare you, I know)- will never be grand or glorious as those of our modernist grandparents. The young radicals of today are working with a burgeoning ‘civil society’ lobbying for greater environmental
protections, protesting to demand debt relief for the world’s poorest, challenging a graying top heavy trade union bureaucracy, cooking organic food for the hungry and organizing with low-income people to fight growing inequality in this country; smaller struggles, a little less glamorous, yet arguably just as important.

On theme of small struggles, official recognition and the ensuing trite yet
important rights to free parking and pensions for Jules Pavio and the
remaining handful of Canadian Spanish Civil War vets doesn’t seem like a lot
to ask.

Chris Arsenault writes frequently for Canadian Dimension magazine


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