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Remembering Bureaucracy

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Issue: 32 Section: Canadian News Topics: veterans, spanish civil war

December 2, 2005

Remembering Bureaucracy

Not all war veterans are remembered

by Chris Arsenault

Jules Paivio receives no veterans' benefits for fighting in the Spanish Civil War. photo: Rachel Rosen
It is the year of the veteran, and as cannons blare and politicians make speeches praising the sacrifice of soliders, one group of Canadian freedom fighters dwindles without a penny in pensions or official recognition.

Jules Paivio was 19, working in a Sudbury department store when he decided to head for Spain along with more than 1,200 other Canadians, to join the fight against fascism.

The year was 1936. General Francisco Franco led a military coup against Spain's elected leftist government. Western democracies, trying to appease an increasingly 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 Paivio, 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 Hemingway to write For Whom the Bell Tolls and much more poetry, prose and intellectual discourse.

William Lyon Mackenzie-King's Liberal government forbade Canadians from fighting in the war, so Paivio with other young communists, anarchists and believers in the Republic bused 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.

Paivio 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.

According to Paivio, the Spanish Civil War was a classic example of right versus wrong. photo: Rachel Rosen
"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 Paivio. In 1996, the Spanish government invited surviving veterans back to Spain, and honoured them with Spanish citizenship. Nearly half the Canadians who served died fighting fascism.

The attempts to break fascist lines were 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 Paivio.

While Franco's fascists received planes, weapons and soldiers from Germany and more than 100,000 Italian troops, Paivio'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.

Paivio 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 wound 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," wrote French writer Albert Camus after the fascist victory.

After his release, Paivio made it to France and hopped a steamship home in secret, "so there wouldn't be demonstrations in our honour." 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 Paivio, the call came again soon. When World War Two broke out, he had married but he enlisted again, legally this time, teaching map-reading in Petiwawa 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 raised funds 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, Paivio, 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.

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