July 18, 1936
Outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act and the
The majority of the Canadian people supported the people’s forces in Spain but the ruling circles declared that Canada should remain “neutral” in the conflict, which essentially meant giving the fascists and their German and Italian allies free rein to attack the Spanish people. Canadians defied this in 1936 by valiantly participating in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the Republican Army’s XV Brigade, opposing this crime against the peace as they continue to stand against aggressive war today. Battalion members came from all parts of Canada and were almost wholly working class. One thousand five hundred and forty-six people volunteered to go, about one-third of Ukrainian origin. The Communist Party and the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy began organizing volunteers in the fall of 1936 and by April 1937 around 500 people had enlisted. By the summer of 1937 some 1,300 Canadians were fighting overseas for the liberation of Spain. Except for Cuba and France, no country gave a greater proportion of its population.
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s support for Franco was no surprise. He was a rabid anti-communist and an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. He visited Germany in June 1937 and stated that he was “very favorably impressed” by Hitler’s assurances that Germany would not go to war in Europe, even as the Nazis were already openly fighting in Spain in support of General Franco. In April 1937, the King Liberal government passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, which stipulates that it is an “Offence to enlist with a foreign state at war with a friendly state” and that “any person who, being a Canadian national, within or outside Canada, voluntarily accepts or agrees to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state at war with any friendly foreign state or, whether a Canadian national or not, within Canada, induces any other person to accept or agree to accept any commission or engagement in any such armed forces is guilty of an offence.”
The blatant political agenda behind the new Foreign Enlistment Act and subsequent versions of the Act has been made very clear since then.
On March 1, 1940 Canada announced that citizens were free to enlist in the Finnish armed forces, which were collaborating with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. On May 18, 1948, the Canadian cabinet decided that the question of application of the Foreign Enlistment Act to Palestine should be deferred so as to facilitate the military recruitment of Canadian nationals to suppress the Palestinians fighting for their lands, homes and right to be. In the 1960s and ’70s, over 100 Canadians illegally enlisted with U.S. forces in the aggression against Vietnam, with no repercussions. In the 1990s, the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin did not charge Zionist groups with violating this law when they set up recruitment tables for the Israeli Armed Forces at Concordia University and some other campuses. In 2014, the Harper government praised”heroic Canadians” illegally fighting abroad to help Israel commit war crimes against the Palestinian people.
Since 2014 and the U.S. and NATO-backed Maidan colour revolution in Ukraine, Canadians have joined the neo-Nazi battalions terrorizing Ukrainians in the Donbas with impunity, despite such activity being ostensibly prohibited by the Foreign Enlistment Act. Most recently, following Russia’s special military operation to contain the threat posed by NATO’s weaponizing of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand of the current Trudeau Liberal government gave their endorsement of any Canadians wishing to join Ukraine’s foreign legion to fight against Russia, despite such activity being in contravention of the Act.
Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act made the anti-fascist workers’ volunteering to fight against fascism in Spain into a criminal act. To this day no one has been convicted under the Foreign Enlistment Act which was nonetheless used as the pretext for the criminalization and denial of Canadian volunteers who attempted to return from Spain.
Canada’s volunteers included Dr. Norman Bethune who set up mobile blood transfusion units on the battlefield, saving thousands of lives. Dr. Bethune was an outstanding internationalist. He subsequently died in China in 1939 while helping the wounded near the end of the Anti-Japanese Anti-Fascist War led by the Communist Party of China.
Canadians fought bravely in some of the most significant battles of the Spanish Civil War, contributing to the victory at Jarama between February and June 1937, fighting at Brunete in July 1937, at the Battle of Teruel from December 1937 to March 1938, defending against the “Aragon Offensive” of the fascists from March to April 1938 and finally at the Battle of the Ebro, July to September 1938.
Only 646 Canadian volunteers returned. Upon their return, their passports were confiscated and the RCMP opposed their re-entry into Canada and later carried out surveillance against them. Far from acclaiming them as true heroes for resisting fascism, the government demonized their political motivations and beliefs. Canadians who died in the Spanish Civil War are still not included in the Books of Remembrance in the Peace Tower or commemorated on federal war memorials or in Remembrance Day services. Survivors did not receive veterans’ benefits. There is no official apology issued to acknowledge the wrongs committed against them.
Canada’s contribution to the anti-fascist resistance in Spain remains a peerless example of the internationalism of the Canadian working class and people, who hail from all lands and whose battles to defend rights form a wealth of experience in solving problems today.