MACKENZIE - PAPINEAU BATTALION
Monument on Green Island, off Sussex Drive, opposite Rideau Falls, Ottawa
The monument features a five-metre high sheet of corten steel out of which has been cut a silhouetted figure of a young man or Prometheus raising his clenched fist toward a cut-out Spanish sun. The figure is mounted on a concrete pedestal bearing a memorial plaque which reads:
The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the Mac-Paps), were Canadian volunteers of the International Brigades, Spain, 1936-1939. Canadians, 1546 in number left families, jobs and country to help the Spanish people defend democracy against the rise of fascism in the 1930s . . . . In their Promethean struggle for liberty, democracy and social justice, the Mac-Paps fought courageously for their ideals without thought of reward or fame.
Adjacent to the monument is a memorial wall containing 52 stainless steel panels on which have been inscribed the names of 1546 volunteers. Running in a band along the top of the wall is an excerpt from the speech given by Dolores Ibarruri - La Pasionaria - to the assembled Brigadistas in Barcelona in 1939 as the International Brigades were disbanded: “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy, solidarity and universality . . . .”
The conception of artist and architect Oryst Sawchuk is highly symbolic. Prometheus is the Greek god who brought fire to mankind for its warmth and light in defiance of the other gods and who subsequently suffered for this humanitarian act. The metal has a reddish patina symbolizing the red soil of Spain and the spilled blood of the fighters against the fascists and that of innocent civilians. The light whether from the sun or lamp shines through the cut-out portion and attracts attention. Reminiscent of Spain are three olive trees and laurel bushes that enclose the monument. There is a sheltered spot with two rock benches for contemplation and remembrance. Flowers common to Spain and Canada are planted in front.
Some 1500 Canadians volunteered to stem the tide of fascism that was beginning to engulf Europe in the 1930s. The most dramatic was the invasion of Spain by regular army formations from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy to assist the usurper, General Francisco Franco of Spain. He had brought in Moorish troops from North Africa to overthrow the elected Spanish government of the day. The outrageous bombing of civilians, as at Guernica, stunned democratic and anti-fascist persons the world over. However, it was the period of appeasement and surrender to complicity, and the international community, with some notable exceptions, failed to respond. By 1939, the Republican defeat opened the door to the wider conflagration of the Second World War. In 1937 then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King played an iniquitous role by visiting Hitler personally, praising him, and ordering legal restrictions that placed heavy penalties on Canadians who wished to volunteer in the aid of the Spanish Republic. Volunteers did come from all over the world to form the XVth International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. During the course of their struggle Canadians and some Americans were brought together into a battalion, named the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in honour of Canada’s democratic revolutionaries who led the Rebellions of 1837-38 for independence from British colonial rule. Veterans who returned home got little help from their government and it is only in recent years after much lobbying that they are now given recognition in memorial plaques and sculptures across Canada. Striking examples are those in Victoria B.C. and in Queen’s Park, Toronto.
A formal unveiling of the Ottawa monument on 20 October 2001 represented if not official government recognition, the righting of a wrong. Then Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson paid tribute in these words:
It is fitting that we recognize, 65 years later, the historic moment for which these men and women went to fight in a foreign war, a war which was not their own, a war in which Canada was not involved as a nation . . . . They were fighting for an ideal. They were fighting against fascism, which was like a rehearsal for the war to come . . . . People of very diverse backgrounds supported these volunteers - people like Graham Spry, the founder and father of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was he who spearheaded the assessment as to what medical supplies and skills would be required in the war zone. And shortly afterwards, a volunteer was dispatched from Canada by the name of Dr. Norman Bethune. In 1996 the Spanish people and its government invited surviving members back to Spain, honouring them with Spanish citizenship . . . . Today, we are giving the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion a lasting memorial here, where it should be, in their own land.
Photo Credit (cut-out with figure only): Emma Frank