Last week, an important but often overlooked era in Canada’s history came to a close with the death of Jules Paivio, the last surviving Canadian veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
A member of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, Paivio travelled with volunteers from all over the world to Spain in 1937 in an effort to help a beleaguered republic gripped in a brutal civil war.
Regarded by many as the opening salvo of the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War saw the fascist forces of Francisco Franco—aided by dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini—rise up against the democratically elected Popular Front government of Spain.
A broad coalition of left-wing interests, the Popular Front brought together socialists, trade unionists, communists, and anarchists in a brittle political alliance backed by theSoviet Union.
With foreign volunteer troops raised by the Moscow-based Comintern network and organized into the International Brigades, more than 30,000 international volunteers were recruited. In all, more than 1,500 Canadians made their way to fight in Spain.
One such volunteer was the then 19-year-old Paivio of Sudbury, Ontario. An ardent anti-fascist, Paivio shipped out to Le Havre, France and made his way over the snowy Pyrenees to Spain on foot, where he was eventually assigned to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.
In the spring of 1938, Paivio was part of what later became known as "The Great Retreats" after the Republican army lost their stronghold in Aragon with the fall of Teruel. Under withering and continuous assault, the International Brigades, as well as Spanish troops, fell back to the Mediterranean to regroup in Valencia and Catalonia.
On March 31, 1938, Paivio and members of his patrol were captured by Italian fascist troops near Gandesa and lined up against a wall to face a firing squad. Just as they were to be shot, an Italian officer drove up and dismissed the firing squad, realizing that his international prisoners could be exchanged for fascist prisoners-of-war.
After spending more than a year in a P.O.W. camp and surviving the Fascist victory in the civil war, Paivio was released and shipped to France, where he made his way back to Canada.
Upon his return, there were no parades, and no federal veterans benefits—in fact, there was no official recognition at all for the men who had first faced down fascism. Distrusting the political inclinations of the members of the Mackanzie-Papineau Battalion, the Canadian government kept them under close surveillance and often limited their activities.
When the Second World War broke out, Paivio joined the Canadian Army, but was not allowed to travel overseas due to his association with the Soviet-backed International Brigades. For the duration, he taught map-reading to troops during their training in Canada.
After the war, Paivo studied architecture and later went on to teach at Ryerso nUniversity. He remained active in social causes, recently telling a journalist that citizen involvement was something close to his heart.
Two years ago, at a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy in Ottawa, Paivio was honored by the Spanish government and given full Spanish citizenship in return for his military service.
“It is difficult to thank them with the intensity they deserve,” said Spanish ambassador Eudaldo Mirapeix, “through him we honour them all.”
At the time of his death, Paivio was 96 years old.