The Gallant Yet Illegal Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War - LawNow Magazine

The Gallant Yet Illegal Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War

Law and Literature Column

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward. It is this, without doubt, which explains why so many men throughout the world regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy. – Albert Camus

I recently prepared for a presentation I was to make after our film showing of Los Canadienses in the ongoing series, “Do the Rights Thing: Standing Up For Human Rights in History”. The documentary depicts the remarkable tale of the 1,600 or so brave young Canadians who volunteered to fight in Spain shortly after they learned of the attempted coup against the democratically elected government in that country. In thinking of how significant the Spanish Civil War was for an entire generation of Canadians who reached adulthood in the 1930s, I thought back to a climactic scene in Hugh MacLennan’s novel The Watch That Ends the Night (1959).  Many critics consider the novel of this five-time Governor General winner to be his finest.

The novel was one MacLennan had to struggle over many years to write.  It is his most personal and contains a great deal of autobiographical detail and a vivid portrait of Montreal in the 1930s, when he, like so many others, strained and persevered to survive in the midst of the Great Depression. In an era before there was any social safety net, many found it difficult, if not impossible, to make ends meet, and the spectre of unemployment and a restless, vagabond existence hovered over fearful Canadians. Paradoxically though, side by side with the darkness and desolation, was a dream shared by many that a much better society based on equality and social justice could be built. Some writers and intellectuals called for revolution or, at the very least, significant reform. One of these radicals is MacLennan’s hero and most compelling character, Jerome Martell. Martell is a doctor who shares a number of traits with the radical doctor who remains a major presence in any history of the era, Norman Bethune. However, in reading the introduction to the recent re-issue of The Watch That Ends the Night by McGill-Queen’s University Press, I learned that MacLennan himself considered that Martell had far more affinities with Frank Scott (his pen name being F. R. Scott), poet and constitutional scholar, lawyer and guiding light in the newly formed socialist party, the CCF.

While the novel is certainly no roman a clef and does not simply graft the lives of Bethune and Scott onto the fictional character, it is fascinating to consider his lineage nonetheless. The climactic scene I was referring to involves a fund-raising rally in 1936 that Dr Martell organizes to aid the beleaguered Spanish Republic and to provide money and equipment to create a medical unit that would save many lives. McLennan imaginatively shapes the event to emphasize its dramatic potential but he did have in mind an actual rally organized by Frank Scott and attended by Norman Bethune and certain Spaniards who were passionately committed to fighting for and saving the Republic from the fascist forces of General Franco. Franco was aided immensely by Hitler and Mussolini, who had cynically signed a Non-Intervention Pact with Britain and France only to immediately ignore it. Western powers continued to abide by it, thereby blockading the Republic and its forces.

The rally as narrated in the novel is disrupted partway through when pro-Franco students and other demonstrators rush the stage at the moment Martell is giving an impassioned plea for support to the sizeable audience. The actual historical event was likewise disrupted by an unruly mob of 300 pro-Franco French-Canadian students and could not proceed as planned. One of the Spaniards brought to speak emphasized the horrible consequences of Franco’s military operations for ordinary Spaniards and stated that “Spain is not only fighting for her own democracy but for that of the world.” Scott later indicated that he had just witnessed the most moving tableau he had ever seen. But within the context of the novel, the ultimate defeat of the Spanish Republic, followed by vicious reprisals ordered by Dictator Franco, represents a serious tragedy for progressives in Canada and elsewhere. That evening the large general meeting that had been planned had to be cancelled, according to the police, the municipal and provincial authorities, because they could not guarantee the safety of the speakers. In reality it was also, we know from their later actions, because they generally favored the fascist forces wishing to destroy the Republican government and its supporters. An outraged Norman Bethune said that the lives of at least a thousand innocent women and children had been sacrificed by the authorities. He exclaimed that “the right of free speech has been denied us… in a free country.”

The following day Scott issued a statement on behalf of the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, protesting the injustice of the situation. He concluded: “Canadian democracy is in a precarious condition if a sane and considered statement for a lawful government is prevented from being given in a British country by threats of violence from irresponsible elements.” Scott displayed a healthy dose of fortitude throughout the affair and continued to work for the Committee to provide aid for the democratic forces in Spain. He did this despite knowing that in Catholic Quebec his stand on the issue was unpopular with many and risked enabling his detractors to label him a “radical” who should cease all political activity or be fired from his position as law professor at McGill University. Fortunately, this did not happen and the brilliant and multi-talented scholar and lawyer went on to place a prominent role in challenging laws that violated civil liberties and promoting greater protection for fundamental rights and liberties, including asserting regularly that an entrenched bill, or charter, of rights was essential for a modern liberal democratic nation.

In the novel the character of Jerome Martell is less fortunate than Scott was and is ultimately discharged from his position as surgeon at the hospital where he worked. He does volunteer to go to Spain and establish a blood transfusion unit, as did Norman Bethune in reality. But within the context of the novel, the ultimate defeat of the Spanish Republic, followed by vicious reprisals ordered by Dictator Franco, represents a serious tragedy for progressives in Canada and elsewhere. The Watch That Ends the Night is indeed something of an elegy for an entire generation of believers in the prospect of building a better world.

There is a more positive way of looking at the experiences of the radicals and progressives of the 1930s and indeed I urge readers to pick up a marvelous history of the event, Mark Zuehlke’s A Gallant Cause. It is a compassionate and wholly absorbing account of the Canadians who volunteered to fight in Spain and recounts the great efforts made by the young men who found a way to travel to Spain to oppose the growing fascist menace. Zuehlke describes how the federal government, led by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, came to enact the Foreign Enlistment Act. This legislation made it illegal to serve in a foreign military service, and was clearly aimed at preventing the many who wished to fight to protect the Republic from travelling to Spain to do so. It was adopted in 1937 by order-in-council and mirrored legislation passed months earlier in the United States. At some risk, the men Zuehlke writes about made a determined effort to bypass the many restrictions (including the fact that passports issued thereafter specified that travel to Spain was not permissible). They were compelled to make their way to Spain by a circuitous and arduous route.

Frank Scott wrote a moving poem after the conflict, in the early 40s, entitled “Spain 1937” and it ends:

Here was destruction before flowering,
Here freedom was cut in its first tendrils,
The issue is not ended with defeat.



Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.

A Publication of CPLEA