Victoria’s Spirit of the Republic honours Spanish war

We Canadians don’t really like to express ourselves, at least not publicly. We’re reluctant to let our emotions show to the world at large, particularly, it seems, in honouring fellow Canadians – even those who’ve contributed selflessly to the common weal, heroes and heroines of whom we should be proud. Rarely do we go in for statues or monuments. As near as we come to public reverence these days, it seems, is roadside memorials or headstones in a cemetery.

Notable exceptions are the monuments and memorials across Canada and in Europe and elsewhere honouring our war dead.

These, after all, are the very least we can do for the more than 100,000 Canadians who gave their lives for their country – for us.

Another exception can be found near Victoria’s James Bay, near the west corner of the intersection of Menzies and Belleville streets. You’ll have to look for it. Privately funded and installed in 2000, it’s the statue of a robe-clad woman although she more strongly resembles a crowned knight of the Crusades. Her arms are extended high in the air and she’s holding a wreath in her right hand, a dove in the other. The Spirit of the Republic honours the Canadians who served in the the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion – not in the First, Second of Korean Wars, but in the Spanish Civil War, a war not officially recognized at the time by Canada.

A war fought by civilian volunteers from dozens of nations who recognized the threat that fascism posed for all of Europe and beyond while Great Britain practised appeasement and the United States pursued isolation.

More than 1,500 Canadians served in that unofficial war, 1936-1939, while our own government, and those of most other Western nations, stood idly by as Franco’s rightist Republican Army ultimately overthrew Spain’s democratically elected government. Franco succeeded only with the aid of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy whose troops used the Spanish battlefields as testing grounds for new weapons – for the "real" war that was soon to follow.

It’s accepted that almost half of those Canadians who volunteered in Spain lost their lives while serving in the Canadiandominated Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the name by which they became known and in whose memory the statue was erected.

Just as these courageous volunteers were officially shunned then, the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 2012 passed without official notice in Canada, neither the departments of National Defence nor Canadian Heritage commemorating the event. Compare this to Ottawa’s mega-milliondollar observance of the War of 1812-14, and its current plans for the First World War, 1914-18.

As was noted at the time, "The names of volunteers who died in Spain do not appear in Veterans Affairs Canada’s Books of Remembrance. Survivors do not collect government pensions for their efforts. And permanent exhibitions at the Canada War Museum in Ottawa make no explicit reference to the [members of the M-P Battalion]."

Although National Defence’s lack of recognition has been attributed to the fact that they weren’t members of the Canadian armed forces, many believe this official snub to be a holdover from the Cold War because many of the Canadians who fought in Spain were radicals, far-left socialists or outright communists, all anathematic to the democratic but capitalistic government of the day.

Perhaps the closest that the Spirit of the Republic has come to official recognition is that interim NDP premier Dan Miller attended its unveiling in February 2000.

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