Madam Speaker, as the Bloc Quebecois critic for veterans affairs, I am pleased to rise today to support my hon. colleague from Kamloops in asking that the members of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion be recognized as veterans.
The MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, named after the leaders of the 1837 rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada, was made up of 1,300 Canadian volunteers who served in the international brigades to support the Republican government against the authority of fascist dictator General Franco during the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1939.
In spite of their sacrifices and their individual heroism, Canadian veterans of the international brigades are still not recognized as war veterans. As a result, they have never been eligible for veterans' benefits and, more importantly, their merit in defending the freedom and democracy that we, in Canada, enjoy and benefit from today was never recognized.
The purpose of this motion is therefore to ask that official recognition be given to the courage of the men and women who did not wait for the government's formal approval to fight for our fundamental freedoms and against the horrors of fascism. These Canadians went to Spain, where they risked their lives alongside other brave people from around the world to fight for freedom and democracy.
Unfortunately, the Spanish Republican forces and the international brigades, including the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, did not win that fight, but history tells us that the Spanish war was the prelude to the downfall of fascism at the end of World War II in Europe. It seems appropriate that these fighters and their willingness to fight for justice and democracy be recognized.
Dare we ask? Why did Canada not accept to provide assistance to Spain at the time? Why did it pass the Foreign Enlistment Act on April 10, 1937, one year after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War? Why did Maurice Duplessis, on March 24, 1937, pass an act to protect the province against communistic propaganda, better known as the “Padlock Act”? Why this discrimination toward our soldiers when they came back? Why give the status of veterans to those who fought in the Vietnam war, but not those who did so in Spain?
I will try to answer these questions from a historical perspective. It may be that, at the time, Canada was a British colony and England, like France, feared a second world war. It may be because the battalion's name was MacKenzie-Papineau, in memory of the 1837 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada. As we know, these patriots yearned for freedom and democracy, something which may not have pleased Canadian royalists.
Around 1835, Louis-Joseph Papineau, member of the Patriote Party, wanted a democratic and bilingual country open to free trade with the United States, a country where Church and State would be independent. At the time, each group had its own parliament. Members of parliament in both Upper and Lower Canada were elected, but they did not have any executive power. This power was exercised by the governor, who was appointed by London. This is the main reason why these rebellions took place. Quebec was hit first. Villages were burned, hundreds of people killed, 1,000 arrested, 108 tried, 60 deported, and 12 hanged. The authorities could have hit Upper Canada first, because the rebellions were just the same but, when it comes to reprimanding, history tells us that it takes place in Quebec.
The federal Foreign Enlistment Act and Duplessis' Padlock Act were, to a large extent, adopted in response to requests from the clergy and the right wing. It was also to keep the Canadian right happy when these veterans returned home that they were subjected to job discrimination and RCMP surveillance, and turned down when they tried to enlist at the beginning of World War II.
Finally, I do not understand why Canada recognizes veterans of the war in Vietnam but not the war in Spain. We had no more business being in Vietnam than we did in Spain.
I followed with great interest the deliberations of the standing committee on veterans affairs in 1986 regarding the participation of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, and the testimony shows that the sole interest of the veterans who appeared before the committee was to stop the progress of fascism and to defend the oppressed. History proved them right. The war in Spain was the prelude to World War II and the end of two dictators, Hitler and Mussolini.
These civil wars between the forces of the right and the Spanish Popular Front government began with clashes over economic and social structure. The landowning class, often noblemen, dominated a country that was essentially agricultural, poor and lacking in social programs. This upper class relied on a clergy that was very rich and, on the whole, very conservative. It also relied on an army whose many officers came from its ranks.
The people were primarily farmers, an underpaid agricultural proletariat, miners or factory workers, and engaged in several violent struggles to fight unemployment and low wages.
On two occasions, the working class had managed to assume democratic power and to implement social, military, ecclesiastical and agrarian reform, early release from the army, the separation of Church and State, some degree of autonomy for Catalonia, and universal education. I should point out as well that this was a time of heavy ideological struggles between communists, fascists and liberalists just about everywhere, but in Europe in particular. In 1934, those reforms were abolished after the right assumed power, but when the left returned in 1936 and these programs were resumed, the right went into action and the civil war ensued.
During that war, according to the statistics, 52 countries in the world were involved in recruiting 40,000 people for the Spanish cause despite the non-intervention agreement.
In short, history proves that these veterans fought for freedom and democracy. This civil war was a class struggle between the landowners, the army and the clergy on the one side, and the people, the proletariat, on the other. It was also an international ideological struggle between communism, fascism and liberalism. It was the prelude to the Second World War and to the downfall of fascism and its dictators. The Mackenzie—Papineau Battalion wanted to share that yearning for freedom and democracy.
For these reasons, I am calling on the government to recognize the sincere contribution of these veterans who enlisted in order to defend freedom and democracy, and to award to surviving Canadian veterans or their widows the benefits to which they would have been entitled if they had been regular members of the Canadian Armed Forces.