Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion

The Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion or Mac-Paps were a battalion of Canadians who fought as part of the XV International Brigade on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Except for France, no other country gave a greater proportion of its population as volunteers in Spain than Canada.[1] The first Canadians in the conflict were dispatched mainly with the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Battalion and later the North American George Washington Battalion, with about forty Canadians serving in each group. The XV International Brigade was involved in the Battle of Jarama in which nine Canadians are known to have been killed.

Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion
Monument to the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion in Victoria, B.C.
Country Canada
Allegiance Second Spanish Republic
TypeBattalion - Infantry
RoleHome Defence
Part of XV International Brigade
EngagementsSpanish Civil War
Edward Cecil-Smith


By summer 1937 some 1,200 Canadians were involved in the conflict and a separate battalion was formed for them in early May. Two months later it was named for William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, both of whom led the Rebellion of 1837-1838, and were famous Canadian politicians in the 19th century, standing for a clean and responsible government. The name of the battalion was a symbol of the Canadian voluntary troops’ identity, and meant to support the Republican government’s side. The battalion was formed at Albacete, Spain in July 1937.

The battalion was initially commanded by American Robert G. Thompson at their first battle at Fuentes de Ebro. By November 1937, however, the battalion had its first Canadian commander, Edward Cecil-Smith. Cecil-Smith was a member of the Communist Party of Canada, an author of the banned play, Eight Men Speak, a newspaperman, and a former militiaman in Toronto. Cecil-Smith commanded the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion for most of its existence.

The soldiers who would make up the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion came from Canada and the United States. Initially, there was a debate, whether a third American battalion should be formed and in the beginning the Americans outnumbered the Canadians 2 to 1. It was only later that the Canadians made up about half of the unit. Unlike Britain and the United States, where a significant number of students and intellectuals enlisted, the Canadian contingent was almost wholly working class. Labourers had been driven to the left by their experiences during the Great Depression.

Many Canadian volunteers were members of the Communist Party of Canada. In general, the respondents were self-educated about the conflict in Spain, and about the possible repercussions for Europe and the world. Many other groups also supported the Spanish Republicans and organized the Committee to Support Spanish Democracy. A good percentage of those who enlisted had been born in Europe, the two largest groups being Finns and Ukrainians. As casualties mounted many Spanish volunteers and later conscripts were incorporated into the unit.

Canadians who meant to serve in Spain had to travel under false pretenses due to the passage of a Canadian Foreign Enlistment Act in April 1937, and its formal application to Spain in July 1937. Even before the formal outlawing of volunteering, the recruits were gathered and transported in secret. Usually the volunteers went first to Toronto, where they met at the headquarters for the operation at the corner of Queen and Spadina. Applicants were screened. For the most part anyone intending to enlist had to have had a history of working for the left. Drunken and adventurous types were also weeded out, leaving those who were ideologically committed to the politics of the fight against fascism. All these factors, along with the comparatively mature age of the soldiers – 61.5% were over thirty – resulted in a powerful and committed force. From Toronto they would go to Montreal, or more frequently New York, across the Atlantic Ocean to France, then to Spain by ship or on foot across the Pyrenees.


Over the next year, the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion fought in three major battles: the Battle of Teruel (December 1937 – March 1938), the Aragon Offensive (March–April) more commonly known to the Republican forces as the "Retreats"; though the Finnish-American machine gun companies successfully repelled the Nationalist forces, the collapse of the front on their flanks forced them to join the withdrawal. Their final engagement was the Battle of the Ebro (July–September). This was a decisive Nationalist victory, and broke the back of the Republican forces.

In the end, Spanish Prime Minister Negrín ordered the International Brigades withdrawn on September 21, 1938. Madrid fell six months later on March 28, 1939. By the end of the war, 721 of the 1,546 Canadians known to have fought in Spain lost their lives.

The way home was arduous. The Canadian government continued its policy of ignoring or prosecuting the veterans of Spain, in accordance with the Foreign Enlistment Act. Money had to be scratched together to get them home; some were arrested in France. It was not until January 1939 that the government agreed the combatants could return to Canada. Upon their return to Canada, many were investigated by the RCMP and denied employment. A good number of the Mac-Pap veterans fought in the Second World War, but a number were prohibited due to "political unreliability" being categorized as "premature antifascists".


The Canadians who died in the Spanish Civil War are not included in the Books of Remembrance in the Peace Tower and their sacrifice is not commemorated on federal war memorials or in Remembrance Day services. Those who survived the war are not entitled to veterans' benefits. Although the soldiers and the war is largely forgotten, a monument to the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion (unveiled Feb. 12, 2000)[2] can be found in Victoria, British Columbia. A national monument to the Mac-Pap veterans was erected in Ottawa in 2001. It includes the names of the 1,546 Canadian volunteers who served in Spain. This number includes all those who served in the Mac-Pap battalion, the medical, communications, transportation and translation corps, or in other brigades. Additionally, a monument was erected in Toronto on June 4, 1995 at Queen's Park. The monument is a large boulder brought from the battlefield of Gandesa, Spain. Attached to the boulder is a memorial plaque for the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.[3]

One of the few Canadians to attain recognition for their service in Spain is Dr. Norman Bethune, who greatly developed the use of mobile army medical units for the Republican side.[4]

The Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion monument on Green Island Park, Sussex Drive in Ottawa, Ontario which was designed by architect Oryst Sawchuck of Sudbury, shows a figure of Prometheus raising his arm towards the sun, cut out of a five-metre-high (16 ft) sheet of steel. A 12-metre memorial wall is inscribed with volunteers' names.[5]

See also



  • Beeching, William C. Canadian Volunteers: Spain 1936–1939. Regina: U. of Regina, 1989.
  • Hoar, Victor and Reynolds, Mac. THE MACKENZIE-PAPINEAU BATTALION: THE CANADIAN CONTINGENT IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR.. Toronto (Copp Clark), 1969. No ISBN issued.
  • Howard, Victor, with Reynolds, Mac. The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: The Canadian Contingent in the Spanish Civil War. Ottawa: Carleton University, 1986. ISBN 9780886290498
  • Petrou, Michael. Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
  • Zuehlke, Mark (2007) The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939, Wiley & Sons Canada ISBN 978-0-470-83926-3

Further reading

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