At the click of a mouse, a frail and cracked old voice fills the office of a CBC radio producer. "I have been a very lucky guy … I was lined up to be shot," says 95-year-old veteran Jules Paivio as he recalls his last-minute escape from a fascist firing squad during the Spanish Civil War.
CBC producer Steve Wadhams is also lucky: To create The Spanish Crucible, a two-hour radio documentary filled with the voices of veterans of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, he didn't have to rely solely on his recent interview with Paivio, the last living Canadian volunteer to have fought in Spain in 1936 to 1938. Instead, he could draw on 150 hours of interviews with dozens of hearty middle-aged men that were recorded in the 1960s, but never aired.
"Forty-plus years of doing radio, and I have never stumbled into a treasure trove like this," Wadhams said.
The producer of Living Out Loud, a weekly program on CBC Radio One devoted to oral stories submitted by the public, Wadhams read about Paivio in a newspaper when the veteran was honoured with Spanish citizenship earlier this year. He asked CBC archivist Ken Puley to hunt for any interviews that might be on file. Puley found there was a 90-minute one with Paivio as well as "a few more." Puley handed over a stack of written summaries and "my jaw hit my chest," Wadhams said.
Puley had discovered the tapes from an oral history project conducted by CBC producer Mac Reynolds in 1964-65. Reynolds interviewed about 60 of the Mac-Paps, as the soldiers were known, a group of about 1,600 Canadian volunteers who, out of political conviction hardened by the Great Depression, went to the rescue of Spain's Republican government when it was under attack from the Spanish army lead by General Francisco Franco. Reynolds had recorded the stories of the often poor or unemployed Canadians who went to Europe to form an ill-equipped, amateur army fighting a bloody and ultimately unsuccessful battle against professionals backed by fascist governments in Italy and Germany.
"They were mainly working-class guys, a lot of them recent immigrants to Canada, 10-year immigrants. Loggers, miners, restaurant workers, out of work, in the relief camps. Some intellectuals, a university student, an accountant, a nurse, the only woman I've got," Wadhams said, referring to the interview with Rosaleen Ross, who worked on the mobile blood-transfusion team established by Canadian doctor Norman Bethune during his time in Spain. The volunteers were leaving the Depression behind, Wadhams said: "They were riding the rails, having a hard time in Canada, and they were politicized. Some were from Europe and saw what was happening."
The democratically elected reformist Republican government in Spain faced a military revolt, igniting the civil war, and anti-fascist volunteers were recruited abroad and sent to Spain. After the Canadian government passed a law in 1937 banning citizens from fighting in foreign wars, only the Communist Party was willing to flout the law and continue recruiting. Many of the volunteers were themselves Communists or at least sympathizers: The recruiters tried to weed out men who were seeking adventure or looking to escape a family.
Their politics and their decision to support a foreign government before Canada had entered the Second World War to join the battle against fascism in Europe were often held against them when they returned home. Discharged honourably by the Spanish government in 1938, shortly before its collapse in 1939, the Mac-Paps were regarded with suspicion by the RCMP, sometimes had trouble volunteering for the Canadian armed forces and were not recognized with their own monument in Ottawa until 2001.
Those politics may also explain why the CBC didn't use the tapes earlier: Wadhams speculates that during the Cold War years, the public broadcaster wasn't comfortable with, or at least not interested in, a project that might lionize the Mac-Paps. Reynolds is dead, but his daughter has told Wadhams that he was a Communist sympathizer, and may have regretted not going to Spain himself.
Wadhams says many documentaries about the International Brigades are clearly on the side of the boys, but he is trying to tell the story of these ill-paid and idealistic mercenaries more neutrally.
The details themselves are harrowing. The interviews include Paivio's description of climbing the snow-covered Pyrenees in dress shoes as the volunteers snuck into Spain from France. Others in a group that sailed to Barcelona narrowly escaped drowning when their ship was torpoed by an Italian submarine. They had arms supplied by the Russians – they often complained about their quality – and had to dig trenches in hard Spanish soil with helmets and spoons because they had no shovels. Their ranks were decimated in battles with the Nationalist army; more than a quarter of the battalion did not make it home.
If caught, they were treated to summary justice. But at the moment when Paivio and his comrades were about to be shot, an officer pulled them out of the firing line, perhaps recognizing that foreign nationals might prove useful hostages. When the war ended with the fascist victory, the foreigners were expelled while Spanish Republicans were relentlessly pursued by the regime that lasted until Franco died and democracy was restored in the 1970s.
"I'm lost in wonder," Wadham says of their experiences. "I can't imagine doing this, but they did … I feel an honour putting this on the radio, a responsibility. It's now or never."
In February 1965, almost 30 years after he set out for Spain, Paivio told a CBC interviewer: "The main thing was a terrible fear of fascism taking over. I didn't expect to come back … but it seemed a worthwhile thing."
Living Out Loud airs The Spanish Crucible Part One, Sunday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. on Radio One; Part Two can be heard Friday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. and again Sunday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m.