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Thursday October 17, 2013

Idealist fought fascism during Spanish Civil War

As a Canadian volunteer, unprepared for war, he crossed the snowy Pyrenees mountains in dress shoes

Special to The Globe and Mail

It was George Orwell's war; it was Norman Bethune's and Ernest Hemingway's war; and it was Jules Paivio's war.

Mr. Paivio was the last surviving veteran of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, idealistic volunteers who went overseas to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

He was a sales clerk at the Eaton's store in Sudbury when he volunteered in 1936. The next year, the federal government passed a law making it an offence to fight in a foreign war, aimed at stopping young idealists from fighting against Francisco Franco, the rebellious general who had overthrown the elected Republican government.

"Fighting fascism was the main reason for going to Spain," Mr. Paivio told a journalist many years later. "I thought here was something I could do that was worthwhile."

Mr. Paivio died Sept. 4 at the age of 96. His wife, Adele, died in 1992. He leaves two sons, Martin and Allan, many grandchildren and his brother Allan.

The Canadian volunteers first went to France. Mr. Paivio went over with an American group, landed at Le Havre and travelled south to the border, where they crossed over the Pyrenees to Spain on foot. No one was prepared for war. Mr. Paivio remembered walking in the snowy mountains in dress shoes. When they got to Spain, the volunteers were given military training and equipped with old rifles, but were facing professional soldiers with more modern weapons.

There was trench warfare, with shallow trenches dug in the hard soil using helmets and even spoons. In one of Mr. Paivio's first experiences under fire, he saw a young American volunteer beside him in the trench shot in the face when he lifted his head to look for the enemy.

Mr. Paivio started as a private, though he later said there were some issues with rank in groups that were concerned with social equality. Eventually, it was realized a hierarchy was needed in war. Mr. Paivio became an officer in charge of map making.

At first, he and other Canadians fought with the Americans in Spain. Then they formed the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, named after William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis Joseph Papineau, two leaders of the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada. As the fighting went on, the Canadians and the other volunteers in the International Brigade were slowly pushed back. They were no match for the reinforcements from Italy and Germany, especially the German bombers and fighter planes, as those countries tested aircraft and tactics that would later be used in the Second World War. The Soviet Union supplied arms to the International Brigade.

One day in April, 1938, Mr. Paivio and others were captured. They were lined up against a wall to be shot. But an Italian general happened upon the execution scene and realized these foreign soldiers would be of more use alive as hostages to be exchanged for prisoners from the fascist side.

Mr. Paivio spent almost a year in a dismal prisoner of war camp where none of the usual rules applied since the prisoners were not considered "real" soldiers. There were beatings and summary executions before those still alive were released in a prisoner exchange and sent to France in early 1939. It was only after his capture that his family back in Canada received any news of their young soldier.

"I remember the Sudbury Star came to interview us after my brother was captured," said Allan Paivio, 88, who lives in London, Ont. "The article was wrong in one respect. They called my brother and others soldiers of fortune. It was crazy. My brother and other volunteers were not soldiers of fortune after money. They were idealists fighting fascism."

Mr. Paivio was born on April 29, 1917, in Port Arthur, Ont., to Finnish immigrants. His mother, Ida Hanninen, had nine children, but three died as infants. His father, Aku Paivio, was a poet and radical journalist who wrote for Finnish-language newspapers. In 1928, the family moved to Sudbury, where Aku worked on a paper called Vapaus, which is Finnish for freedom.

A short time after moving to Sudbury, the family moved to a 240-acre land grant at Tilton Lake outside the city.

Mr. Paivio volunteered for the Canadian army after Canada declared war on Germany in September, 1939. Like many members of the Mac-Paps, he was suspected of being too left-wing - and he was under RCMP surveillance, at least during the war. He wasn't sent overseas, but stayed in Canada teaching new soldiers how to read military maps.

"My father told me ... in 1941 the RCMP ransacked his apartment while he was out," said his son Martin Paivio. "When he was teaching in the army, he noticed an officer used to drop in from time to time. When the war was over, that man came to him and said, 'Did you ever wonder why I was in your class?' He was keeping an eye on my father."

After the war, Mr. Paivio studied architecture at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1952. In the early 1960s, he started teaching at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, and eventually became head of the school's architecture department before retiring in the early 1980s.

He never stopped fighting for recognition for the Canadians who volunteered in Spain. About 1,600 Canadians fought in the Spanish Civil War and about 400 were killed, almost as many as Canada lost in the Korean War.

"Jules spent a lot of time on that, especially after he retired," said Allan Paivio. "He was determined that something be done to recognize these people."

A monument to the veterans of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, financed by private donations, was unveiled in Rideau Falls Park in Ottawa in 2001. Mr. Paivio was there. Ten years later he was in a wheelchair, beside that same monument, as the Spanish ambassador to Canada granted him Spanish citizenship for his efforts in fighting fascism in the 1930s.

There is also a plaque to the Mac-Paps at Queen's Park on a stone from a Spanish battlefield. Mr. Paivio and another veteran, Paul Skup, went to Spain in the early 1990s and chose the stone.

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