Last of the Mac-Paps: A Hero in the Family
Paying debts, honouring the past
Spain pays belated tribute, family honours, last 'Mac-Pap'
My Son in Spain (excerpt)
A hard firm handshake, yet
You disappear into the wintry darkness
I slowly into the cabin stagger,
Such contradictory emotion seethe through me
Now depressing me, then again
Pride in a son, who does not fear
Who wants to fight for right.
That feeling strengthens, inspires me.
A son’s loss, a life so young...
— Aku Paivio, circa 1938, translated by Jules Paivio, Vapaasana.com.
I've never been comfortable taking pride in the accomplishments of another; the very idea seemed strange and presumptuous.
Being happy for someone? Of course! But pride? By definition it seemed to me pride must be limited to those things one has accomplished oneself.
But we are not Mr. Spock; we do not operate strictly according to the logic of cause and effect.
Last Thursday, the day that saw the first rumours of Moammar Gadhafi's death, my great uncle, Jules Paivio, was offered — and accepted — Spanish citizenship. And yes: I was proud of him.
Under lowering skies and near enough to noon I worried the ceremonies might have begun without us, Raven and I arrived at the MacKenzie-Papineau Monument on Sussex Drive.
We saw perhaps 50 to 75 people milling under and around a rectangular, white-topped canopy erected before the Monument as we descended the slope from the road. But I saw no sign of the guest of honour who, as it turned out, was still en route from the airport in a diplomatic vehicle courtesy of the Spanish Embassy.
The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the Monument's unveiling by then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.
The purpose was to fulfil a 1996 Spanish promise to award citizenship to the surviving foreign veterans of the Spanish Civil War. It was only this year that recipients could accept the honour without relinquishing their existing citizenships, by which point, Jules Paivio, my mother's maternal uncle, was the last surviving Canadian veteran of the MacKenzie Papineau Battalion.
There was some doubt he would be able to make it. His son Martin had informed me that his father, 94 and frail, had fallen and cracked a couple of ribs the previous Friday.
But I knew Uncle Jules had endured tests more stern than cracked ribs over the course of his long life, so I was not surprised when I spotted a small group surrounding a figure in a wheelchair at the top of the incline hiding Sussex Drive.
We watched expectantly as Martin positioned his father beneath the canopy. By ones and twos we approached, in most cases slowly and with a degree of caution, to offer hands for shaking or, sometimes, cheeks for a kissing.
When it was my turn, he looked too frail to hug and I knew his hearing and eye-sight were poor; it had more than three years since we had last seen each other. I was not even sure he would know who I was.
"Hi Uncle Jules," I said, "It's Geoff, Benita's son." He looked up and smiled, then clutched my hand. "Congratulations," I said. He nodded energetically and squeezed my hand again. "Thank you," he said.
History's long shadow
1936 was a hell of a year, a grim foreshadowing of a brutal decade to come. The Great Depression continued to brutalize a generation; Germany invaded the Rhineland and Italy annexed Ethiopia; Japanese armies were on the march; and in the capitals of the democratic West appeasement with Fascism was the order of the day.
So when the Spanish Army of Africa revolted against the elected government of the Spanish Republic, there was little sympathy and no help from the Western powers for a democratic government made up of a coalition of Socialists, Communists and left-wing Republicans. Britain and France declared neutrality and watched as Italian and German intervention in the Civil War decided the outcome in favour of the Fascists. The Republic's sole allies were Mexico and the Soviet Union, with only the latter supplying significant material support.
There were individuals who saw in Franco's revolt an foreshadowing of worse to come from Hitler and Mussolini. A few tens of thousands of whom decided to make a difference by putting their bodies literally in the line fire. Jules Paivio was one of those, one of some 1,500 Canadians who broke Canadian law, who crossed the Pyrenees on foot, to reach the early front lines of a long war that would soon engulf most of the world.
It was a quixotic and a prescient decision. Quixotic, because the Republic stood almost alone, prescient, because for Hitler and Mussolini, Spain was as a dress-rehearsal for the wars of conquest to come.
Italy and Germany supplied munitions and soldiers, and especially air support, arguably guaranteeing General Francisco Franco's Fascist victory. (Ironically, Franco showed little gratitude toward his erstwhile patrons. He kept Spain out of the Second World War and, after, became a trusted ally of the West, despite his concentration camps and death squads. The generalissimo did not relinquish power until death forced the issue in 1975.)
Uncle Jules was only 19 when he went overseas, but he never saw the decision as youthful romanticism.
In 2006, he told an interviewer that, "I was an antifascist and I read a lot of leftwing literature." He saw reports of the Fascist revolt and felt he couldn't ignore it. "I thought here was something I could do that was worthwhile."
He spent two years in Spain, one on the battlefield, one in an Italian concentration camp. He was saved from a firing squad at the last minute by an Italian officer who thought he would be useful in a prisoner exchange, but it was months before he could come home.
Back in Canada, he was technically a criminal and would remain under RCMP surveillance at least into the 1980s. Yet when the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Canadian Army as soon as his health permitted and served until war's end, though we was considered too politically unreliable to send overseas.
Following the war he became an architect and taught at Ryerson for more than 20 years. He raised a family and continued to be politically active, primarily in the peace movement, as a member of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms in particular.
I knew little of this when I was younger; I barely knew Uncle Jules at all. On his infrequent visits, he seemed a slow-spoken, almost taciturn man lost in the shadow of his extroverted first wife's personality.
I only got to know him — somewhat — much later, when he had returned to live in Sudbury. I remember coming north for a visit, to find Uncle Jules and my younger brother Tom making repairs to my mother's roof. Jules was about 80, but he clambered about with the unconscious authority of a much younger man.
The NATO air war against Serbia was in full fury then, the West testing its post-Cold War muscles by raining explosive "liberation" from the skies (not so different from the recent adventure in Libya).
At the time, I had been convinced by the anti-Serbian propaganda and had, reluctantly, concluded that, this time, the Western intervention was a Good Thing.
Uncle Jules was having none of it. He said that it was a war for oil and an attack on one of the world's last socialist experiments. No one in power, he said, cared a whit about the Croats or the Moslem Serbs; they were merely a convenient excuse.
"What oil?" I argued that Yugoslavia was land-locked but he shook his head at my naivety. It was a valuable corridor for pipelines, he said, and a set of weak states in place of a unified Yugoslavia would be just the ticket for Western oil companies looking to avoid Islamic Turkey or the unstable former Soviet clients.
Geography and politics, he said, are what make wars, not humanitarian impulses.
I'm still not convinced the world isn't better off without Slobodan Milosevic, any more than I expect many will mourn the loss of Moammar Gadhafi, but I have certainly learned his scepticism when I hear our leaders selling yet another war on the pretext of protecting civilians "another Hitler".
But I digress.
As I watched (yes, with pride) Uncle Jules sign his citizenship papers at the Spanish embassy last Thursday, I realized that his time as a Mac-Pap made for only a small portion of his life; the rest of it — the bulk of it — is just as worthy of note and respect.
I remembered the talk he gave at his 90th birthday celebration in Sudbury. I wrote the following a day or two afterwards.
After a number of heartfelt and touching tributes, Jules himself spoke. He spoke of social justice, of the need for constant struggle and he spoke too of his own, long, life [...] he is a man who has outlived two wives and two children, who developed scurvy while a prisoner of war, whose own government considered him a traitor for his involvement in Spain and whose secret police kept tabs on him for decades. Yet he smiled as he spoke and emphasized what a wonderful life he has led, what joy it has brought him and how he looks forward to the future.
So here we are. I can take no credit for any of his accomplishments, but I am proud of my (great) Uncle Jules. His example of thoughtful conviction, moral courage and unwavering optimism.
I started this essay noting that Jules' honour came the same day Moammar Gadhafi was killed. Perhaps more apposite, it was also a day that saw citizens gathering in ever-greater numbers in hundreds of cities throughout the world to build what is (still) the inchoate "Occupy" movement.
The Fascists won the Spanish Civil War, but theirs was a Pyrrhic victory. There is a democracy in Spain again. And if it seems our world is once more in the hands of leaders indistinguishable from thieves, it is vital to remember heroism exists not only in the past but in the present.
With Jules Paivio, I too look forward to the future.