Spirit of the Republic statue
By Danda Humphreys
Now that summer’s just a distant memory and there are fewer horse-and-carriage rigs at the Inner Harbour end of Menzies Street, you can see the gorgeous goddess who stands, arms raised, in the shadows at the side of the road. She is the Spirit of the Republic—a reminder of the brave men and women who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Many people have never heard of this war, even though it took place during the lead-up to that other terrible conflict in Europe. Yet between 1936 and 1939 almost 1600 Canadians—including 400 from BC—served in Spain, and 600 died on its barren battlegrounds. In fact the Spanish Civil War was a wake-up call that went unheeded by the governments of the day. Had they paid more attention, the Second World War might have run a very different course.
Since the early 1800s, Spain had been plagued by power struggles that paralyzed it politically, and gradually reduced its grandness to the point where it became one of Europe’s most impoverished nations. In early 1936, a social democratic government ousted the right-wing government elected three years earlier, and sent some of the right-wing generals it considered most dangerous out of the country. But in the summer of 1936, those generals united to attempt a coup.
General Francisco Franco, who was stationed in the Canary Islands, took the reigns of the Nationalist side. With the help of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, he flew Spanish troops and Moorish levies from Morocco back to Spain, then marched on Madrid to rout the Republican government.
Men and women from 53 countries volunteered to fight Franco. Unlike their governments back home, these volunteers recognized the growing threat of fascism in Europe. The Canadians fought with the International Brigades, under the banner of Le Bataillon Mackenzie-Papineau, named after the leaders of the 1837 rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada.
Canada was one of many nations that did not officially involve itself in the Spanish Civil War. In fact, in 1937 the Liberal government of the day passed a Foreign Enlistment Act that made it illegal for Canadians to volunteer. Meanwhile, in Spain almost one million people were being killed. Soldiers who died for democracy were left where they lay, or buried in mass graves. In early 1939, Franco’s forces seized control of Spain. Less than six months later, the Second World War erupted, and the brave soldiers who had survived the Spanish war found themselves fighting the fascists again.
In early 2000, an eight-foot-high bronze statue created by celebrated BC sculptor Jack Harman became the latest work to grace the parliamentary precinct. Fashioned after the depiction of a woman being defended by two soldiers in a 1930s International Brigades poster, she stands—largely unnoticed—at the edge of Confederation Plaza. Chiselled-cheekboned face tilted toward the sun, lips curved in a gentle smile, she holds up the laurel wreath of the Spanish republic and a spread-winged dove of peace.
Most of the soldiers who fought in the Spanish Civil War had died by the time a memorial to the “Mac Paps” was finally unveiled in Ottawa. But here in Victoria, the Spirit of the Republic honours them, and reminds us of the brave Canadians who fought in a war against fascism half a world away.
Danda Humphreys loves exploring the nooks and crannies of Victoria for interesting reminders of days gone by. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the November 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.