Lessons for Syria—from the Spanish Civil War

Thoughts on Adam Hochschild’s outstanding new book, in advance of his visit to Toronto

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Cover of Spain in our HeartsPEN Canada

In 1936, two months after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, communist politician Dolores Ibárruri traveled to Paris, where she begged the French to arm Spain’s Republicans against General Franco’s fascists. “It is Spain today,” she said. “But it may be your turn tomorrow.”

And so it was. As US historian Adam Hochschild writes in his outstanding new book, Spain In Our Hearts: Americans In The Spanish Civil War, “Half a dozen years later, the very arena where she spoke, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, would be filled with 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, on their way to Nazi death camps.”

The Spanish Civil War is an obscure subject for many contemporary readers, though it shouldn’t be. In its ideological underpinnings, and in the hideous methods used by the combatants (especially the fascists), it was a miniature dress rehearsal for the Second World War. In the mid-1930s, The New York Times alone published more than 1,000 front-page articles about the conflict. Almost 3,000 Americans went to fight in Spain—about a quarter of whom never came back. For the 1,500 Canadians who formed the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion, the casualty rate was even higher. In a 2001 speech marking the unveiling of an Ottawa monument in the Battalion’s honour, then-Canadian governor general Adrienne Clarkson noted that “except for France, no other country gave as great a proportion of its population as volunteers in Spain than Canada.”

Hochschild—who will appear on stage tomorrow with David Bezmozgis, at a PEN Canada benefit at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors—brings the history of 1930s-era Spain alive through the lives of individual fighters. (The word “soldier” isn’t the right word to describe the highly motivated, but poorly trained amateurs who formed the bulk of the International Brigades.) This was an extraordinary time for Spain, because, as the author notes, the impoverished, backward, agrarian nation was simultaneously experiencing “both a right-wing military coup and a left-wing social revolution.” And so while Republican fighters were manning the front lines against Franco, their non-combatant comrades were forming workers’ committees, hatching plans to rid the country of money, tearing the plush seats out of first-class trains so that everyone could ride together on third-class benches, and debating with anarchists about whether government would follow the path of Marx—or dissolve altogether.

But behind the façade of worker solidarity lay the sinister hand of Soviet-backed secret police, who ruthlessly exterminated anyone in the Republican ranks suspected of Trotskyist sympathies (including, eventually, the POUM activists whom George Orwell joined, as described in his 1938 masterpiece Homage to Catalonia). In an interview with me last week, Hochschild argued that the main reason the Republicans lost was because Western democracies failed to provide them with modern armaments. But he notes that cutthroat infighting among leftists made a bad situation worse. All in all, about a quarter million men, women and children were executed during the Spanish civil war. About 50,000 of these deaths occurred in areas under Republican control.

This is Hochschild’s eighth book. And at age seventy-three, he writes from a distinct vantage point. “For more than half a century now, many members of my own political generation have been strongly opposed to war, and especially to American intervention in the civil wars or internal affairs of other countries, whether in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, or almost anywhere else,” he writes. “Yes most of us have long thought the world would have been better off if our government had not stood aside from the Civil War.”

This passage presents a fascinating what-if: The Spanish Civil War was an early crucible of fascist military and political mobilization. Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany both poured in propaganda and weaponry. Franco’s final victory, months before the Nazi invasion of Poland, cast fascism as the way of the future. Yet British, French, and American politicians and corporate leaders at the time were more suspicious of Spain’s militant labour movement than of Berlin’s goose-steppers. Certainly, our own prime minister, W. L. Mackenzie King, was positively besotted by Hitler, writing in his diary that the Führer “will rank some day with Joan of Arc among the deliverers of his people.” One is reminded of Donald Trump’s views on Vladimir Putin, whose warplanes have been helping Bashar Assad exterminate the residents of Aleppo.

Indeed, much of Hochschild’s narrative reminded me of the Syrian bloodbath. Like the Islamists of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, Franco was a sadistic, anti-Semitic bigot, who sought to turn back history to what he imagined was a more glorious age. His desire to “cleanse” Spain of human pollutants was motivated by bizarre conspiracy theories involving Freemasons, and he explicitly instructed his soldiers to unleash terror on innocent people. The hideous acts of slaughter and mass rape unleased against pregnant women and children were just as bad as the Youtubed acts of murder committed by today’s jihadis. At the very least, the most horrible scenes in Spain In Our Hearts remind us that Muslims have no monopoly on senseless violence.

Yet there is some silver lining here. For Spain now—just eighty years after the events described in this book—is as civilized, peaceful and humane a place as one may find anywhere in Europe. Seen in this way, Hochschild’s book does not just give us a beautifully written of an important military conflict. It also provides hope that great historical traumas do pass, and that the nations now seen as bywords for human savagery may one day beat their swords into plowshares.

Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.

Arts & Culture

Gord Downie's Path to Reconciliation

The troubadour of white Canada has made coming to terms with our past his final mission

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Jeff Lemire / CBC
Illustration by Jeff Lemire / Courtesy of CBC Chanie Wenjack walks along railroad tracks in The Secret Path.

The Tragically Hip’s final concert this past August felt like a valedictory to a country that they understood better than anyone. Millions of fans watched as the Hip played us through touchstones of Canadian history and identity—the FLQ crisis (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”), the disappearance and death of the Maple Leafs’ Bill Barilko (“Fifty Mission Cap”), the boundary between eastern and western Canada (“The Hundredth Meridian”).

Yet while a full one-third of the country tuned in to watch, a sizeable portion of others felt disconnected from the predominately white and rural Canada that the Hip’s front man, Gord Downie, has written and sung about for decades. Among them were at least a few Indigenous people who, despite being the country’s prior residents, didn’t figure into its folkloric past.

Downie’s latest—and perhaps last—solo project aims to change that. Entitled Secret Path, it tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year-old-boy who ran away from residential school in Northern Ontario and died on his journey home. Originally conceived as ten poems, it has since expanded into an album, a graphic novel, and a one-hour CBC special that will air this Sunday—the fiftieth anniversary of Wenjack’s death.

The timing is not incidental: as his brain cancer progresses, Downie has embraced reconciliation as his end-of-life’s mission, tackling it with an urgency and energy that has largely been absent among Canada’s public figures, and using his increased cultural capital to raise awareness. But what does it mean that the troubadour of white Canada has taken it upon himself to embody the spirit of reconciliation?

To the extent that Downie has shaped white Canada’s perception of itself through his music, he is also the best ambassador to deliver hard truths to them.

Without considering Secret Path’s merits as an artistic project, there is something jarring about a group of white artists—Downie, with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and producer Dave Hamelin, plus graphic novelist Jeff Lemire—telling one of the most heartbreaking stories of the residential school era. Part of this is precedent: There is a long history of Indigenous people having their history and culture explained back to them, refracted through the lens of white settlers. If this story were not handled carefully, it would be easy to depict the Canadian Indigenous experience as one of perennial victimhood, at least as pernicious and dehumanizing a stereotype as that of the “savage.” Even sensitive portrayals of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis have become something of a brass ring among white journalists and artists, a rung on the ladder to mainstream credibility after which these communities can be ignored once more.

Secret Path isn’t like that. The respect and earnestness comes across in the art, but also in the documentary footage bookending the special. “This is what I want to do,” Downie explains at the beginning, as they fly into Ogoki Post to meet Chanie Wenjack’s family. “Nothing else really matters to me.” Watching him cry later at Chanie’s grave, his face and body sunken from illness, it’s hard not to believe him. The music of Secret Path is haunting; Downie’s voice is alternately vulnerable and vengeful as he narrates Chanie’s long walk down the railroad tracks, set over a mix of acoustic guitar and electronics and complemented by Lemire’s bleak pictures of stripped trees and the indignities of residential school life. It’s an affecting, sensitive treatment—Secret Path’s reception among Indigenous people and commentators has been almost universally positive.

Yet there is still a question as to why Gord Downie has become the person through which this history is mediated. There are a number of Indigenous artists who have addressed the legacy of residential schools and reconciliation, from Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen to Agnes Grant’s Finding My Talk. Just this week, Inuk musician Tanya Tagak released Retribution, a visceral album that rages against the exploitation of women, Indigenous people, and the land. Comparatively, Secret Path feels like a gentle history lesson. So why is it that Downie’s narrative is getting the most attention?

The fact is white people tend to listen to white people. But to the extent that Downie has shaped white Canada’s perception of itself through his music, he is also the best ambassador to deliver hard truths to them. If everyone in our country were as committed to the project of reconciliation as Downie clearly is, Secret Path would simply be a raw, moving piece of art. As it stands, it feels like something invested with a much grander purpose. More than a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report recommending that Canada address its foundational sin, the process feels as though it has stalled, and the Trudeau government’s words and promises have not necessarily resulted in change—a bitterly familiar experience for many Indigenous people. But politicians are ultimately responsible to the electorate, and perhaps they sense that, for many Canadians, reconciliation is a platitude rather than an imperative.

With his hats and southern Ontario bona fides, Downie is an incongruous choice to bring together white and Indigenous Canada—but right now, he’s doing the work that many of us are unwilling or unable to do. And if he can change Canada’s perception of itself with this project the same way he has mythologized the more familiar elements of its settler past, we may be more willing to confront both our history and its ongoing effects. Near the end of the CBC special, Chanie Wenjack’s sister, Pearl, talks to the camera as she looks out over the woods. She’s trying to come to terms with the fact that, after decades of neglect, her brother’s story is getting a national audience. “[Gord] is the right person to tell the story,” she says, “because the Creator chose him. We didn’t. I didn’t. I’m glad it was Gord.”

Alexander Tesar is the assistant editor of The Walrus.


What Canada Post Needs To Do To Survive

The two-hundred-year-old corporation has become a critical component of Canada’s digital economy

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When faced with the threat of a postal strike this summer, many Canadians asked themselves, who cares? The answer: 1.16 million small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in Canada who rely on Canada Post as an essential part of doing business. That’s why, as the federal government undertakes its review of the crown corporation, it needs to recognize the critical role Canada Post plays in supporting SMBs, e-commerce and innovation in Canada.

The argument that Canada’s postal system is a key enabler of innovation may cause some to scratch their heads. But, by ensuring that Canadian businesses can get their goods to market, whether across the country or around the world, Canada Post has facilitated the growth of e-commerce in Canada. A two-hundred-year-old corporation has become a critical component of Canada’s digital economy.

In fact, for Canadian SMBs, Canada Post fulfills the promise of international ecommerce by offering relatively cost-effective access to the world—essentially becoming a twenty-first-century trading route. And this SMB trade is meaningful: Canadian commercial sellers on eBay export at a rate of 99.9 percent and reach nearly twenty markets on average every year—results far better than those of traditional SMBs. More importantly, the trade enabled by Canada Post (which has more than 90 percent share of Canadian eBay transactions) drives more than half of these companies’ sales. Meaning that it allows them not only to reach beyond their local markets, but to reap the benefits of diversification and growth. These micro-multinationals demonstrate the potential of innovation and trade while underscoring the need for reliable e-commerce infrastructure like Canada Post.

This summer, the ongoing uncertainty from the threat of a postal strike had a considerable effect on Canadian SMBs. Though a work stoppage never materialized, Canadian businesses of all sizes had no choice but to adapt their businesses and make alternative shipping arrangements. The result was clear: On July 8, Canada Post announced that its parcel volume had declined by more than 80 percent.

While major ecommerce players were able to negotiate favourable rates with private couriers, SMBs were not so fortunate. While managing already tight margins, these companies demonstrated resilience by creating patchwork solutions. For example, one eBay commercial seller reported that they were using “local pickups for local sales, couriers for domestic, and daytrips south to use USPS for international sales.” While a testament to their entrepreneurial spirit, these alternatives were a drain on productivity and competitiveness.

As a marketplace that enables small businesses to reach consumers across the country and around the world, eBay Canada took a number of steps to draw attention to the impact of the service uncertainty on e-commerce SMBs. This included open letters to Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) leadership. And, in August, as SMBs struggled to deal with the second round of postal strike ‘will they, won’t they’, a letter drafted by eBay to the Prime Minister, calling for a return to consistent postal services, garnered more than 2,000 seller signatures in twenty-four hours. Thankfully, later that week, an agreement was met between Canada Post and CUPW. That said, its two-year term means that SMBs and other stakeholders could be facing a repeat of this summer very soon.

Clearly, Canada Post must evolve: The corporation’s business model reflects a nineteenth-century strategy in a twenty-first-century reality. The crown corporation is saddled with a costly operating structure that prevents it from fully capitalizing on macro trends, like e-commerce. In this context, it’s encouraging to see the Government of Canada undertaking an extensive independent review of the corporation with a dedicated task force.

As part of Phase 1 of the review, a discussion paper was released that outlined Canada Post’s financial situation, the needs of Canadians and potential viable options. As a particular bright spot for the corporation, the report revealed that, thanks to e-commerce, Canada Post’s parcel business has grown considerably and presents opportunities for further significant growth for the corporation. However, key challenges weighing on the corporation include the unsustainability of their cost structure, and their inability to reallocate resources to more-productive areas of the business. Suffice it to say, the challenges are significant.

eBay Canada participated in the Task Force hearings for Phase 1 of the review, to provide insights into the challenges and opportunities around Canada Post’s role in e-commerce and in supporting Canadian SMBs. We feel strongly that a modern, effective postal system is a critical enabler to successful adoption of e-commerce among SMBs, and of their resulting innovation and productivity gains.

Looking ahead, eBay Canada proposes that Canada Post make a number of changes to align the corporation with the realities of modern day and capitalize on the wealth of opportunity surrounding e-commerce. Broadly speaking, Canada Post should maintain focus on core services and areas of growth, particularly parcel shipments, while avoiding distractions like new lines of business, including banking and community centre services. More specifically, Canada Post should focus on additional services designed for e-commerce, such as “slower” service options with affordable tracking and aggressive rate tiering, along with marketing efforts that target SMBs. Cost reductions on parcel handling as a result of infrastructure (such as franchising some corporate offices) and other changes would also make Canada Post more competitive in the parcel market.

In addition, eBay Canada recommends increasing Canada’s de minimis threshold—the value of goods that can be shipped into the country before duty is assessed. Canada’s de minimis threshold of $20 is greatly out of step with peer countries. In fact, extrapolating from eBay data, we estimate that tens of millions of items purchased by Canadians are shipped to foreign addresses every year out of a desire to avoid duties and taxes resulting from Canada’s low de minimis. Raising the threshold would be revenue positive to government, level the international playing field for Canadian SMBs, and encourage additional parcel volume through the growth of e-commerce.

Canada Post is at a crossroads; the corporation is facing as many challenges as opportunities. As the government continues its review and decides on a path forward, they can’t overlook the direct link between our postal system and the success of Canadian SMBs. Innovation continues to be a top initiative for our country, but without a solid foundational infrastructure—including a modern, efficient postal system—efforts to drive technology adoption amoung SMBs will be severely challenged.

Andrea Stairs is the managing director of eBay Canada.