Interview with the ATO Spartan Nelson Mahmoudi & Flying the Intl' Brigades Flag at TD Place

To commemorate Remembrance Day, Capital City Supporters Club conducted an interview with member Nelson Mahmoudi to get to know him, discover the reason behind why he waves the flag of the International Brigades at Atletico Ottawa home matches, and the tragic story of a Canadian regiment who fought in the Spanish Civil War, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, or “Macpaps”.

So, for those who don’t know who you are, tell me about yourself and how long you’ve been a football fan?

My dad started paying football when he was a kid in Iran and it culminated when he played for Real Madrid’s second team when he lived in Spain for a few years. So, soccer has always been a huge part of his life. When he came to Canada, that continued and thus when I was born, he sort of forced soccer upon me (laughs). Given that, it was a welcome addition into my life. My first time playing soccer was in 2005 starting when I was four years old.

What position?

It was seven-a-side Timbits soccer, you know, kick a ball and every kid follows it (laughs). Eventually, one of them puts it in the back of the net. But I tend to go for either sweeper or striker. I know its two extremely different roles, but when I do play, I tend to do that because I like getting goals. But I also like being able to help push up and maintain pressure and make sure it doesn’t go too far into our side of the pitch. But yeah, soccer for as long as I remember, my major fandom was Liverpool FC. When I was ten years old, the father of a friend of mine from my competitive swim team bought my dad a Liverpool jersey and I adopted that. I then when to the Liverpool FC vs Toronto FC friendly match at the Rogers Centre in 2011 or 2012 and that’s when I adopted them as my English Premier League team.

Who did you see at that friendly?

I know that they were playing their second-string, like their second team.

So, you didn’t see Gerrard?

It was that era, but they didn’t play any of their big stars sadly, but it was such a fun game. I think the score was 3-1 Liverpool. And the crowd, my goodness, they packed that stadium. It was at the Rogers Centre, so there were about 40,000 people. They packed that stadium! I was able to sneak, because I was eleven years old, right behind the Liverpool bench and just cheered with all of the other supporters. It was a great time! That’s a brief recap of my soccer history during the first twelve years of my life (laughs).

Nelson waving his now familiar International Brigades Flag outside of TD Place

For those that haven’t seen the flag that you wave in the TD Place stands during Atletico Ottawa home matches, can you explain what it’s all about?

So as a history major, particularly one who loves the pre-Cold War/Cold War era, I found out about the International Brigades, a collection of approximately 55,000 volunteers from around the world who went to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Amongst those were approximately 1500 to 1800 Canadians, depending on the records. As someone who despises fascism and is a huge history major, I started researching them and going really in depth into their histories and personal lives of the volunteers. So, when Atletico Ottawa finally announced that they were finally coming to TD Place and play home matches, I thought to myself that this was a perfect time to combine my soccer and history fandom and interest's and fly the International Brigades flag. Atletico Ottawa is the Canadian branch of a Spanish team, one that has been particularly socialist in what they do, why not bring those together? And so, flying the International Brigades flag, the three-pointed star of the Popular Front on the red, yellow and purple I think is a great way to introduce new people to history that is often forgotten.

Photo via the University of Victoria’s Mackenzie-Papineau website.

Yeah, because if I did my research correctly, the particular Canadian regiment that fought in the Spanish Resistance was called the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, right?

Yes, it was named after the leaders of the rebellion in 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau. The battalion channeled Canadians from across the country. If you look at the existing records, much of which was accumulated by the Canadian Communist Party as well as Michael Petrou, a researcher at the University of Ottawa, they found out that it was so spread out. Obviously, there are pockets of industrial centres. Hamilton has a bunch of people who joined the regiment. In Sudbury, there was a large collection of volunteers. But no one area dominates much more than the others. In fact, there were quite a few from Ottawa. There are a few graves in the city that are of Macpap fighters. It was a huge effort across the country that was mostly led by Comintern, or Communist International, but also through union leaders at the time.

Pamphlet regarding the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, Canadian volunteers who joined in the fight against Fascism in Spain. Canada, 1930s

Or just maybe people who saw the writing on the wall and couldn’t not fight fascism and have a moral compass basically?

Absolutely! Fascism was on the rise. At that point in time, 1937, Italy had already turned fascist after the march on Rome. Kristallnacht had already happened as well and the seizure of the Reichstag by Hitler’s Nazi party. And so, you would see this wave of fascism entering Europe that was mostly being ignored by the major powers as a method of appeasement in order to avoid another major war. There’s a great documentary on the National Film Board website called “Los Canadienses” if I remember correctly and it’s only about the Macpaps. The documentary was filmed in the early 2000s when there were still a few dozen Macpaps still alive. And one of those who were interviewed said “it was the Great Depression. I had nothing else going for me. I was working a minimum-wage job for pennies a day. So why not have an adventure in Spain?” It combined so many different driving forces, but ultimately it united them under this push against Franco’s nationalist coup d’état.

So, with all the research that you’ve done on this, what was the Canadian government’s reaction to people joining the Spanish Resistance abroad?

Well Canada tended to fall under the British foreign policy. At that time, it was non-interventionist. William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government introduced the Foreign Enlistment Act in 1936, which essentially banned and outlawed any Canadians wishing to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Thus, that forced Macpap operations underground through various channels. In the book “Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War” by Michael Petrou, he details a story of how the Canadian Communist Party told the Macpaps to say that they were going on vacation in the Pyrenees, or that they were going on vacation in the French Alps just to see them, then be snuck across the border by French partisans. There was a huge movement, despite the French government signing onto the 1936 Non-Intervention Agreement. There was large support from the French electorate for the Spanish republic.

Well, they even had their own resistance movement under Charles de Gaulle.

Oh yeah, when the Nazis invaded, it created a divide between Vichy and Free France. The Spanish Maquis, who were the Republican fighters under Franco’s win, would aid the French Resistance, but that’s a few years down the road during WWII. But yeah, there was a large, intricate collaboration and cooperation between the French electorate and the Spanish Republic just because they had similar goals of democracy, freedom and socialism. So, when the Canadian government outlawed it, while public opinion in Canada remained relatively in favour of helping Spain, the government’s opinion was that of a pre-Red Scare. To the Canadian government, they (the Macpaps) were all Communists, they were anti-patriotic and they were attempting to undermine our country by helping Communism rise around the world. That was a particular sentiment in Montreal with the mayor of Montreal at the time, Camillien Houde, who would use his powers as mayor to ensure that returning Macpaps had as hard of a time as they could in fundraising, seeking medical care and bringing home their fellow fighters.