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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.

Nelson's Flag at monument of the MacKenzie-Papineau regiment that's here in Ottawa.

Did The Macpaps receive any pensions?


Because of the Foreign Enlistment Act, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion were never deemed as soldiers or veterans under the Canadian Department of National Defense. Thus, no one who fought under the Macpaps has the right to a pension because they were not soldiers. They weren’t volunteers. They were outlaws under the Canadian government and are to this day, despite it being nine years since the last Macpap died. There are no longer any surviving members, only their relatives. Yet the government still refuses to recognize any of their contributions to their fight against fascism in Europe. Many of them actually, when they returned home after the Spanish Civil War, attempted to fight with the Canadian Armed Forces in Nazi Germany in the Western Front of WWII. However, many of them were denied because they were seen as Communists who were trying to undermine the Canadian war effort. At the time, fighting in the Macpaps was seen as something wrong with you. As a fighter, if you were turned away from the Canadian Armed Forces, there was something wrong with you in terms of the perception of the public. While some were able to continue the anti-fascist fight in Europe, many were turned away at the door.

What do you mean “turned away at the door”? Were they not allowed to return back to Canada?

No. They weren’t allowed to join the Canadian Armed Forces. There were a few documented cases of them returning to Europe to fight in foreign battalions of European powers. But those are minimal in the grand scheme of things. I think only a few dozen did that.

It’s amazing how those who fought against fascism were deemed “too radical” and were therefore erased from history. Look at particularly the women who fought in those resistance movements, like Mona Parsons who fought in the Dutch Resistance who was from Nova Scotia, or Nancy Wake from Australia. The only ones that people really seem to know about is Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement. But that’s really it.

That’s the thing. In Spain, and in Greece later on in WWII, the women were given quite strong roles within these resistance movements. They were seen as equals in liberation movements. In the 2nd Spanish Republic, women were given the right to vote and essentially achieved a level of equality that wasn’t much replicated much across the world at that time and were seen as equal to their fellow male revolutionaries. Now as the war progressed, that role would be scaled further back after Franco’s victory. However, for that period of time during the Spanish Civil War, women found a sense of liberation and a sense of equality through fighting.

I understand that there is a group of people who are fighting to keep the memory of the Macpaps alive. Can you tell me a bit about them?

So, there is the Veterans and Friends of the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion, which has now been reformulated and reconstructed into the Mackenzie-Papineau Memorial Fund. I befriended the president of the charity whose father was actually the last living Macpap. However, I in no way represent the fund or any of the defendants of the Macpaps. I’m just an historian in training. Anyway, they restructured themselves into this body to maintain the history and maintain the memory of the 1,600 Canadians. They do a lot of charity work, have bursaries and scholarships for those wishing to study the Macpaps in their masters or post-grad studies. They also host events, including one that is in the works for next year for the 20th anniversary of the statue on Green Island here in Ottawa. That’s planned for late September or early October of 2022, although it will be the 21st anniversary due to COVID-19. They weren’t able to gather this year, but next year, they’re honouring the 20th anniversary.

Nelson with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson at the Atlético Ottawa 2021 Home Opener

So just to connect this to Atletico again, I know some people have seen your flag. Can you tell me the reactions of the fans who have seen your flag and asked about it?

Ninety percent have been curious. They don’t know what this is and I think it’s a real shame because it’s a point of history, in particular Canadian history, that I’m proud of and that more Canadians should be proud of. However, many of them come up to me and ask “excuse me, what’s this flag you’re flying? Why do you fly this flag and not some custom Atletico Ottawa flag that you got made?” To that, I would say a) custom Atletico Ottawa flags are expensive (laughs). But also, I explain to them a brief history of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and why I think that connects because of that. We’re a Canadian arm of a Spanish club. But there have been a few cases of Spaniards who have come up to me and say that their father, or their grandfather or their grandmother fought alongside the Republic. One lady said that her grandfather fought in the Battle of the Ebro, which was one of the most decisive battles of the war. She said, “I’m so happy to see the International Brigades flag flying here because so many people don’t know about it and it would make my grandfather happy to see this.” So many people have come up to me over the course of the season. Only a handful knew what the flag was. But I have received nothing but curiosity and love for the showing of support for the Macpaps and the International Brigades at large.

Have any of the Atletico Ottawa players come up to you about it, particularly the Spanish-speaking players?

When it comes to the players, I would say that their reaction mirrors that of the fans and represents a hole in how we teach our kids in history classes. At the Atleti Year Ender event, Chris Mannella came up to me and said “I want to ask you and have been trying all season to figure this out: what flag is that?” and obviously I gladly explained a criminally brief history of the International Brigades. Even the Spanish players including Viti Martinez and Raul Uche asked me what the flag was and they are Spanish.

To me the there's a lack of understading preventing true reconciliation in Spain from their fascist past. In Viti’s case, he was born less than 20 years after the death of Franco yet didn’t know about that part of his nation’s history.

Everyone that has approached me has done so with an air of curiosity and left knowing a bit more of Spain’s past. While I don't expect an official endorsement from the club, all those I interacted with were intrigued, engaged, and grateful for the flag’s history and presence within the grounds at TD Place.

Besides paying respect to people who have been deliberately erased from history, in light of the fact that both Brandon Wright of Atletico Ottawa and Chrisnovic N’sa of York United were subjected to racial abuse, how much is flying the flag also a promise to keep racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination out of the stands here in Ottawa and in the CPL?

The International Brigades stood for much more than anti-fascism. They were a collection of left-wing groups, including socialists, communists, anarchists, moderates, liberals and everything in between because they were a big tent fighting off the right and the far-right in Spain. And so as much as it is about that history, it is also about equality. It is also about community. Acts of hatred still happen in this community. I was reading recently that a woman was charged with a crime by ripping off a woman’s hijab here in Ottawa. So, the flag is showing that if you’re going to be hateful, if you’re going to say slurs, if you’re going to disrespect someone based on qualities that makes then just who they are, you are not welcome here. Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here! The 2SLGBTQIA+ community is welcome here. At the Canada vs. New Zealand game, I saw you flying the trans flag for Quinn, which I thought was absolutely amazing!

(laughs) I actually managed to hand it to them as well.

That’s awesome! So, it shows support like that. In other CPL stadiums, they fly the Pride flags and I think that’s awesome. It is that showing of bigots are now allowed here, racism isn’t allowed here, homophobia isn’t allowed here. Soccer is an equal space for all and I think the Canada Soccer Association is really attempting to enforce that. It is one of the few things that every human can get behind because it’s the “world’s game”. Besides all of our shared humanity, football is a religion in some countries. With the success of the women’s and men’s national teams, registration has gone through the roof for local soccer programs. When I started flying the International Brigades flag, part of my idea was to sort of begin that culture of what you are more familiar with as a St. Pauli supporter, which is a very community-based, egalitarian supporter culture. I’m not claiming to start a supporter group (laughs). However, that’s the sort of atmosphere I was hoping to establish at Atletico Ottawa matches. I think with what CCSG and the other supporters have begun to create as well as the fans at large who have been showing up, it’s well on its way of becoming a reality.

Nelson posing with his PFA Can Scarf in front of the new Collective Members mural at TD Place

One last question I have actually is that there might be people who are saying “why are you bringing politics into this? Football should be fun.” What would be your response?

Well football is a sport and football is for fun, but it is also inherently political and has been used as a tool for politics for ages, much like cricket was in India and Pakistan. Cricket diplomacy is a huge form of soft power in that area, particularly during the reign of the British colonial empire there. And I would think that soccer, while it is this uniting force that everyone can get behind, we also have to remember that it can be used as a tool. Why not use it as a tool to unite a community? The presence of it in everyday lives around the world means that it always going to be influenced by whatever is happening in said community.

It’s said too that people who say “why bring politics into this? Football should be fun,” also comes from a point of privilege. They say football should be fun, but at this point right now in many different leagues across the world, it’s not fun for everyone. Players who are Black are discriminated against and are subjected to monkey chants.

Well, look at what’s happening with the Mexican fans. They received multiple sanctions from FIFA and their soccer administration because of a homophobic chant that they sing. Several of their games, including two against Canada have had to be paused by the referee because they are singing this chant that is inherently homophobic. Canada in particular is coming to this turning point when it comes to our national sport, which is hockey. We are starting to realize that no, hockey is not a sport that is welcome to everyone because there is such a culture of hate within it. And football should be that escape for marginalized people because, particularly at Atletico Ottawa matches, supporters and the fans at large have created such a loving environment. But there is always something to work on to ensure that it is that much safer for everyone who wants to get involved. Children, elderly, gay, straight, Black, white, no matter who you are, you should be able to feel safe within the stands or on the field for that matter. There is a line in which, if you’re threatening someone or you’re degrading someone, that it has to change and you’re going too far. I think channeling that through the International Brigades flag, the struggle of the Macpaps and the Spanish Republic at large and fighting fascism, it’s a slight continuation of that anti-fascist fight.

Nelson Mahmoudi, 21, is a University of Ottawa student currently in the French Immersion Joint Honours Political Science and History program with a minor in African Studies. For those wishing to know more about the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the documentary “Los Canadienses” is viewable for free on the National Film Board of Canada website. Michael Petrou’s book “Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War” is published by UBC Press.

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