Mystery of the Winnipeg

French-built freighter rescued refugees from Spanish Civil War


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It's an internationally famous Winnipeg story, yet it's virtually unknown here.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/07/2010 (4600 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s an internationally famous Winnipeg story, yet it’s virtually unknown here.

But that’s only part of the mystery.

As it happened, I chanced upon this strange story in a suitably strange way.

It was a Saturday night last month and a buddy and I had gone out for dinner at Hermanos, the new South American restaurant in the Exchange District.

As we were leaving, I noticed a series of black and white photos — and a page-long story — laminated to the bar top.

It looked like a shrine, of sorts.

One of the photos was of the late Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.

Another featured a postcard-style picture of an early 20th-century freighter and the word “Winnipeg” hovering over an artist’s version of an ocean.

As it turned out, the mystery isn’t so much what Pablo Neruda had to do with the accompanying one-page story because that piece of paper clearly records his involvement.

The mystery is this:

Why would a French-built freighter — that in 1939 sailed into European and South American history — be named after a city in the middle of North America?

And why hasn’t that connection become part of our own history?

— — —

Noel Bernier, the man who created the bar-top shrine, chanced upon the strange story rather strangely, himself.

Bernier is one of the partners in Hermanos and one day, as he was doing some research for the restaurant, he happened to Google the words “Chile Winnipeg.” And up popped a story deserving of a movie.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of refugees fleeing the fascist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco ended up in France, interned in squalid concentration camps.

Neruda was in France as Chile’s special counsel for immigration, and in August of 1939 he arranged for the Winnipeg to transport more than 2,300 to Chile.

The then-35-year-old Neruda called it the noblest mission he had ever undertaken.

“The critics may erase all my poetry, if they want,” he wrote on the night the Winnipeg left the port of Trompeloup. “But this poem, that today I remember, nobody will be able to erase.”

In a BBC radio program late last year, Neruda was portrayed less heroically.

The Winnipeg - wwII war ship in Chile - guy in pic is Noel Bernier, owner of Hermanos for gord sinclair story winnipeg free press june 2010

“But it has been alleged,” the BBC website states, “that Neruda was a kind of reverse Schindler, with a list of people who were not going to get on the Winnipeg.

“As a diplomat, he had access to passports and it is said he made sure these went only to those of his particular left-wing Stalinist beliefs. According to Neruda’s critics, the anarchists and more moderate socialists were rejected and were therefore interned in France. Many were executed soon after when the Nazis moved in.”

On Sept. 3, 1939 — the day Britain declared war on Germany — the Winnipeg and its precious cargo arrived in Valparaiso, Chile. The passenger list, which included children and the elderly, represented a wide range of Spanish society, from physicians and mechanics to intellectuals and bakers, and they came to enrich Chile, culturally, politically and in other more everyday ways.

Chilean-born Winnipegger Francisco Valenzuela recalls hearing about the voyage of the Winnipeg as a boy.

In July 1975, when Valenzuela was 44, he arrived in Toronto as a refugee from the political prisons of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who two years earlier had led a CIA-backed coup in Chile. Valenzuela expected he would be staying in Toronto. Instead, they told him he would going on to Winnipeg.

“I made the association,” Valenzuela said.

“I knew Winnipeg as the name of the boat that rescued the Spanish. That’s the only thing I knew about Winnipeg.”

Chile and Spain would never forget the voyage of the Winnipeg.

And last year, Jaime Ferrer Mir, the son of one of the Spanish Civil War exiles and the author of a book about the event called The Spanish of Winnipeg, returned to Spain for the 70th anniversary of the odyssey.

In a subsequent blog, the Chilean professor reported on the unveiling of a 10-metre-long commemorative monument that features Neruda leading a line of nine human figures representing the passengers who boarded the freighter.

The last of the nine is shown turned, looking back, taking a last look at his homeland.

And on the ground is a trail of muddy footprints and the names of the 2,336 men, women, children and elderly who made Winnipeg famous for its humanitarian effort without us even knowing it.

— — —

So why was the ship called the Winnipeg?

Given the boat was reportedly of French origin, Bernier speculated it might have been named after a deed of valour by Winnipeg soldiers during the First World War.

I thought maybe it was the same boat, or at least the same First World War-seconded freighter that ferried the French-sculpted Golden Boy all over the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, using it as ballast, before it finally made it to the top of the Manitoba Legislative Building in 1920.

But then I found a reference in Mir’s blog to the Winnipeg being owned by Compagnie France-Navigation, which had a fleet of communist-operated boats that supplied the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.

The Winnipeg freighter ship in chile - for gord sinclair story winnipeg free press

That’s it, I thought.

The boat was named after the communist-inspired and world-famous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

But none of those three answers is likely.

Not after what I found online about its history, which, while contradictory at times, does offer a beginning and end of the Winnipeg’s story.

It was built in France and launched in 1918, but it was for the Canadian Pacific Steamships Ltd. of Montreal, which named it the Jacques Cartier.

More than a decade later, the Jacques Cartier was renamed the Winnipeg.

And by 1941, just two years after its humanitarian heroics, it was sailing for the Nazi-puppet Vichy French when it was captured and eventually renamed again.

This time it was called Winnipeg II.

Then, on Oct. 22, torpedoes from U-boat 443 sank the Winnipeg in the mid-Atlantic.

In an end befitting its life, the captain, 113 crew members, 10 gunners and 68 passengers were rescued. By HMCS Morden, if you please.

We may never know precisely why the freighter was called the Winnipeg. But there is no mystery why it was given another name for its time in service to humanity.

“The Ship of Hope.”

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