Images: Credit to the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia
Screenshots and Apology
Stamp Image – Credit: © Canada Post Corporation
NB: Language alert: quoted terms reflect those used at the time.
By Erica Phillips, BA, MA
Black men and women supported Canada’s war efforts despite the discrimination they faced trying to participate, and while serving.
This past summer Prime Minister Hon. Justin Trudeau apologized for the racism endured by Black soldiers in the First World War.
Organizers could not have chosen a better day for such a monumental event: a national apology to the descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s segregated Black Battalion.
“For the blatant anti-Black hate and systemic racism that denied these men dignity in life and in death, we are sorry. Only when the truths of the past are acknowledged can we begin to dress the wounds they created and build a better, more inclusive Canada for all,” said Trudeau on July 9, 2022 in Truro, Nova Scotia.
An apology that was more than 100 years in the making was finally delivered, fittingly on the same grounds where the No. 2 trained. Clear blue skies, sunshine, and mild temperatures provided the ideal setting for the hundreds of people who gathered at the Truro Amateur Athletics Club (TACC) for the three-hour ceremony. The event, hosted by the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS) in conjunction with the Department of National Defence, was live-streamed and the video is still available. The prime minister’s remarks start at 2:44:23.
Members of Canada’s Black population, which dates back centuries, wanted to serve in the military, but racist beliefs and actions denied Black Canadians that opportunity even though were fit.
Several memos and letters were sent from 1914 to 1920 between the federal—and within—government and Black citizens about Black participation in the First World War. The documents are in the Public Archives of Canada and many of them are cited in the book The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret by Calvin Ruck. Black Canadians were determined to join the war effort.
In a 1915 letter to the Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Samuel Hughes, George Martin of Hamilton wrote, “humble and loyal subjects of the King…are most anxious to serve their King and Country.”
A few black men did enlist but the majority were rejected until the No.2 Construction Battalion CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) was established. There was no official policy denying Black men the opportunity to fight; it was up to local commanding and recruiting officers to decide who to accept. Those in charge deemed Black men not fit to serve and argued that White soldiers would not want to be near them. As Trudeau, points out in the apology, Blacks were told “this is a white man’s war.”
Major General W.G. Gwatkin, who opposed a Black regiment proposed the formation of a Black labour battalion. “Would Canadian Negroes make good fighting men? I do not think so,” Gwatkin said.
In a “Memorandum on the enlistment of Negroes in Canadian Expeditionary Force” Gwatkin, the chief of the general staff wrote, “Nothing is to be gained by blinking facts. The civilized negro is vain and imitative; in Canada, he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty; in the trenches, he is not likely to make a good fighter; and the average white man will not associate with him on terms of equality.” The memo was dated April 13, 1916.
The Department of Defence and Militia allowed the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion on July 5, 1916. The segregated unit was based in Pictou and Truro Nova Scotia. It arrived in England in April 1917; it had to sail to Europe on a separate ship. Members served mainly with the Canadian Forestry Corps. While in France’s Jura region, the Battalion performed auxiliary tasks, which included supplying lumber for the front.
Descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, including Anthony Sherwood, the event’s emcee, waited, watched, stood, and some probably even shed a tear when Trudeau said those three words “we are sorry” and so much more. His apology acknowledged the involvements, hardships, and history of the No. 2.
“While the contributions of No. 2 Construction Battalion members to the war effort were invaluable – they cut the lumber that was used in the trenches, railways, and even aircraft – they faced systemic anti-Black racism throughout the war.”
Members of the No.2 received poor medical care, and food: 23 members died overseas. “I’m here to today to offer the official apology for the appalling way these men were treated. We cannot, we will not allow what happened to No. 2 happen again,” Trudeau added.
During the ceremony, Senator Dr. Wanda Thomas-Bernard of Nova Scotia said, “Our ancestors were survivors and had to fight their country to fight for their country.” This sentiment is often repeated by those who write about the No.2.
A non-combat unit, Black men from across Canada, parts of the U.S., and the Caribbean enlisted in the segregated battalion. Two of those soldiers, Arthur Nelson Ware and William James Ware, were sons of the cowboy John Ware.
Despite being from Nova Scotia and a student of history, The Hon. Anita Anand, Minister of National Defence only learned about the Battalion when she became took on that role.
“The members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion were discriminated against before, during and after their service in the Great War. We are deeply sorry to all of the Battalion’s descendants and to the members of the Battalion who are no longer with us today. I hope that today’s apology will help recognize every Black Canadian who bravely served this country in times of war, and in the pursuit of peace,” said Anand.
Trudeau and Anand signed the apology during the ceremony, which was the culmination of several days of commemorative events. The descendants received a copy of the apology.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was disbanded in 1920.
Other honours for the No.2 include renaming the grounds Truro Amateur Athletics Club, and a plaque. The Royal Canadian Mint will issue a pure silver coin in February 2023 to celebrate the No. 2. In addition, the Battalion also received the Theatre of War Honour “France and Flanders.”
On July 9, 2022, the No. 2 Construction Battalion-Canadian Expeditionary Force finally received the heroes’ welcome it deserved.
Lest we forget.
- The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret by Calvin Ruck
- For My Country – Black Canadians on the Field of Honour by Dennis McLaughlin and Leslie McLaughlin
- The Blacks in Canada: A History by Robin W. Winks
- Honor Before Glory (Film) by Anthony Sherwood