While Blacks in America had it and continue to have it tough, the tale is no different in neighboring Canada.
When the First World War broke in 1914, black Nova Scotians who were willing and able to serve for Canada in the war were told it was a white man’s war and largely turned away. Despite that, two years later, 600 black men formed a segregated unit known as the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
The Black Battalion, as the unit was also called, sailed to England in March 1917 and then France. The men assisted four companies of the Canadian Forestry Corps in logging, milling, and shipping lumber, a critical commodity during the war. They also dug trenches, built railroads, repaired roads, and laid barbed wire for combat operations.
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Despite their crucial service, the men were frequently
subjected to the same prejudices as at home. When the war ended, the battalion
returned to Canada in January 1919 and disbanded in September 1920.
“Despite the entrenched racism and prejudice that they endured, before and throughout their service as members of the Canadian expeditionary force, they never the less loyally served King and country,” said Hon. J.J. Grant, the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia.
“The black community knows about it. It’s our story now to
try and tell the rest of Canada about it,” said Captain (Ret’d) George Borden,
whose grandfather served in the battalion.
According to Globalnews: “The black population of Canada at the time was about twenty thousand, with the majority (seven thousand) in Nova Scotia. On July 5, 1916, over six hundred black men came together at Pictou, Nova Scotia. Because of its large black population, Nova Scotia became the base of the unit. Pictou was also the closest town to the residence of Lieutenant Colonel Donald Sutherland, a prominent railroad contractor, who had volunteered to form the battalion, provided he could do so close to home.
“Comprising about 300 men from Nova Scotia and another 125 from New Brunswick, Ontario, and the Canadian Prairies, 163 from the United States, and approximately 30 from the British West Indies, No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF, was established. The men who comprised about 7 percent of the total black population of Canada became the first and only black unit created in Canada after Confederation in 1867. The battalion’s mission was to support combat troops on the Western Front in Europe and was one of three construction battalions that Canada established during the war.
“Although made up of black enlisted men, the unit’s officers were white, with one notable exception. The battalion chaplain, the Rev. Dr. William A. White, was given the rank of honorary captain, making him the only black officer in the battalion and the Canadian Military during the First World War, and one of only a handful in the entire British Empire,” Blackpast reported.
“The legacy of the No. 2 Construction Battalion may have been lost forever had it not been for the efforts of Canadian Senator Calvin Ruck who in 1983 organized the first reunion and recognition event to honor the surviving members of the unit. Following this in 1986 was the publication of his book, The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret.”
An annual event is now held in Pictou to honor the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion and in 2016, Canada Post unveiled a limited edition stamp in Cherrybrook, N.S. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of black men who were part of the No. 2.
The company said the stamp is a chance to honor the
contributions of Black Canadians.
“This stamp honours men who stepped forward to serve this country in uniform but were denied the opportunity to fight,” said Jim Dunsworth, director of operations for Canada Post.
Craig Smith, president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia, said they were “honouring men who fought to make Canada great.”