To the Editor:
African Canadians have a long and proud history of service in uniform. Even from the period before Canada was even a country to our present day, black Canadians have contributed, sacrificed and made achievements to military and civilian life whilst serving in all the elements of our military forces: Army, Air and Sea. We should not forget their great struggles for acceptance and equality within the military lifestyle was harder to achieve and be recognized for things a regular “white” military man or woman may have experienced.
One must remember The First World War changed not only Europe’s landscape but the world’s as well. Old regimes and empires fell. People’s way of life and thinking also was realigned.
It would be obvious the blacks, especially those of military age, to be caught up in the desire for both adventure and patriotism towards their country and monarchy to want to contribute their services for oversea duties.
Canadians of black descent were initially blocked from the military due to prejudice, racism and ignorance of the white majority. These young men were talked down to, told they were unable to fight and were not wanted or needed to fight in a “white man’s war”.
In hindsight, thank the heavens, these negative stigmas were and are changing. We must remember, black Canadian Loyalists already proved their loyalty to the Crown and Country having served in both combat and in labour roles on the British side during the American Revolution (1775-83). Black soldiers helped defend Upper Canada during the War of 1812 from American raids, many being former slaves within the American Colonies; others came later during the American Civil War to flee racial persecution.
Of note, William Neilson Hall, a black seaman from Horton Bluff, NS, was one of the first Canadians to be awarded the British Empire’s highest award for bravery for his heroic military actions in India — The Victoria Cross.
During World War I, many black men were able, with much protest and demeaning treatment from the white population, to serve in various battalions established throughout Canada — one such battalion being the 106th. As the 106th recruited in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick in 1915, there were huge numbers of protests about black citizens joining it. This and other similar occurrences across Canada led to heightened military and political concerns. This European War was no longer seeming to be a short one with little loss of precious life. The Federal Government finally came to their senses in December 1915 and declared no one can be refused to volunteer their services to Crown and Country based solely on race. Back slipping at the political level was also almost immediate. Government soon realized a separate Black Battalion would best solve the widespread ignorance of the potential white recruits who were now refusing to enlist and serve alongside a black Canadian volunteer.
It makes me shake my head as I reflect on the many black veterans who have gallantly served, and many died in battles throughout Europe, especially Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. Many Canadians only visualize white grandfathers, fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbours serving there. Both these battles helped to mark the making of our national identity and yes, black Canadians served and made the supreme sacrifice there, too.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion, Truro, was one major outcome to the solution towards integrating black men into the services while still realizing prejudice and discrimination was still prominent in society. By July 1916, No. 2 Battalion would be a unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. They would recruit from across Canada, The United States of America and the British West Indies. The military had a tough time to find a commander to take on the leadership of said battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel H. Sutherland of River John, Pictou County, became the first commander of No. 2 Battalion.
Due to the previous humiliation and rejection experiences, coupled with finding out that the No. 2 would be a non-combatment labour battalion (no weapons), the initial number of recruits was slow in accumulation. By February 1917, the numbers were finally met, and the battalion went overseas performing many heroic and hard laborious tasks throughout their service. Although the citizens of Europe saw these gallant men as their saviours and rescuers, the majority of white fellow comrades in arms were still prejudicial and discriminatory against blacks on both the battlefield and on times of leave.
During and after World War Two, including Canada’s role played in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the contributions of the black servicemen and women was highly noted and with many being awarded decorations for their acts of bravery. It is sad to admit it took two World Wars and numerous participations within world conflict zones for the citizens of Canada to realize blacks, especially black veterans, had and have the right as equals in society after all they had done for their country Canada and throughout the world in its time of need in both the various fronts of combat/peace keeping and home support.
As we celebrate Black History Month, I wish to recognize our black fellow citizens, especially our black Canadian veterans, both past and present. These veterans have and are proudly serving in all branches of the Armed Forces, both here at home and around the world as part of our continuing peace keeping mission with our global community found within the United Nations, especially remembering those who have contributed and many who have given the supreme sacrifice.
Bravo Zulu to our Canadian black military veterans and families. Thank you for your past and on-going services to our glorious free country of Canada and the world.
John T. Rogers