Honouring the Black Battalion - The No. 2 Construction Battalion National Apology Event on July 9 in Truro
June 20, 2022 - Defence Stories
The No. 2 Construction Battalion
Major Felix Odartey-Wellington and Captain Michelle Noseworthy, 5th Canadian Division Public Affairs
HALIFAX, N.S. – “I have been fortunate to have secured a very fine class of recruits. I do not want to think it fair to these men that they should mingle with Negroes.” Those were the words of a Canadian commanding officer faced with the dilemma of admitting Black soldiers eager to serve King and Country during the First World War in 1915.
Officially, the military welcomed all Canadians, the reality was much different during the Great War.
While some Black men were able to enlist in Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) battalions prior to mid-1916, the majority were rejected, due to prevalent racist attitudes and systemic racism in our governments and military.
As the late Senator Calvin Ruck writes in The Black Battalion: Canada’s Best Kept Secret (1987), “Throughout the country, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, large numbers of Black volunteers were being rejected strictly on the basis of race or colour. Officials at some recruiting stations bluntly told Black volunteers that this was ‘a White man’s war.’ In western Nova Scotia, Blacks often heard, ‘We do not want a chequer-board army.’”
The advocacy of Black communities across Canada for nearly two years resulted in the formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion – or The Black Battalion – in Pictou, Nova Scotia on September 9, 1916. But this was to be a non-combat unit. As the Chief of General Staff of the Canadian military explained to the political leadership: “The civilized Negro is vain and imitative… in the trenches he is not likely to make a good fighter…In France in the firing line, there is no place for a Black Battalion.”
Further, the battalion was to be a segregated unit: the men predominantly Black, the leadership, White, save for Honourary Captain William Andrew White who deployed as the unit Chaplain.
This was the first and only all-Black battalion-sized formation in Canadian military history. More than 600 men answered the call to arms, most coming from Nova Scotia, with others from across Canada, the United States and West Indies. On September 9, 1916, the battalion relocated to Truro, Nova Scotia to accommodate the sheer number of volunteers.
After initial service removing rails from railway sidings in New Brunswick to be shipped to France to support the war effort, the battalion deployed to Europe on March 28, 1917.
During the war, the battalion served mostly in eastern France with the Canadian Forestry Corps in lumber operations. A little known task of the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion was to supervise Russian soldiers sent to their camp as labourers in January 1918.
After the end of First World War hostilities, the men returned to Canada to face the same discrimination. The unit was officially disbanded in September 1920, all but fading into obscurity; denying Black communities their heroes.
On March 28, 2021, the Government of Canada announced its intent to apologize for the treatment that members of No. 2 Construction Battalion endured before, during, and after their service during the First World War.
A 22-member National Apology Advisory Committee (NAAC) was established in June 2021 as a consulting arm to the Government of Canada to inform the planned apology. The Canadian Army (CA) was tasked with working with the NAAC. The NAAC and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS) as event partners, in collaboration with the CA, led six Canada-wide consultations to inform the apology and related events. The consultations engaged with over 1,200 people of which approximately 400 have since self-identified as descendants and 10 as direct/immediate descendants (sons and daughters). The culmination is an apology event on July 9, 2022 at the same grounds in Truro where the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion formed up prior to their deployment overseas.
In June 2022, on the recommendation of the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Black Battalion was awarded the ‘France and Flanders, 1917-18’ Battle Honour, conferred on units who served in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918. This will be displayed at 4 Engineer Support Regiment (4 ESR) of The Branch of Canadian Military Engineers, honoured with perpetuating the history and legacy of No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Pitcher and Mr. Russell Grosse, NAAC Co-Chairs, say: "The NAAC-Canadian Army collaboration has happened in the finest traditions of Canadian civil-military cooperation. We salute all the descendants who participated in the national consultations. You expressed a collective desire for this apology and to see No. 2 Construction Battalion commemorated. We look forward to making history together when we honour the men of No. 2 Construction."
Learn about the planned National Apology to No. 2 Construction Battalion (you are now leaving the Government of Canada website). You can also check out the Canadian Army social media pages.
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