By: Lynn Desjardins
The Government of Canada will apologize for the treatment endured by members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion before, during and after their service in the First World War. When Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada’s legal status was that of a British Dominion. Thus, Canada automatically became involved in the Great War.
Men rushed to sign up to fight including many Black Canadians. A few Blacks managed to join up in the opening years of the war but prejudice among several people in charge of enlistment made it difficult. A group of Black men persisted, pressuring the government to allow them to serve and, in July 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in the eastern province of Nova Scotia. Of the more than 600 men accepted, most came from Nova Scotia and others came from the provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario and others further west. Some came from the United States.
Black history of military service
There was a tradition of military service by Black Canadians. Many are descended from Blacks who came north from what is now the U.S. in the 1780s. During the American Revolutionary war to throw off British rule over the colonies, American slaves had been offered freedom and land if they agreed to fight on the side of Britain. These so-called loyalists took the offer and later moved north with other loyalists to settle land that remained loyal to Britain and later became Canada. Many Blacks settled in what is now Nova Scotia and places west.
The only segregated Black unit
Fast forward to 1916: The men who wanted to join the Canadian military were finally admitted to the segregated No. 2 Construction Battalion. They were not allowed to fight but rather served in support roles. They were deployed to eastern France where they helped provide the lumber required to maintain trenches on the front lines and to build roads, bridges and railways. This was the only segregated Black unit ever in the Canadian military.
On March 28, 2021 a virtual event was held to confirm the government’s commitment to apologize for the treatment received by members of the unit. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that those in the battalion faced hatred and racism when they served in Britain and France and that they got no recognition later, when they came home. Sajjan said Canada still struggles with systemic racism, but added it is good to deal with it by recognizing failures of the past.
‘An apology for racism and discrimination’
“Today, more than one hundred years after the No. 2 Construction Battalion was disbanded, we are ever grateful for their bravery and resilience in the face of hate and adversity,” he said. “But more than our gratitude, we owe these members, their families, and their community an apology for the racism and discrimination they endured in their service to our country.”
There was recognition not only of the past, but hopes for the future. “The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion will resonate with many Black Canadians today, who day after day put their lives on the front lines to stand for their country, yet rarely if ever get the recognition that they so deserve.” said Greg Fergus, Chair of the Parliamentary Black Caucus, Member of Parliament. “ We can’t change the past, and the wrongdoings of previous generations, but can certainly choose the future that we want to live in. Although this recognition is long overdue, it is one that will allow us to move in the right direction by telling the stories of these brave members who contributed to making Canada the strong nation that it is today.”
The government of Canada plans to make a formal apology to members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and to those who wanted to serve in WWI but were turned away.