A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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Sidebar: 19th-CENTURY CONDITIONS OF THE WORKING CLASS as reported in the 1889 ROYAL COMMISSION ON LABOR AND CAPITAL

Black Battalion

Black Canadians have had a long and glorious military history. During the American Revolution, Blacks fought on the side of the British. Former slaves formed their own Corps, the Black Pioneers, which received commendations for bravery and conduct. Blacks fought on the side of the British during the war of 1812, they fought in the battle of Queenston Heights, and the Battle of Lundy's Lane. The first Black commissioned officer in the United States Armed Forces was Major Martin Robinson Delany from Chatham, Ontario. He joined the Union Forces at the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65).

It was during the Boer War in the 1890's, when the concept of the White man's war came into vogue. Neither side in the conflict enlisted Black soldiers. With the outbreak of World War I, Black Canadians, like their White counterparts, flocked to the recruitment office, only to be rejected. Although the official military policy was that anybody who was of age and medically fit could join the army, it was up to the local officer of the regiment or the battalion to accept or reject the applicant. Officers at the local level still had the idea of the 'White Man's War'. They rejected Black applicants with expressions such as 'we don't want a checker board army'. A Colonel Ogilvie, the officer commanding Military District 11, Victoria B.C., expressed his views in a letter to the Military Council headquarters dated December 9, 1915 : '... Several cases of coloured applicants for enlistment have been reported on by Officers Commanding units and the universal opinion is that if this were allowed it would do much harm, as white men here will not serve in the same ranks with negros [sic] or coloured persons.

There were cases of Blacks being initially accepted in the recruitment office, leaving their job, arriving to join up with their Battalion to be insulted and told that there would be no coloured men serving in that battalion. It would be an insult to the White soldiers! They had to return home and try to pick up the pieces of their lives. There were Whites who were trying to rectify this situation, most notably Captain J. F. Tupper of Westville, Nova Scotia, and J.R.B. Whitney, publisher of the Canadian Observer. Whitney raised a platoon of Black men after being advised by Lieutenant-General The Hon. Sir Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, that they would be attached to an existing Canadian Battalion. Whitney raised the Regiment, but faced a road block Hughes had failed to mention. Acceptance of Whitney's regiment was up to the discretion of the Battalion officers. No Battalion would accept the Black regiment. Whitney had to disband his regiment. It was decided by those in power that the best policy to follow would be the establishment of a non-combatant Black battalion. On May 11, 1916, the British War Office in London cabled the Governor General expressing its willingness to accept such a unit. On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, was born. It was the first and only segregated battalion in Canada. Its headquarters were in Pictou, Nova Scotia. The battalion was to be made up of 1,049 men of all ranks. There was difficulty recruiting enough Blacks to make up the battalion, as there was a certain amount of resentment from the two years of rejection. And there was resentment that this segregated battalion was non combatant.

To fill the ranks of this battalion, American Blacks were accepted as were Blacks from right across Canada. John Ware (the famous cowboy) and his two sons travelled from Alberta, to join the battalion. Rev. William White joined the battalion as the Chaplain. He was given the rank of Captain, making him the only Black non-commissioned officer in the British Army. During the same time period, there were over 600 army Officers in the United States Military.15 The Black Battalion received orders to go overseas on March 17, 1917. The battalion served in France, laying rail lines. Some members of the battalion were transferred to other units, and a few Black Canadians ended up in the front line trenches. At the end of the war, there was no official recognition of the contribution made by No. 2 Construction Battalion. The official history of Canada's contribution to the Great War does not include any mention of this Battalion. There is a certain irony that in 1917, when the war had taken a toll on the volunteer army, conscription was put in place in Canada. Conscription now included Black Canadians who had been rejected earlier. Blacks were stopped on the streets and if they could not provide the necessary papers, were forced in to the army, and sent overseas.16 During World War II, there were no segregated units. The Navy and Air Force initially rejected Blacks as being unsuitable, but by the end of the war, there were Canadian Black Flying Officers. The treatment of the Black Canadians during World War I, is another example of the barriers placed in the way of the Black Community. The contributions made by the Black Battalion should not be forgotten.


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