Black History Month: A Reflection of Military Pride
Written by Han Slater
Considering February is Black History month, let us look into the past, so we may do better in the future to be mindful, grateful, and understanding. Stories of the war’s past become increasingly distant in our minds because of the passage of time, but for others, moments in history are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. Again, a day or a month should not provoke the conversation of black history and the challenges faced by Black, Indigenous, Desi, and East Asian people. Instead, discussing the history and current events should be an everyday consideration. However, in this article, I will be discussing Canadian Black History. I hope to draw attention to Black History month and to hopefully spark a conversation surrounding not only Black history but the continued struggle faced by many people of colour. I will add a disclaimer here that there will be a discussion of discrimination, racism, and violence. I will also state here that I am aware of the use of Afro-Canadian, African Canadian, and black Canadian in scholarly use. Still, for this article, I will use the terminology Black Canadian to refer to African-descent Canadians.
Some of the oldest documented accounts of black military history are from the American Revolutionary War (1775- 1783) and the War of 1812 (1812- 1815). Promised their freedom and sometimes a plot of land in exchange for their service, many Black Loyalists fought against the American armies (Mathieu, n.d.). Black Canadians’ military service tradition extended across the nation, serving as some of the first Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps (1861) and serving in the British military forces and Canadian militia in the 1800s (Mathieu, n.d.). African American migrants were some of Canada’s earliest defenders of the borders and critical battalions in later wars.
During the First World War, more than 1,300 Black Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. On 5 July 1916, the Department of Defence and Militia authorized the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, 780 of its members were Black Canadians (Ruck, 2022). It was the most prominent Black unit in Canadian history. Its members continued the proud tradition of service to the king and country. No. 2 Construction Battalion was crucial in Canada, England, and France as they were responsible for moving supplies to troops, building depots, maintaining railroads, serving as sentries, and providing the wood needed to rebuild crumbling trench walls and dissolving duckboards (Mathieu, n.d.). However, it was not easy for Black Canadians to enlist.
In August 1914, tens of thousands of men across Canada rushed to their local recruiting centre to enlist for service in the First World War. Many Black men also tried to enlist but were rejected; some Black Canadians heard this was a “white man’s” war, while others were told the army did not require their services (Walker, 1989). By the end of 1915, the military had rejected at least 200 Black volunteers. Many white men told recruiting officers and battalion commanding officers that they refused to serve with Black men (Shaw, 2016). Lt. Col. George Fowler, the commander of the 104th Battalion, would state in his attempt to remove 20 Black soldiers from his regiment, quote:
“I have been fortunate to have secured a very fine class of recruits, and I do not think it fair to these men that they should have to mingle with Negroes,” (Walker, 1989).
While the battle lines in Europe became pronounced, the racial lines in Canada were becoming demarcated in the labour market, for example, where covert socio-economic racism protected the racial privileges of Anglo-Canadians (Shaw, 2016). The prospect of mixing and mingling with Black Canadians unleashed an unspoken anti-Black racism that reared its ugly head with tenacious ferocity.
George Morton (1859-1927) was a letter carrier, a barber, and an early civil rights activist that reached out to the Minister of the Militia, Sir Sam Hughes. Morton demanded to know why members of the Black community were being turned away when trying to enlist for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War (Wilson, 2022). The baton of learning why Black Canadians could not join the army was passed onto J.R.B. Whitney, publisher of the Canadian Observer, “The Official Organ for the Coloured People in Canada” (Wilson, 2022). He offered to raise a unit of 150 Black soldiers in November 1915 and was told by Hughes “that these people can form a platoon in any Battalion, now. There is nothing in the world to stop them” (Wilson, 2022). However, Hughes failed to mention that the platoon would have to be accepted by the commanding officer of an authorized battalion before it could be formed (Wilson, 2022).
The irony that would come later in the First World War was the legalization of Conscription in 1917. Many former Black volunteers who attempted to join the army were now forced to join. The legalization of conscription in 1917 caused outrage and discontent among Black communities across Canada. However, Canada still saw many Black Canadians serve in the military despite racist tensions and conscription. After the war, segregation and racist policies continued to prevail in Canadian society despite Black Canadians serving and dying for their country.
Many Black Canadians returning home from the war in 1918 still experienced the same discrimination level. A quote is taken from the Global News article, “ ‘Black Liberators’: Recovering the lost stories of Black Canadian soldiers of WWII,” given by cultural historian Kathy Grant who created the Legacy Voice institute, states:
“Here it is, they are over in Europe — you’re eating in these fancy restaurants, and you’re being served, and you come back to Canada, and they say, ‘we don’t serve these people,” said Grant. “That really hit hard.”
In the Second World War, segregated battalions were disbanded by the Canadian government, but the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy remained closed to Black Canadians. According to Kathy Grant, these military men — who back home in Canada were subjected to racism and discrimination — were not only fighting to free the world from the Nazis but to free themselves (Maclean, 2021). However, it was not long before the race restriction was dropped from the Air Force and the Navy because of a shortage of military personnel. Some Black Canadians served in the Navy, and Black Canadian airmen served in the Air Force as ground crew and aircrew here at home and overseas in Europe. Back on the home front, Black Canadians made essential contributions by working in factories that produced vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and other materials for the war effort and taking part in other patriotic efforts like war bond drives (n.d., 2022). Black women worked in vital jobs in various industries, for example, in munitions factories in Central Canada and shipbuilding yards in Nova Scotia, filling the shoes of the men who usually worked in these environments but were away fighting in the war (n.d., 2022).
The reality of Canada’s history is not all sunshine and rainbows. It is quite the opposite. Racism and discrimination are riddled throughout Canadian history despite the accepting and welcoming visage that Canada has claimed for years. However, this is not to suggest that Canada will continue to embody the past in its future; rather, this is a learning opportunity for leaders moving forward on the significance of truth, honesty, and reconciliation. Take a moment this Black History Month to reflect on the past, learn something new and continue forward, less ignorant of Canadian history. When considering Black History Month, I hope it will provoke a conversation free of ignorance and hate because it is essential to remember the past, or we will be doomed to repeat it. I hope you learned something new in this article, dear reader, and I hope you go beyond this article to learn more about Black Canadian History.
(2022). “Black Canadians in uniform — a proud tradition.” Government of Canada. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/people-and-stories/black-canadians.
Berthiaume, L. (2020). “Black Canadians fought racism, discrimination to serve in Second World War.” Canadian Broadcasting Company. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/black-canadians-second-world-war-1.5793974.
Maclean, K. (2021). “ ‘Black Liberators’: Recovering the lost stories of Black Canadian soldiers of WWII.” Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/8366180/black-liberators-black-canadian-soldiers-wwii-stories/
Ruck, L. (2022). No. 2 Construction Battalion. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/no-2-construction-battalion.
Shaw. M. (2016). “Most Anxious to Serve their King and Country: Black Canadians’ Fight to Enlist in WWI and Emerging Race Consciousness in Ontario, 1914-1919.” Social History vol. XLIX, no 100. PDF.
Walker. St.G. W. James. (1989). “Race and Recruitment in World War 1: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.” Canadian Historical Review, LXX, 1, 1989. University of Toronto Press. https://wordpress.viu.ca/davies/files/2017/01/Race-and-Recruitment-in-World-War-One.pdf.
Wilson, B. (2022). George Morton and the Fight to Fight: Black Volunteers in the First World War. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/black-volunteers-in-the-first-world-war.