Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. (The Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. (The Canadian Press)

Apology in the works for descendants of Canada’s only all-Black battalion: minister

Established July 5, 1916, in Pictou, N.S., the battalion was the last segregated unit in the Canadian military

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan paid tribute Sunday to Canada’s only all-Black unit to serve during the First World War, saying the 600 members of No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants are owed an apology for the racism they faced despite their willingness to serve.

Sajjan told a virtual event plans are in the works for a formal apology from Ottawa, which will highlight the fact that hundreds of Black men in Canada were turned away when they volunteered to fight overseas in 1914.

“They stepped forward and volunteered for our country, only to be denied because of the colour of their skin — denied to fight in a so-called ‘white-man’s war,’” Sajjan said in a brief speech from British Columbia.

“We know there are painful parts of our history, injustices that contradict the values of our nation. These are parts of our history we must never forget … These are the wrongs that we must acknowledge and learn from.”

After two years of protests, the Canadian military was granted approval in 1916 to establish a segregated, non-combat battalion that would be tasked with building roads, railways and forestry operations as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

“Today, we are deeply grateful for their bravery and resilience in the face of hate and adversity,” Sajjan said. “This was critical work that was often overlooked in our history books.”

Established July 5, 1916, in Pictou, N.S., the battalion was the last segregated unit in the Canadian military.

Recruitment took place across the country. More than 300 of those who enlisted were from Nova Scotia. Others joined from New Brunswick, Ontario, the West and the United States.

Douglas Ruck, co-chairman of the Black Battalion Historical Marker Society, said the newly enlisted men had already seen their share of fighting.

“They have fought and struggled for close to two years for the right to (fight for Canada),” he said. “They fought and struggled against institutionalized racism, against bigotry and prejudice.”

Ruck said the battalion’s legacy would have been forgotten, were it not for his father, the late Nova Scotia Sen. Calvin Ruck, who explored the history of the unit in his book “The Black Battalion 1916–1920: Canada’s Best-Kept Military Secret.”

In the spring of 1917, the battalion was deployed to Seaford in southern England, and was later sent to Lajoux, France, where it worked in the foothills of the French Alps.

Commanded by Lt.-Col. Daniel Sutherland, a native of River John, N.S., all the unit’s 19 officers were white, except one. The unit’s chaplain, Capt. William A. White, held the rank of honorary captain, making him the only Black commissioned officer in the Canadian military at that time.

For the most part, the unit supported three major forestry operations in conjunction with Canadian Forestry Corps. Their duties included felling trees, operating lumber mills and maintaining roads, vehicles and railway equipment. At the mills, they produced railway ties, as well as boards and stakes for use in the trenches.

At one point, the unit helped build a narrow-gauge railway from the timber lots to the mills in Lajoux.

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin said battalion members were responsible for important work that aided in the war effort.

“It is a great inspiration because their commitment came in the face of widespread institutional, anti-Black racism,” Rankin said. “Deep prejudice in Canadian society made it difficult for Black men who wished to fight for Canada.”

In September 1917, the battalion was ordered to move closer to the front lines in northeast France, where the unit continued working in forestry and roadwork operations.

Only a few of its members would see combat, mainly because the battalion was repeatedly told its help wasn’t wanted on the front lines.

Members of the unit were shipped home in 1918 and the battalion was disbanded in 1920.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

Canadian Armed ForcesRacial injustice

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Parking lots were nearly full in White Rock Sunday (April 18) afternoon. (Aaron Hinks photo)
White Rock driver cited for vehicle noise akin to that made by a plane

West Beach resident calls for increased enforcement as summer traffic ramps up

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Chief Constable Norm Lipinski, Surrey Police Service. (Submitted photo)
Surrey Police Service to begin public consultation late June, early July

Community input, chief constable says, ‘will occur’

SAIL students Patrick Cioata and Nathan Yeung are among five Surrey students from the BC/Yukon Virtual Science Fair who were selected as finalists for the 2021 Canada-Wide Science Fair. (Photo: Surrey Schools)
Surrey, White Rock students win awards at virtual science fair

Nearly half of the winners were from SAIL

Surrey RCMP reunited three stolen puppies with their mom. (RCMP handout)
Puppies stolen from South Surrey home located, reunited with mom

Surrey RCMP said they found the stolen puppies on April 16

A lone traveler enters the Calgary Airport in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
VIDEO: Trudeau defends Canada’s travel restrictions as effective but open to doing more

Trudeau said quarantine hotels for international air travellers will continue until at least May 21

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

Former University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Rowing Canada sanctions former head coach of B.C. varsity women’s team

Suspension of Barney Williams would be reversed if he complies with certain terms

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

John Wekking, Merritt Road Report - Facebook
 Coquihalla Road Report
Wildfire sparks off Coquihalla in Merritt

The wildfire is located near the Dollarama off of Highway 5

Most Read