Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan paid tribute Sunday to the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s only all-Black unit to serve during the First World War. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan paid tribute Sunday to the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s only all-Black unit to serve during the First World War. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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

More than 300 of those who enlisted were from Nova Scotia

HALIFAX — 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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2021.

Canadaracism

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

Just Posted

.
3-hour paid leave for Albertans to get vaccinated in the works

The UCP government intends to introduce legislation that will ensure working Albertans… Continue reading

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Several cases of COVID-19 were reported among employees of stores at Bower Place Mall. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
COVID-19 cases reported at Bower Place mall stores

AHS said five complaints were investigated since March, and required changes made

Edmonton Eskimos' Tanner Green, right, knocks the ball from Calgary Stampeders' Romar Morris during first half CFL football action in Calgary in 2019. Green has been waiting for nearly 17 months to get back on the field with the Edmonton Football Team. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Lacombe’s Tanner Green happy to finally see a CFL return to play date

CFL announced Wednesday league will return on Aug. 5

Westerner Park’s Exhibition Hall was used as a vaccination clinic on Wednesday. A steady stream of people came to get their COVID-19 shots either by appointment or as walk-ins. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
No long lineups at walk-in vaccination site in Red Deer

A steady stream of people walked into Westerner Park on Wednesday to… Continue reading

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran's president on Wednesday called Tehran's decision to enrich uranium up to 60% after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site "an answer to your evilness," linking the incident to ongoing talks in Vienna over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
US outlines possible sanctions relief for Iran in nuke talks

US outlines possible sanctions relief for Iran in nuke talks

Activists hope Chauvin convictions are start to real change

Activists hope Chauvin convictions are start to real change

CORRECTS THAT PHOTOGRAPHS ARE OF TRANSGENDERED WOMEN KILLED OVER THE YEARS, NOT PEOPLE WHO DIED BY POLICE VIOLENCE - A backstop at Cal Anderson Park is covered, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Seattle, with photographs of transgendered women who have been killed in the past years. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times via AP)
Grim list of deaths at police hands grows even after verdict

Grim list of deaths at police hands grows even after verdict

FILE - This file image made from a video aired Friday, Jan. 7, 2005, by Israeli television station Channel 10, shows what the television station claims is Israel's top secret nuclear facility in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, the first detailed video of the site ever shown to the public. The Israeli military said that a missile was fired into Israel from neighboring Syria early Thursday, April 22, 2021, and that it has struck targets in Syria in response. Earlier, air raid sirens sounded in Dimona, the Negev town that is home to Israel's secretive nuclear reactor, indicating a possible incoming attack. (Channel 10 via AP, File)
Israel says it strikes targets in Syria after missile attack

Israel says it strikes targets in Syria after missile attack

FILE - In this July 8, 2014, file photo, is a sign alerting visitors to water conservation efforts at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared an emergency executive order in two Northern California counties in response to drought conditions affecting much of the state. The announcement Wednesday, April 21, 2021, affects Mendocino and Sonoma counties, where Newsom says drought conditions are especially bad. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
California governor declares drought emergency in 2 counties

California governor declares drought emergency in 2 counties

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, walks down the street with an acquaintance after leaving B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break at her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 1, 2021. A judge is scheduled to release her decision today on a request to delay the final leg of hearings in Meng Wanzhou's extradition case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam
B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, makes an announcement regarding the protection of children from online sexual exploitation during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Aug 6, 2019. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed former Liberal minister Goodale as high commissioner for Canada in the United Kingdom.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Coming G7, climate meetings will be ‘pivotal,’ says Goodale, Canada’s new rep in U.K.

Coming G7, climate meetings will be ‘pivotal,’ says Goodale, Canada’s new rep in U.K.

A Cargill sign is shown at one of its meat-processing plants in Chambly, Que., on Sunday, May 10, 2020. A vaccination clinic for thousands of workers at a southern Alberta beef-packing plant has been postponed due to a delay in a shipment of the Moderna vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Site of COVID outbreak last year: Vaccination clinic at Alberta beef plant postponed

Site of COVID outbreak last year: Vaccination clinic at Alberta beef plant postponed

Most Read