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

B.C. Centre for Disease Control maps showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 4-10. (BCCDC image)
Parksville-Qualicum passes Nanaimo in new COVID-19 cases

Greater Victoria had more new cases than any other Island area: B.C. Centre for Disease Control

Restaurant operators like Canteen on the Green’s Julie Stevens are serving up food outside these days or offering takeout. (Photo by Don Bodger)
High job numbers seem overly rosy

Hard to believe there’s so much more employment in hardest hit sectors

Addition of greenery, tables and benches looks good along Chemainus Road. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Finishing touches down to the nitty gritty on Chemainus Road

Just a few minor adjustments yet to be made on extensive project

Chemainus Art Group creates mural mosaic to celebrate a joyful spring. (Photo submitted)
Art group members celebrate a joyful spring in Chemainus

Each of 33 squares pushed together into one mural

Savanah Sanchez with a likeness of herself in a Canucks’ uniform done by her mom Jessica. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Girl’s passion for hockey knows no bounds

No games, but extensive ice time for training beneficial to Sanchez

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

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 crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

An armed officer walks outside Cerwydden Care on Cowichan Lake Road near Skinner Road Wednesday, April 14 around 5:30 p.m. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Police standoff at Duncan apartment ends peacefully

Officers surround building as homeowner held in apartment for nearly four hours by adult son

Norm Scott, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 91, is disappointed the Legion does not qualify for COVID financial assistance from the provincial government. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C.’s pandemic aid package passing Legion branches by

Federal non-profit status stymies provincial assistance eligibility

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Most Read