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

Interior Health nurses administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
69 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 9,840 since the pandemic began

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Interior Health hospitals not strained by rising COVID case counts

While provincial hospitalizations rise, health care systems in the B.C. Interior remain robust, say officials

BC CDC data showing the geographic distribution of COVID cases in the province. (BC CDC photo)
One new case of COVID-19 in Golden

Cases continue to surge in surrounding areas

The Golden Golf Club will open for a new season on the links beginning April 24. (Claire Palmer photo)
Golden Golf club eyes April 24 start

The golf course is supporting local businesses with the driving range and mini-golf

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

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 plane blasted through an airport fence and down a hill, before stopping before a cement barrier on Highway 5A, right in front of a school bus. Photo submitted.
Student pilot crashes plane onto Highway 5A in Princeton

Aircraft hit pavement right in front of school bus

Vernon Fire Rescue Services responded to a truck fire on Dallas Road in Vernon April 15, 2021. (Brendan Shykora - Vernon Morning Star)
WATCH: Vernon firefighters quick to douse fully involved truck fire

The fire was near multiple structures and spreading along the ground upon crews’ arrival

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

Fire crews tend to a collision that is causing severe traffic delays on the William R. Bennett bridge headed east into Kelowna. (Aaron Hemens - Kelowna Capital News)
7 vehicle collision on WR Bennett Bridge under investigation

The collision backed up traffic on the William R. Bennett bridge for much of the morning

Kelowna company celebrates milestone of producing 46 million masks in under a year.
46 million masks and counting: Kelowna company reaches 1 year milstone

In under a year, Breathe Manufacturing Ltd. in Kelowna has hit production of 46 million masks for front-line workers

The organizer of a Kelowna protest against COVID-19 restrictions was fined by the RCMP for the third time Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
Kelowna RCMP investigating hit and run involving 11-year-old

Police said the boy suffered minor injuries

Most Read