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

Police are looking for the driver of this truck after it nearly hit a group of kids in Esquimalt on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Police)
Victoria police looking for driver of truck that nearly missed kids before crashing in Esquimalt

The truck’s driver, a man, fled the scene after the truck crashed into a house’s fence

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: Lookout Lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

A driver stopped by Saanich police following a road rage incident on April 15 was found to be impaired, in violation of a license restriction and in a damaged vehicle. They received a 90-day driving prohibition and a 30-day vehicle impound. (Saanich Police Traffic Safety Unit/Twitter)
Driver stopped on Pat Bay Highway after road rage reports fails breathalyzer test: police

Several witnesses reported driver to Saanich police, school officer intercepted

Police escorts for Victoria bylaw workers entering encampments in parks will continue for this month, after council approved a $25,000 budget request from VicPD. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria bylaw staff encampment work to include police escort through April

Taxpayers to see modest increase in property taxes for 2021

Victoria’s bylaw restricting businesses from providing most plastic checkout bags came into effect on April 15. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
Victoria’s bylaw banning plastic bags back in effect

The bylaw restricts businesses from providing most plastic checkout bags, charges for alternatives

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

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you have a plan in place in the event of a tsunami?

Tsunamis have claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1998… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

The District of Sooke will continue to flower with Communities in Bloom. (Pixabay)
Sooke will bud but not bloom in provincial competition

Council scales back participation in Communities in Bloom

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

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

Hwy. 4 was shut down in both directions for 10 hours on March 23 as a rock bluff was blasted as part of Kennedy Hill’s ongoing construction. Commuters can expect five more 10 hour closures on five consecutive Wednesdays beginning April 28. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Five 10-hour Pacific Rim highway closures planned in the next 6 weeks

Closures needed for rock blasting as part of the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project.

Bulldogs forward Stephen Castagna flips the puck into the Clippers zone during a game on Oct. 24. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Island BCHL game postponed due to ‘potential positive’ COVID-19 test

Nanaimo Clippers team suspends activities, players isolating pending further test results

Most Read