By MURPHY BROWNE
Black Canadians have a long and honourable tradition of patriotism, sacrifice and heroism in the British and Canadian Armed Forces. From the American Revolution (1775-83) to the Korean War (1950-1953), Blacks fought, bled and died on behalf of Empire, King and Country. During the American Revolution, the Crown encouraged slaves to desert their rebel masters and join the British lines. Following the end of the Revolution in 1783, Black veterans joined the exodus of United Empire Loyalists to the Maritimes and Upper Canada.
Excerpt from The Black Battalion: 1916 – 1920, Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret by Calvin W. Ruck (published 1987).
Calvin Woodrow Ruck was born on September 4, 1925, in Sydney, Nova Scotia to Barbadian immigrant parents, George and Ida Ruck. In 1987, Ruck published The Black Battalion: 1916 – 1920, Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret, documenting the contributions that African-Canadians made during World War I.
On November 11, when we see the images of those who contributed to the battles that were supposedly fought to preserve democracy and peace, the faces are usually White. There is hardly any recognition that men and women from racialized communities were maimed and killed during the two most famous European tribal conflicts of the 20th Century, World War I and World War II.
After both conflicts, African-Canadian men returned to the country of their birth to continue being treated as third-class citizens. They were relegated to working at jobs for which they were overqualified because of the supremacist mindset of White Canadians.
White Canadians who served in the armed forces were welcomed back as heroes and returned to their privileged positions. Their bravery is extolled in books and films. There is no recognition that racialized people even existed during that time when, in reality, men from every country that was colonized by Europeans were dragged into the melee.
When Britain became involved in the armed conflict that was originally called the Great War, it was recognized that it was a “White Man’s War.” The African-Canadians who tried to enlist to serve “King and Country” were told that their services were not needed because they were not White. African-Canadian men who felt that it was their duty as Canadians and men to enlist to defend “King and Country” persisted in trying to enlist in spite of the steady stream of insults.
Ruck, in explaining their reasons for persisting, writes: “Black people in a number of provinces viewed military service in wartime not only as a right, but a responsibility. They were not prepared to accept meekly a policy, official or unofficial, that rejected them on racial grounds”.
Eventually, the establishment of a segregated “all Black battalion”, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF, was authorized on July 5, 1916 with headquarters in Pictou, Nova Scotia. African Canadian men and boys (some as young as 16) from across Canada travelled to Nova Scotia to enlist. Two sons of legendary formerly enslaved African John Ware (credited with bringing the first long horn cattle to Canada in 1885 and contributing to activities that made the Calgary Stampede famous) travelled from Alberta to enlist.
Arthur and William Ware enlisted in the No. 2 Construction Battalion in November 1916 and were part of the more than 600 members who sailed on the SS Southland from Pier 2 in Halifax on March 28, 1917. Ten days later, after surviving a voyage through submarine infested waters, they arrived in Liverpool, England.
The men who served in the battalion travelled from Alberta, British Columbia, Cape Breton Island, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario and even from across the USA, to enlist. They served in Europe (France and Switzerland), participating in trench combat until early 1919. Following the Armistice of November 11, 1918, the members of the battalion returned to Canada where they were officially disbanded on September 15, 1920.
The brave African-Canadian men who had put their lives on the line for “King and Country” faded into obscurity, ignored even on November 11 when Canadians honour the war veterans. When the “great war dead” who lie in Flanders Field are spoken of, African-Canadians who made the “supreme sacrifice” are not included. The images we see in the media speak for themselves.
White Canada may have forgotten about them but the veterans who had served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF were not forgotten by their community. On May 19, 1977, the Nova Scotia legislature incorporated the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia. In 1981, the Society approved a motion to sponsor a reunion and recognition weekend for veterans of World War I. On Friday, November 12, 1982, the African-Canadian veterans of World War I were honoured by their community in Nova Scotia.
As a result of the reunion and recognition weekend, Ruck was inspired to write The Black Battalion: 1916 – 1920, Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret, to “commemorate and pay lasting tribute to all the Black Canadians who faithfully served King and Country in the Great War”.
In the preface of this tribute to the veterans of the Great War, Ruck writes: “Many Canadians of all races have no idea that Blacks served, fought, bled and died on European battlefields, all in the name of freedom. The story of the overt racist treatment of Black volunteers is a shameful chapter in the history of this country. It does, however, represent an important part of the Black legacy and the Black experience”.