Blacks had to fight for right to fight for Canada

By MURPHY BROWNE

Colored men!

Your King and Country need you!

Now is the time to show your patriotism and loyalty.

Will you heed the call and do your share?

Your Brothers of the Colonies have rallied to the Flag and are distinguishing themselves at the Front.

Here also is your opportunity to be identified in the Greatest War of History, where the Fate of Nations who stand for Liberty is at stake.

Excerpt from advertisement posted in the September 1916 issue of The Atlantic Advocate.

The advertisement placed in The Atlantic Advocate encouraging African Canadian men to enlist in the military came after hundreds of African Canadians were turned away when they first tried to enlist in 1914.

By 1916, the military higher-ups were ready to accept the services of African Canadians because the war had been raging for two years and the Allies had suffered heavy casualties. The authorities realized that they may have been a bit hasty when they told eager African Canadian men willing to enlist that the war was a “White man’s war” and there was no place for “coloured men” in what was essentially a European tribal conflict.

The history books tell us that the cause of what became known as the Great War or the War to End All Wars was the killing of Franz Ferdinand (first in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and his wife. The unfortunate Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were killed on June 28, 1914 by a group of disgruntled Serbs and war broke out between Austria and Serbia.

Apparently the disgruntled Serbs were part of a group opposed to the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and seized the opportunity to get rid of the next in line for the throne when the couple visited Sarajevo (capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina).

After hostilities broke out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, other Europeans quickly picked sides (Britain, Russia and France on the Serbian side with Italy and Germany on the Austro-Hungarian side) and the war was on. By the conclusion of this “War to End All Wars” in 1918, there were more than 30 countries involved, including the countries that had been colonized by the Europeans.

The advertisement urging “colored men” to enlist to serve king and country is reproduced in the book The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret, written by Calvin Ruck. Documenting the struggles to contribute as they faced White supremacist policies and the contributions of African Canadians to the War, Ruck writes: “From the onset of World War I African-Canadians began to volunteer to serve their country in the conflict overseas. Many who volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were turned away at the recruitment offices. On November 25, 1915 Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Fowler, commanding officer of the 104th Battalion, requested permission to discharge twenty Black recruits on the basis of race. He wrote: “I have been fortunate to have secured a very fine class of recruits and I did not think it fair to these men that they should have to mingle with Negroes. This rejection was met with protest in the African-Canadian community.”

The Canadian military was eventually forced to include large numbers of African Canadian recruits after enormous casualties among the White men fighting in Europe. However, these men served in a segregated African Canadian battalion, where they were forced to serve under the jurisdiction of White officers.

Although African Canadians have been actively involved in every armed conflict in Canadian history there is no recognition of this fact. In The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada ‘s Best Kept Military Secret, Ruck writes: “Black Canadians have a long and honourable tradition of patriotism, sacrifice and heroism in the British and Canadian armed forces. From the American Revolution (1775-1783) to the Korean War (1950-1953), Blacks fought, bled and died on behalf of Empire, King and Country.”

As quiet as it is kept, Africans have been living in this country since the 1600s (enslaved and free) and many African Canadians can trace their family’s history in Canada back seven and eight generations.

In 2001, members of the African Canadian population who could trace the history of their ancestors in Canada back several generations represented significant numbers in the overall African Canadian population in several provinces. In New Brunswick (41 per cent), in Newfoundland and Labrador (22 per cent), in Nova Scotia (57 per cent), in Prince Edward Island (31 per cent) and in Quebec (31 per cent). In spite of this history it is disappointing how little is known about the history and contributions of African Canadians because that history is not included in the schools’ curriculum.

On November 11, when there are images of those who are remembered and praised for fighting to maintain democracy and liberty for the free world, those images hardly include racialized people. There is usually no mention of the African Canadian men who Ruck wrote about in The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada ‘s Best Kept Military Secret.

African Canadian men returned from fighting for liberty, king and country to find that their living conditions had not improved. They still were treated as third-class citizens in the country of their birth where their ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears had contributed to the wealth and privileges that others could enjoy.

In The Black Battalion, Ruck acknowledges this: “Following the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, Black soldiers were sent home. They returned, without fanfare, to their homes in cities, towns and villages across the country – from Cape Breton Island in the East to Vancouver Island in the West. The Blacks who were prepared to serve and die in defense of freedom came home to many of the same restrictions they had left behind. The Great War did not end all wars, it did not make the world safe for democracy, and it did not signal an end to racial prejudice. Blacks were still subjected to segregated housing, segregated employment and even some segregated graveyards.”

On Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 11:00 a.m. we will once again pause to remember the men and women who served in various capacities and even lost their lives during the several armed conflicts in which Canada as a colony of the British Empire and as a sovereign nation were involved.

Ruck wrote with great optimism: “The authorization on July 5, 1916, of a segregated Black battalion exposed the latent prejudice in this country. In all likelihood, such a discriminatory policy shall never again be repeated. The Human Rights Act of the late seventies and more recently, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibit discrimination based on race, colour etc., apply to all facets of Canadian society, including the armed forces.”

Ruck would have been very disappointed to see the recent image of a White man dressed as a member of the KKK leading another White man in blackface with a rope around his neck at an event held in a Legion Hall where they won first prize for their “costume”.

The fact that people at the event did not understand that the “costume” was racist illuminates how far we have (not) come since the days when African Canadians were relegated to third-class citizen status in this country.

tiakoma@aol.com

 

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