Remembrance Day keeps memories alive of brave soldiers who, in many instances, paid the ultimate price with their lives.
Former city councillor Bev Salmon regularly attends November 11 memorial events, including the ceremony co-hosted by Ryerson University and Senator Don Meredith, to honour her father, Herbert Bell.
The celebration, that pays tribute to Black soldiers who fought for Canada, took place last Saturday.
Jamaican-born Bell enlisted in the West Indies Regiment before he was 18. When his parents found out, he was de-enlisted and sent to Boston to study engineering. Anxious to serve in the military, Bell came to Canada and joined the First Battalion New Brunswick Regiment in 1917.
He was later transferred to the 206th Battalion in Siberia during the First World War where he was wounded and sent back to a Halifax hospital to recuperate. Leaving the Army as a decorated hero, he ran a business in Toronto for 25 years before passing away 60 years ago.
“Remembrance Day is special, but I think of him all the time,” said Salmon. “He joined the Army because he wanted to fight for the British Crown.”
This is the third year the Remembrance Day event took place at Ryerson University to remember those Black soldiers who played critical roles in shaping Canada’s history.
“More often than not, they were the unsung heroes who, despite social disadvantages and challenges, served this country with distinction and valour,” said Rev. Meredith. “They were men and women who came from all parts of Canada. They stood up, they came forward and they answered the call. They stood shoulder to shoulder in the trenches with their fellow soldiers, they defended our borders and they upheld our values on the battlefields here at home and around the globe. In many cases, they paid the ultimate price with their lives. We can never let their contributions be forgotten.”
Meredith is at the forefront of a campaign to add a bust of Nova Scotia-born William Hall to the military monument commemorating prominent soldiers in Canada’s military history. The monument, near Parliament Hill, which was dedicated in November 2006 by Canada’s first Black Governor-General Michaëlle Jean is made up of nine busts and five statues.
“We will continue meeting with stakeholders and partners on this project,” said Meredith. “It’s up to each and every one of us to seize the opportunity to take the baton on like William Hall passed on to Lincoln Alexander and to Marguerite (Peggy) Downes.
“It’s up to each of us to let our children and all Canadians know their heritage includes the blood, sweat and tears of brave men and women who fought so they could be free. It’s our responsibility not to allow their sacrifices to go in vain.”
Hall was the first African-Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross after valiantly defending a British garrison in Lucknow, India. Born in 1825 to American parents liberated from the U.S. slave trade, he built wooden ships for the merchant marine and was a crew member on a trading vessel. He enlisted in the Royal Navy in Liverpool in 1852 and served as a naval brigade member on the HMS Rodney during the Crimean War. The Canadian soldier received British and Turkish medals for combat service during the three-year war that ended in 1856.
A year later, Hall – as captain of the Foretop of the HMS Shannon – led the successful British Naval guns charge in Lucknow during the Indian mutiny. He retired as quartermaster in 1876 and moved back to Nova Scotia to live with his sisters on a farm in Avonport overlooking Minas Basin. The highly decorated soldier succumbed at home to paralysis in 1904 at age 75 and was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave.
Eight years after a local campaign was launched to have the Canadian Legion recognize his valour, Hall was reburied in 1945 on the grounds of Hantsport Baptist Church.
Born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to a deacon-carpenter-railroad father and artistic mother, Peggy Downes served as a Canadian Armed Forces Reservist for 45 years, rising to the rank of Major, thus becoming the highest ranking Black officer in Canada.
She joined the Royal Canadian Army Corps militia in Halifax as a driver in 1955 to provide familial support after her father’s death a year earlier. Before he died, she made a promise to him that she was going to win him a medal by joining the military. She received her first medal in 1968.
Downes transferred to the Toronto Reserves in 1956 and was promoted to Lieutenant of the #2881 Highland Creek Cadet Corps based at West Hill, and then Deputy
Commanding Officer where she evaluated and set goals for her unit, enforced standards of discipline and behaviour, interviewed and counseled officers and monitored their personal and career development.
Downes later served as Unit Custodian and Drug & Alcohol Officer before retiring as Officer-in-Command, Charlie Squadron and proceeding to join the Queen’s York Rangers Army Cadets. She was also a Commissionaire with the Superior Court of Justice and the first African-Canadian to serve as an Aide-de-Camp to an Ontario Lieutenant-Governor. She served as ADC to John Black Aird, Lincoln Alexander, Hal Jackman, Hilary Weston and James Bartleman.
The trailblazer died in 2009 at age 70.
Alexander served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War Two.
“When a young person makes the ultimate sacrifice to go to war for their country, it’s the most extraordinary gift a human being can offer – the gift of one’s own life,” said Alexander’s widow, Marni Beal. “The measure of such a sacrifice can never be taken. It cannot be matched by anything else one human being can do for another. The sacrifice of one’s life is eternal.”
Ryerson University president and vice-chancellor Dr. Sheldon Levy said the university is honoured to host the event.
“By recognizing the contributions of African-Canadian soldiers, we are able to further our commitment to make this campus, the community and Canada more inclusive and dedicated to diversity,” he said. “On Remembrance Day, we remember the courage and sacrifice of those Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen and women. They served to defend our nation in the fight against tyranny, injustice and terror.”
The history of Blacks in Canada’s military is long, rich and significant.
Blacks fought for Britain in the War of 1812 against the United States, stood firm against the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada and the Fenian raids in 1866 and alongside other Canadians and this country’s allies in Europe in both World Wars and the Korean War.
Captain William White, the first Black to graduate from Acadia University, spearheaded the No. 2 Construction battalion’s formation and became its chaplain and the first Black in the British Empire to hold a commissioned rank. He kept a diary during his military service that became the subject of a film, Honour Before Glory, which was produced by his great-nephew, Anthony Sherwood.
After holding off the Germans at Vimy Ridge, an injured Private Jeremiah Jones took the surviving prisoners to the Allied lines and handed them over to his commanding officer. In February 2010, he was posthumously recognized for his bravery with the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service 60 years after his death.
Corporal Marlene Clyke was one of the first Black women to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces; seaman Raymond Lawrence – who served from 1953-1986 – was the first Black chief petty officer and the first Black naval officer to receive the Order of Military Merit and chief warrant officer Cyril Clayton was the first Black to be appointed Regimental Sergeant Major of a Canadian base.
Kathy Grant, whose father Owen Rowe served in the Canadian Army and Air Force, runs The Legacy Voices Institute which is the only national project dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Black Canadian military history.
“There are not a lot of positive images of Black soldiers that served Canada,” she said. “We have hundreds of photos and thousands of documents. The history of Blacks in Canada’s military is much more than the No. 2 Construction Battalion. There were about 1,500 other soldiers that were not part of that battalion.”
Former Member of Parliament Marlene Jennings actively supported Rowe’s advocacy for Caribbean-born war veterans who served in the RCAF, Canadian Armed Forces and the Merchant Navy to be honoured for their wartime contributions. A plaque was unveiled in June 2005 at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa two months after Rowe – who migrated from Barbados in 1942 – succumbed to cancer in Montreal at age 82.