The deaths on the battlefield over a decade ago of Sergeant Robert Short and Corporal Ainsworth Dyer become more poignant for chief warrant officer Ray Joseph as Remembrance Day nears each year.
Dyer and three other soldiers were killed by “friendly fire” in April 2002 when an American F-16 fighter jet dropped a bomb during a live-wire training exercise near Kandahar, Afghanistan. He joined the military in 1997 and served with peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2000 before being deployed to Afghanistan.
Short was killed when the jeep he was driving drove over a landmine in Afghanistan 11 years ago. He left behind a wife and two children.
The son of a Great Lakes merchant seaman and child care worker who are both deceased, Joseph served with Short and was Dyer’s regimental sergeant when he joined the Canadian Forces.
“I knew both of them well and they were exceptional soldiers,” Joseph told Share at the fourth annual Remembrance event to celebrate Black Canadian War Veterans and the sacrifices Black soldiers have made for Canada. “Rob, on the other hand, stood out for me because he treated everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of their creed and skin colour.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Joseph joined the military in 1984. Starting with the Black Watch, he also served with the Airborne, Royal Canadian and Royal 22 regiments and was the 48th Highlanders of Canada’s first Black regimental sergeant major.
Currently attached to 32 Brigade Group Headquarters in Toronto, Joseph paid tribute to the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only All-Black expeditionary force in Canada’s military history, at last Saturday’s ceremony at Ryerson University’s engineering and computing centre.
Captain William White, the first Black to graduate from Acadia University, spearheaded the 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.
“The men of that battalion were ordinary people who did extraordinary things,” said Joseph, who did two tours of duty in Afghanistan and was also deployed in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Somalia and the Falklands. “They paved the way for soldiers like me who are proud to wear this uniform. They understood what it meant to fight for what you believe in and also what it meant to answer the call of duty.”
Jamaican-born Canadian senator, Don Meredith, was instrumental in starting the Remembrance Day event.
“Despite social disadvantages, Black soldiers answered the call and delivered with great courage and conviction,” he said. “Today, Canadians of every colour and creed are enjoying the fruits of their sacrifice. I value that sacrifice and am standing on the shoulders of these courageous men and women.”
Meredith also reminded the gathering of the sacrifices made by Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.
Vincent died after being deliberately struck by a car, while Cirillo was murdered two days later while on duty at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
“These terrible events will never deter us from our responsibility of doing what is right,” said Meredith. “As Canadians, these events draw us even closer together.”
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.
A report by the House of Commons Veterans Affairs Committee, unanimously supported by members of four political parties, has recommended that the federal government consider erecting a bust of Hall to commemorate the military contributions of Black Canadians.
Hall was the first Black Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross from the British Royal Navy on October 28, 1859 after he valiantly defended a British garrison in Lucknow, India.
Born in 1825 to American parents liberated from the United States slave trade, Hall 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 his 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.
Hall retired as Quartermaster in 1876 and moved back to Nova Scotia to live with his sisters on a farm in Avonport overlooking the Minas Basin. He lived and farmed without recognition until 1901 when the Duke of Cornwall and York, who was later to become King George V, noticed Hall and his medals during a British Veterans parade in Nova Scotia.
The highly decorated soldier succumbed at home to paralysis in 1904 at age 75 and was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave.
Hall was reburied on the grounds of the Hantsport Baptist Church in 1945, eight years after a local campaign was launched to have the Canadian Legion recognize his valour. A monument erected near his grave bears an enlarged replica of the Victoria Cross and a plaque describing his courage and devotion to duty.
A Canadian Legion branch in Halifax was renamed after Hall and a Cornwallis gym, the DaCosta-Hall Educational Program for Black students in Montreal and the annual Halifax International Tattoo gun run, perpetuate his name.
In 1967, his medals were returned from England to Canada to be displayed at Expo 67 in Montreal. They are now preserved in the Nova Scotia Museum.
Mayor-elect, John Tory, attended the event and promised to support Meredith in his efforts to erect a bust of Hall.
“This event highlights role models that will serve to empower our young people of every background and it also is another step to build on Black History Month and move to a day when we will recognize and celebrate the contributions of Black achievers and those who have served our country with distinction on a daily basis,” said Tory.
Former city councillor, Bev Salmon, has attended every Remembrance event at Ryerson.
Her father, Jamaican-born Herbert 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 an automotive repair business in Toronto for 24 years before passing away in 1953.
“My dad was a young idealist who was dedicated to making sacrifices for the British Empire,” said Salmon. “He knew he had a responsibility at the time to defend the Empire even if he didn’t believe in war and violence. One of the things he hoped was that his sons would not have to do what he did.”
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 the two world wars and the Korean War.
After staving 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 six decades 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; chief warrant officer Cyril Clayton was the first Black to be appointed regimental sergeant major of a Canadian base and Major Peggy Downs, who died in 2009, was one of the highest-ranking female Black officers in Canada.
Kathy Grant, whose father, Owen Rowe, served in the Canadian Army and Air Force prior to his death in April 2005, runs The Legacy Voices Institute, which is the only national project dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Black Canadian military history.