No. 2 Construction Battalion (courtesy Museum Windsor/P6110)
When war broke out in 1914 enlistment offices were flooded by young men wanting to join the war. Like many other Canadians, Black Canadians felt it was their patriotic duty to fight for their country. Many quit their jobs in order to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces, but many would be turned away. Enlistment officers chose not to take these men into their divisions. Black Canadians would be turned away and the reasons they were rejected from services had deep roots in racial prejudice.
Enlisting into the Canadian Military meant so much more than fighting for the Commonwealth to Black Canadian’s. The discrimination they faced when not allowed to enlist in the Expeditionary Force demonstrated there was anti-Black sentiment within Canada. It became a civil rights issue and sparked activism both within and outside the community around the inclusivity of the Canadian Military. It became clear that this was going to be “a white man’s war.” Newspaper articles were created to address the prejudice sentiment that was happening in the military against Black Canadians. The Canadian Observer was an example of an article that addressed the discrimination happening in the military. At this time Canada did control the press during wartime and suppressed any anti-war publications but it was poorly managed by federal and provincial authorities.
|“We Want a Revolution of Thought by Our People.” Canadian Observer, October 23, 1915. Source: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Black Collection, 934 [Microfilm].
The Observer bridged the conversation about the lack of progress in Canada in regard to its inclusivity as a collective race. It asked directed questions to the broader public and helped seize the frustration Black Canadians were having with their current experiences. The Observer openly asked in 1914 “Why are we not making the progress we should?” The article encouraged response because in order to get answers they needed to see how the broader public felt about these questions. The questions in the Observer can still be asked today. These are timeless questions that society continually has to ask themselves.
A lot of Canadians did not see Canada as a racist nation that promoted the country as a white man’s country. However, Canada still participated in divisive practices like segregation within its communities. Black people were excluded from public spaces like restaurants, pools, skating rinks, and pubs. These were some of the anti-Black sentiments that were seen in Canadian society in the 1910s. There were not many conversations happening about the racism because it went against Underground Railway heritage. The war only exacerbated the existing racial tension that pre-existed this moment, but it opened up the conversation about this sentiment. The war was an opportunity for Black Canadians to open up the conversation and ask the public why they were not good enough to fight in their war.
The army did not have a rule saying that Black Canadians could not enlist in the army. However, it was up to the Commanding Officers who they accepted and who they turned away and Headquarters does not interfere with their decision. Recruitment Commanding Officers would use excuses to why they turned away physically healthy Black men by saying they did not want their fine recruits to have to consort with Black men (1). Black Canadians were also turned away because their hygiene was attacked, and it was perceived that these men had poor hygiene. Recruitment Officers believed if they let Black men enlist then white men would not want to enlist. This was a moment when a lot of Black Canadians recognized that this was a “white mans war.” However, many did not stop trying to fight overseas just because they were turned away the first time. Many of these men left their jobs to enlist and were persistent to serve their country and receive full recognition as an equal citizen.
You might be wondering what came out of this activism. In 1916 the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed and was the first large Black military unit in Canadian history. The No. 2 Construction Battalion was a non-combated battalion and acted in a support role where they helped provide lumber to maintain the trenches on the front line and also constructed roads and railways. Even though this battalion was not acting in a combative role they still were a valuable participant in the war exerting their patriotic duty as Canadians. The formation of this battalion emerged out of the tarnation and determination of Black Canadians and their activism through the press and consistent persistence.
The creation of No. 2 Construction Battalion did not end the discrimination Black Canadians faced in the military. The battalion did offer them an opportunity to express their Patriotism to their country and demonstrate their worth as equal citizens. Even though they were a valuable force and contributed greatly to the war effort upon returning home to Canada many Veterans faced discrimination still.
(1) Shaw, “’Most Anxious to Serve their King and Country,’” 552.
(2) Veterans Affairs Canada. “Black Canadians in uniform- a proud tradition”
Foyn, Sean Flynn. “The Underside of Glory: AfriCanadian Enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1917.” M.A. Thesis, University of Ottawa, 2000.
Shadd, Adrienne L. The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton. Toronto: Natural Heritage Book, 2010.
Shaw, Melissa N. “’Most Anxious to Serve their King and Country’: Black Canadians’ Fight to Enlist in WWI and emerging Race Consciousness in Ontario, 1914-1919.” Social History XLIX, no 100 (2016): 543-580.
Wilson, Barbara M. “Black Volunteers in the First World War.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, last modified April 27, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/black-volunteers-in-the-first-world-war.
Veterans Affairs Canada. “Black Canadians in uniform- a proud tradition.” https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/people-and-stories/black-canadians