The soldiers comprising the only all-Black unit to fight for Canada during the First World War experienced systemic hate and racism before, during and after their time in uniform, the Prime Minister said on Saturday as he formally apologized for the treatment they endured.
Justin Trudeau offered the apology as descendants of the No. 2 Construction battalion’s 600 members gathered in Truro, N.S., on the same grounds where the unit formed prior to deployment overseas in March 1917.
Trudeau said he was there to apologize for the appalling way the patriots were treated.
“As a country, we failed to recognize their contributions for what they were — their backbreaking work, their sacrifice, their willingness to put their country before their self,” Trudeau told the crowd.
Hundreds of Black men in Canada were turned away when they volunteered to fight overseas in 1914 because they weren’t wanted in what was considered a white man’s war.
Following two years of protests, the Canadian military received approval in 1916 to establish the segregated, non-combat battalion and more than 300 of those who enlisted were from Nova Scotia.
Only a few of its members would see combat, mainly because the battalion was repeatedly told its help wasn’t wanted on the front lines, and they received no public recognition when they returned home.
The unit supported three major forestry operations while overseas, working lumber mills and maintaining roads and railway equipment.
Some members assisted in constructing a narrow gauge logging railroad. They also supervised Russian soldiers sent to their camp as labourers.
The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces have said the systemic racism endured by the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion qualifies as hateful conduct.
“For the overt racism of turning Black volunteers away to sacrifice their lives for all — we are sorry,” Trudeau said as descendants of the battalion applauded.
“For not letting Black service members fight alongside their white compatriots, for denying members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion the care and support they deserved — we are sorry. For failing to honour and commemorate the contribution of No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants, for the blatant anti-Black hate and racism that denied these men dignity in life and death – we are sorry.”
Federal Defence Minister Anita Anand told the crowd that she is committed to taking action to change the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces to make them more inclusive and diverse.
“I am committed to eliminating systemic racism so that the discrimination faced by the No. 2 Construction Battalion, and those who followed, never happens again,” she said.
Many of the descendants of the battalion members said they were pleased with the apology and the fact more people will learn of the unit’s history.
“I’m really proud. It’s been a long time coming,” said Master Corp. Nolan Reddick from New Glasgow, N.S.
The 21-year veteran of the Armed Forces said his great-uncle George Reddick served in the battalion and often mentioned the poor quality of the boots given to the Black soldiers compared to those given to their white comrades.
Reddick said his great-uncle said the people of France treated them better than Canadians at home.
Tamara Tynes Powell from Truro said the history of the battalion can’t be hidden anymore.
Her grandfather’s uncle, Jack Tynes, was a member of the battalion, and she said the apology helps provide the respect the men deserve.
“The apology shows that even though they were treated less than human men, they are more than heroes now,” she said.
Trudeau announced that next year, during Black History Month, the Royal Canadian Mint will issue a pure silver collector coin honouring the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
– Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press