African Canadians: The Forgotten Heroes of WWI
Whenever I’m in Canada it’s not unusual to hear some from the States, say they are visiting from America. Some Canadians are quick to remind us: “This is America.” The United States and Canada share the North American continent, reminding us we are all Americans but not all from America. The shared history of African Americans on both sides of the North American Border during World War One, however, is sadly, very similar.
When World War I began African Canadians were eager to serve, but they faced the same prejudice as African Americans in the States. Just as in America, they wanted to do their part. They wanted to serve their country, but attitudes of people in charge of military enlistment for them to join.
On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the first Black military unit in Canadian history, was formed. Reverend William White who place a key role in getting the unit formed and was made Honorary Capital, making him one of the first Black commissioned officers to serve the Canadian Army at the time. More than 600 men were eventually accepted, and the segregated battalion performed non-combat roles, much like the Black troops in the United States. It seemed the same narrow-mindedness toward African Americans capacity to serve in battle existed in Canada as well.
The Battalion was sent to eastern France later in 1917 as part of the Canadian Forestry Corps. While the Construction Battalion, never saw battle and never carried weapons, eventually, some Black Canadians, were able to join regular combat units. Many of them earned medals for bravery, like their brothers in the United States.
When the War ended they returned home forgotten heroes. They were not hunted and lynched like their U.S. brethren, but their contributions were barely registered in the history books. Their involvement seemed to be fading into oblivion until the late Senator Calvin Ruck made it his personal mission to document their contributions. His book Canada’s Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920, is a history of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and the African Canadians who risked their lives and gave their lives in the name of King and Country.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion, November 1916