Black Battalion No Longer ‘Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret’
The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion may never have come to light were it not for a little serendipity.
While working at CN in the 1940s, Sen. Calvin Ruck met fellow employees who were veterans of the unit when he noticed and inquired about their battalion lapel pins. That piqued his interest and he began digging into the battalion’s history.
Decades later the late Senator wrote Canada's Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920, released in 1986, and the story became more widely known.
“My grandfather never went to war, but he fought a racial battle at home almost every day and I think that's one of the reasons he felt so connected to these men,” said Lindsay Ruck, who wrote the foreword for the 30th-anniversary edition of her grandfather’s book, renamed The Black Battalion: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret.
“When he discovered their story - a story that so few knew about - and began doing the research and writing the book, he became more and more determined to honour these men with the dignity they never received as Canadian soldiers.”
Indeed, Susan Glasgow, whose maternal grandfather, Harry Sparks, served in the battalion, recalls not learning anything about the unit in high school history class.
“We learned about everybody else and we didn’t learn about these men who went to war fighting for a freedom that they didn’t actually have at home,” said the retired history teacher, adding that what she knew came from her grandfather.
“I only remember him talking about having to get in trenches when there were guns being fired.”
At the outset of the First World War, it was difficult, if not impossible, for black soldiers to enlist.
Sir Sam Hughes, Canada's Minister of Militia and Defence, had left the final decision to commanding officers, almost all of whom declined to enlist prospective soldiers based solely on the colour of their skin.
By 1916, with the Canadian military faced with a growing number of personnel losses on the battlefield along with a sharp decrease in the volunteer recruitment rate and mounting public pressure, legislators debated in the House of Commons whether to allow visible minorities to enlist.
The upshot was the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion on July 5, 1916.
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Initially based out of Pictou, Nova Scotia, the unit later moved an hour away to Truro, where they spent months training for their impending deployment to Europe.
While permitted to recruit from across Canada, more than half of the unit’s members were from Nova Scotia.
Approximately 165 men came from the southern United States, and the battalion was rounded out by immigrants from the British West Indies, many of whom had come to work in industrial Cape Breton.
On March 25, 1917, the battalion left Halifax Harbour on its way to France, via England.
Once in France, the unit was attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps, felling trees and providing lumber to maintain trenches on the frontline, and they also built roads and railways.
“To me as an indigenous black Nova Scotian, it’s with great pride that my grandfather, 100 years ago, when black people could barely look at a white person…that he served his country and he served it with dignity and he served it with pride,” Glasgow said. “And I think the belief was that he hoped that in doing that, when he came back to Nova Scotia, life would be better for his descendants.”
The battalion returned to Halifax in 1919 and was officially disbanded in September 1920. Canada’s first and last segregated all-black military unit was no more.
“This story is part of our Canadian history and every Canadian, young or old, should be aware of these brave men who risked their lives for a country who at one point told them they were not fit to fight because of the colour of their skin,” Lindsay Ruck said. “History books are filled with heroic tales of men and women who beat all odds to make this country what it is today and the Construction Battalion belongs in that same conversation.”
Sylvia Parris’s father, Joseph Alexander Parris, served in the battalion and is featured in an iconic photo that was turned into a Canada Post stamp issued for African Heritage Month in 2016.
She said the unit’s impact was to demonstrate that black men “deserved to be treated as full citizens and respected.”
“And it was also able to show the broader Nova Scotian community that when the black community came together they could, with persistence, make something happen,” she added.
“So I think it was empowering to the community itself and I think it demonstrated to the broader community that folks wanted to contribute, that they sought to be part of the community. And it was all the systemic racism of the time that was keeping that from happening.”
To commemorate the formation and service of the unit, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia worked with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to create a small temporary exhibit as part of the Museum’s Community Presents program, titled The No. 2 Construction Battalion, which is on display from Feb. 17 to May 1, 2017 at the Museum’s Hall of Tribute.
A special ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the battalion’s departure for Europe will be held at the Museum on March 25, 2017.
“It’s going to be a very important anniversary, a very important milestone,” said Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
“It really makes it real. It really helps us define the fact that these men were trained and then they actually went into action to do what they were called to do.”