Red Poppy, Black Ribbon
On Remembrance Day, I will honour all of Canada's war veterans
ERICA PHILLIPS | Nov 17, 2003
I WASN'T SURE if it would be appropriate to wear my poppy with a black ribbon this year, given the current climate. A few people convinced me that I should. One of them was actor Anthony Sherwood, who spent four years writing, producing and directing Honour Before Glory. The one-hour documentary, which aired on CBC TV in November 2001, tells the little-known story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a segregated black unit that served in the First World War.
That battalion first came to my attention 10 years ago while I was studying at the University of Western Ontario in London. The Black Students' Association had its own Remembrance Day service that year. One of our members had a relative who'd served in the battalion and brought a group photo of the sombre-looking soldiers to the service. As someone who has had an interest in black history since high school, I found their story particularly compelling. I think what bothered me then -- and still does -- was the hypocrisy of a society willing to send young men overseas to fight for freedom, democracy and justice while denying a segment of its own population those same rights.
As we honour war veterans it is important to remember the black contribution to Canada's war efforts. Contrary to popular belief, the black presence is not new to this country, nor is it the result only of the waves of immigration that brought people from the Caribbean and Africa to Canada in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. By the start of the First World War, blacks had already been in Canada for hundreds of years. But while other Canadians were volunteering, many blacks who wanted to do the same were prevented from enlisting.
Despite the fact that the military did not officially sanction discrimination in recruitment, local recruiting stations often turned away qualified blacks. Officers told them it was "a white man's war," or "we don't want a checkerboard army." After black leaders and other individuals protested, Maj.-Gen. W. G. Gwatkin, chief of the general staff in Ottawa, proposed a compromise: the establishment of a non-combatant, black labour battalion. It was clear he expected little from it. "Nothing is to be gained by blinking facts," he wrote in an April 1916 memorandum. "The civilized negro is vain and imitative; in Canada, he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty; in the trenches he is not likely to make a good fighter; and the average white man will not associate with him on terms of equality."
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in July 1916 under the command of Lt.-Col. Daniel Sutherland. After training in Pictou and then Truro, N.S., 605 men and 19 officers -- all of them white, except for the chaplain -- left Halifax on March 28, 1917, for England. They went on to France, where they built roads and dug trenches.
Despite the obstacles, some blacks did see the front lines. Pte. Jeremiah Jones was one of 16 blacks in the 106th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, Canadian Expeditionary Force. In April 1917 at Vimy Ridge, he cleared a German dugout, capturing the survivors and their machine gun. Newspaper reports say he was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal but there is no official documentation of that recommendation. Blacks also joined at least seven other fighting units.
Those same men returned to Canada only to fight another battle -- against racism. They were denied equal access to jobs, housing and graveyards. The majority found jobs as sleeping-car porters or farmers. Still, most were proud to have served overseas. Sgt. Seymour Tyler of Saint John, N.B., certainly was. He told a 1982 reunion of the No. 2 Construction Battalion: "Do not let anyone tell you different, no man is any braver than a black man. The black man trained like a soldier, he fought like a soldier and died like a soldier, and that is all any white man can do."
By the Second World War, things had improved somewhat -- although, in many cases, the navy and air force still rejected qualified black volunteers. A group of experienced black seamen tried to enlist but were rejected because there weren't enough of them to form an entire crew. Still, segregated battalions had become a thing of the past and thousands of blacks served in various branches of the armed forces.
Once again, black soldiers returned home to a lack of recognition and racism. Blacks in Montreal and Halifax formed their own coloured war veterans branches of the Royal Canadian Legion because white veterans did not want to associate with them.
Yes, things have changed tremendously since the end of the Second World War. It's not that I don't appreciate the efforts of the other war veterans, but I don't feel that blacks should be thanking white veterans only. And it's just sad that misconceptions about the black presence in Canada prevail. Nov. 11 is about remembering all soldiers. So if you see anyone wearing a poppy with a little black ribbon, ask them about it. You just might learn something.
Erica Phillips is a Brampton, Ont.-based writer and black history advocate.
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