HALIFAX – Despite making an award-winning docudrama on Canada’s only all-black military unit in 2001, director Anthony Sherwood says he’s still amazed how little is known nationally about the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Sherwood will present a special screening of his film Honour Before Glory, at the new Halifax Central Library on Tuesday as part of celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the formation of the battalion in 1916.
“Nova Scotia is one of the provinces where the story has flourished and has been told several times,” said Sherwood. “But I’m amazed that there is still a lot of people who don’t know this story.”
The military unit formed during the First World War was the only predominantly African-Canadian battalion since Confederation. The segregated battalion allowed black men who had previously been turned away by recruiters to enlist in the military.
Sherwood said the unique story of the battalion is an important piece of Canadian history because it shows that there were black Canadians who served their country during the first great global conflict.
“I think that participation and that service should be recognized,” said Sherwood.
Sherwood, a Halifax native, said he came to be interested in the battalion through the diary of his great uncle, Reverend William White, who served as the unit’s chaplain. That diary became the basis for the film, which won a Gemini Award in 2002.
“I strongly believe he wanted somebody to read this (diary) and tell this story,” said Sherwood.
Formed on July 5, 1916 in Pictou, N.S., the more than 600-strong unit was mostly comprised of men from Nova Scotia, although volunteers also came from other parts of Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.
After sailing overseas in 1917, the battalion served in various support roles along the Western Front in Europe digging trenches, building railroads, repairing roads and laying barbed wire. All the while its soldiers remained segregated from their white counterparts, living and sleeping in separate quarters.
The unit’s perseverance and service was recently recognized with a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post and it was also the focal point for February’s Black Heritage Month celebrations in Nova Scotia.
That kind of recognition is welcomed by Sylvia Parris, whose father Joseph enlisted in the battalion when he was only 17-years-old.
Parris said her father, who died in 1972 at the age of 73, never spoke about his war experiences.
She said it’s only been in recent years that she came to realize the significant role men like her father played in Canada’s history.
“It wasn’t in the public school system,” said Parris. “It’s really now that we are looking back and reflecting and asking questions.”
Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, said the battalion which once was at risk of becoming a “footnote in history,” has become a source of pride to the African Nova Scotian community.
Grosse said the black soldiers of 100 years ago made an important statement that Canada was their home too.
“They wanted to serve their country and were told they couldn’t,” said Grosse. “It was remarkable that they had to go through that legacy of fighting to fight.”