TRURO, NS –
Soldiers making up the only all-black unit to fight for Canada in the First World War faced systemic hatred and racism before, during and after their time in uniform, the prime minister said on Saturday as he spoke officially apologized for the treatment they had suffered.
Justin Trudeau apologized as descendants of the 600-member No. 2 Construction Battalion gathered in Truro, N.S., on the same land where the unit formed before its 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 themselves,” Trudeau told the crowd.
Hundreds of black men in Canada were turned away when they volunteered to fight overseas in 1914 because they were not wanted in what was seen as a white man’s war.
After two years of protests, the Canadian Army received approval in 1916 to establish the separate, non-combat battalion and over 300 of those who enlisted were from Nova Scotia.
Only a few of its members would see combat, mainly because the battalion had been repeatedly told that its help was not wanted on the front lines, and they received no public acknowledgment when they returned. at their home.
The unit supported three major forestry operations overseas, working in sawmills and maintaining roads and railroad equipment.
Some members participated in the construction of a narrow-gauge logging railway. They also supervised Russian soldiers sent to their camp as laborers.
The Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces have said the systemic racism endured by the men of the 2nd Construction Battalion qualifies as hateful conduct.
“For the overt racism of sending black volunteers back to lay down their lives for all – we are sorry,” Trudeau said to applause from the battalion’s descendants.
“For not letting black servicemen fight alongside their white compatriots, for denying members of No. 2 Construction Battalion the care and support they deserved – we are sorry. For not honoring and commemorated the contribution of No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants, for the blatant hatred and racism against black people that robbed these men of their dignity in life and in death – we are sorry.”
Federal Defense 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 No. 2 Construction Battalion and those who followed will never happen again,” she said.
Many descendants of battalion members said they were pleased with the apology and the fact that more people would learn about the unit’s history.
“I’m really proud. It took time,” Master Corp said. Nolan Reddick of New Glasgow, NS
The 21-year-old Armed Forces veteran said his great-uncle George Reddick served in the battalion and often mentioned the poor quality of boots given to black soldiers compared to those given to their white comrades.
Reddick said his great-uncle said the French treated them better than the Canadians back home.
Tamara Tynes Powell of Truro said the battalion’s history could no longer be hidden.
Her grandfather’s uncle, Jack Tynes, was a member of the battalion, and she said apologies help give the men the respect they 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 honoring the 2nd Construction Battalion.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 9, 2022.