Ottawa – National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces
At a virtual event today, the Government of Canada confirmed its intent to apologize for the treatment that members of No. 2 Construction Battalion endured before, during, and after their service to Canada during the First World War. The members of the battalion, their families, their descendants and their community deserve recognition and acknowledgement from a grateful nation for the sacrifices they made to serve Canada, sacrifices which were not all on a battlefield.
The event was hosted by Sean Fraser, Member of Parliament for Central Nova. The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, addressed the need to make a meaningful and respectful apology for the racism and discrimination experienced by members of Canada’s only Black military unit.
At the outset of the First World War, many of the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion had tried to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but were turned away because of the colour of their skin. Despite this, they persevered in their pursuit to serve their country. When the segregated, non-combatant battalion was formed in 1916, more than 600 joined and deployed overseas and to France. There, they helped to construct and maintain roads, bridges, and railways to ensure that desperately needed lumber was transported to the Front. These men conducted themselves with honour and professionalism in the face of prejudice, hate, and an unwillingness of other Canadians to serve shoulder to shoulder with them against a common enemy.
An apology and commemoration event is expected to take place following meaningful consultation with community members and descendants.
“Today, more than one hundred years after the No. 2 Construction Battalion was disbanded, we are ever grateful for their bravery and resilience in the face of hate and adversity. But more than our gratitude, we owe these members, their families, and their community an apology for the racism and discrimination they endured in their service to our country.”
The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence
“The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion is about courage and resilience, and shows us that racism and discrimination must be addressed at every level, because it has no place in our armed forces or in our society. I am hopeful that our collaboration with the Black community in Nova Scotia will help raise awareness of this great story, the struggles of these members, and their sacrifices, so we can uphold their legacy of resilience and service in defence of Canada, its citizens, and its values.”
The Honourable Anita Vandenbeld, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence
“Like so many Canadians who were eager to serve their country at the beginning of the First World War, Black Canadians were also ready and willing to put their lives at risk. Their contributions to the Canadian war effort were vitally important to the eventual Allied victory. Despite all that they gave, nonetheless, they were treated differently – based solely on the colour of their skin. It’s our duty as Canadians to ensure their sacrifices are never forgotten.”
The Honourable Darrell Samson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence
“The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion will resonate with many Black Canadians today, who day after day put their lives on the front lines to stand for their country, yet rarely if ever get the recognition that they so deserve. We can’t change the past, and the wrongdoings of previous generations, but can certainly choose the future that we want to live in. Although this recognition is long overdue, it is one that will allow us to move in the right direction by telling the stories of these brave members who contributed to making Canada the strong nation that it is today.”
Greg Fergus, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Digital Government, Chair of the Parliamentary Black Caucus, Member of Parliament for Hull-Aylmer
“The No. 2 Construction Battalion is an integral part of the History of African Nova Scotians in Pictou County. The Battalion fought not only for their country, but also for their right to do so. Their sacrifices and accomplishments for Canada during the First World War will never be forgotten.”
Sean Fraser, Member of Parliament of Central Nova
The No. 2 Construction Battalion – the only Black military unit in Canadian history – was formed in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on July 5, 1916.
Recruitment took place across the country, and more than 600 members were eventually accepted, most from Nova Scotia, with others coming from New Brunswick, Ontario, the West, and the United States.
The battalion’s chaplain was Reverend William White, who had also played a leading role in forming the unit. He was given the rank of Honorary Captain, one of the few Black commissioned officers to serve in Canada’s First World War army.
The segregated battalion was tasked with non-combat support roles.
After initial service in Canada, members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion boarded the SS Southland bound for Liverpool, England, in March 1917.
Deployed to eastern France where they served alongside Forestry Corps units, they helped provide the lumber required to maintain trenches on the front lines, and to construct roads, bridges, and railways.
A detachment sent to the Front came under enemy fire during the German offensive in the spring of 1918. There were no battle casualties.
After the end of the First World War in November 1918, the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion sailed to Halifax in early 1919 to return to civilian life. The unit was officially disbanded in 1920.
Department of National Defence