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Loggers, not Fighters

As part of Black History Month, Canada Post issued a new stamp to commemorate No 2. Construction Battalion. The battalion was formed as an all-Black labour unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in 1916 to address the persistent exclusion of African Canadian volunteers by Canadian recruiting officers. The No. 2 Construction Battalion is often celebrated as a stepping-stone toward racial equality in Canada because it provided African Canadians with an opportunity to share in the ordeal of the First World War, a conflict celebrated as an important milestone on the road to Canadian nationhood. While this unit provides a clear example of African Canadian participation in the First World War, the formation of this segregated unit, and the conditions that led to its formation, reveals the extent to which racial prejudice was exercised in Canada at the time.

Beginning with the outbreak of war in 1914, the Canadian popular press clamoured in favour of a strong Canadian contribution of men and material for the imperial war effort, as a means of proving Canada’s status as a self-governing nation of the British empire. This rhetoric equated military service as the patriotic responsibility that accompanied the privileges of British subjects in Canada. African Canadian communities in Canada, some of which trace their origins to the practice of slavery in British North America, still faced various forms of segregation. Many hoped that military service in the current war would secure their status as equal citizens. Canadian defence legislation did not restrict enlistment by race, as it did in Australia, but African Canadians who attempted to enlist in the CEF were rejected by recruiting officers. The Commanding Officer of a battalion had the final say in accepting a recruit into his unit and many exercised this power to prevent African Canadians from enlisting. Historians who study this chapter of Canadian history explain this exclusion as a product of contemporary theories of racial hierarchies that categorized peoples of African descent as “militarily incompetent.”[1] This interpretation that racial segregation in the CEF was enforced by officers who applied the kind of martial race theory practised in contemporary colonial armies is, however, inaccurate. The documents surrounding the enlistment of African Canadians reveal that racial exclusion was more deeply ingrained in Canadian society.

Historians can uncover the motives behind the consistent exclusion of African Canadian volunteers because these decisions generated a significant amount of paperwork. The Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, received complaints from African Canadian volunteers and responded by demanding explanations from regional and local recruiting authorities. By reading this correspondence, it is clear that few of the offending officers believed that African Canadian soldiers were unfit for combat. Colonel Duff Stuart, Officer Commanding of militia units in British Columbia reported that it was the “universal opinion” among the Officers under his command that “white men here will not serve in the same ranks as with negros or coloured persons.”[2] Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Thompson of the 114th Battalion felt that taking in African Canadian soldiers “would undoubtedly cause serious friction and discontent” among his men.[3]  Lieutenant Colonel W.H. Allen, commanding the 106th Battalion in Truro, Nova Scotia, even conceded that African Canadians “would make good soldiers” but stated that neither he nor his men “would care to sleep alongside them, or to eat with them, especially in warm weather.”[4] Such was the bigotry that persisted in Canadian society.

In some cases, African Canadian volunteers were simply told to enlist elsewhere. Benjamin Washington, a farmer from High Prairie, Alberta, travelled to Edmonton to enlist and was found medically fit for military service but was told to enlist with a fictional all-Black battalion in Montreal.[5] Twenty African Canadian men attempted to enlist with the 104th Battalion in Sussex, New Brunswick, but were told by the battalion second-in-command that a “Colored Battalion was being formed in Ontario and to go there.”[6] Lieutenant Colonel Beverly Armstrong, Deputy Assistant to the Adjutant and Quartermaster General of New Brunswick’s Militia District, wired Sir Sam Hughes reporting that these twenty volunteers were medically fit for service and enquired whether a “colored Battalion” was being formed in “any part of Canada,” where they could be transferred.[7] No one denied that these men were fit for service in an infantry battalion. These recruiters believed that African Canadians could fight, but insisted they enlist somewhere else.

Other officers were more tactful in their correspondence but their responses echoed the same logic of exclusion. Lieutenant Colonel Rowland of the 119th Battalion, in Sault Ste Marie, reasoned against taking African Canadian volunteers because they “would not find themselves at home in this northern climate, nor with the men in this battalion.”[8] Lieutenant John McPhee of the 117th Battalion explained that his battalion was raised in Simcoe County and, if there were any African Canadians in Simcoe County, “we would be glad to have them” in his battalion. Because this was not the case, McPhee did not take African Canadian recruits.[9] A neighbouring battalion provided a similar response, stating that “there are no coloured people in the County of Simcoe, and not a single coloured person in the Overseas Simcoe Foresters.”[10] While avoiding any explicitly racist rhetoric, the officers commanding these local battalions would not accept African volunteers in their units on the reason that there were no African peoples in their community.

The correspondence surrounding the enlistment of African Canadians reveals that the rejection of African Canadian recruits had little to do with pseudo-scientific rationalizations of martial race theory. The battalions of the CEF were community efforts, with prominent citizens leading the effort by commissioning as officers in their local battalion or by serving as members of their local recruiting committee. African Canadian volunteers were kept from enlisting to preserve the racial homogeneity of these local battalions. Officers Commanding agreed that African Canadians could and should enlist, so long as they enlisted someplace else. This logic was practised in units from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and the Maritimes, offering a glimpse into the extent of racial segregation in Canadian society.

The Militia Council did nothing to reverse the decisions made by local recruiting authorities and only extended this logic of exclusion by forming a segregated battalion for African Canadian soldiers in Pictou, later Truro, Nova Scotia. Pictou and Truro were two of the most populous African Canadian communities in Canada, but the two towns could not provide enough recruits to fill the battalion. Most African Canadian men in these communities who were of military age worked as coal miners and, being essential to the war economy, were ineligible to enlist. Filling the ranks of No. 2 Construction Battalion effectively required many African Canadian volunteers to leave their home town to enlist with men of their own race, which also allowed officers in the CEF to continue practising a personal policy of racial segregation in their own units. Facing these challenges, No. 2 Construction Battalion never reached full strength. The unit was downgraded to a company and integrated into the Canadian Forestry Corps. With popular rhetoric already abuzz with stories of Canadian soldiers forging a new nation on the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme, later Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, the segregation of an African Canadians into a labour unit guaranteed they would be left out of these heroic narratives.

The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion remains the most visible example of African Canadian participation in the First World War. This battalion provides a rallying point to honour the service of African Canadians, but the documentary record surrounding of the battalion’s organization also reveals the reasons that precipitated the decision to form this unit. Uncovering the other side of this battalion’s story provides a stark reminder of the history of segregation in Canada, and the obstacles African Canadians sought to overcome through military service and sacrifice.

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A Company, No. 2 Construction Battalion. Nova Scotia Archives 1981-337.

**This post is drawn from ongoing academic research and is intended for future publication. Please do not reproduce the content of this blog without the permission of the author.**

[1] James W. St G. Walker, “Race and recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of visible minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol 70, no. 1 (1989): 25.

[2] From J.Duff-Stuart to E.F. Jarvis, 9 December 1915. Ibid.

[3] Letter from A. Thompson to W.A.Logie, 4 April 1916. Ibid.

[4] Letter from W.H. Allen to A.H.H. Powell, 14 December 1915. RG 24. Vol. 1206. 297-1-21. Enlistment of Coloured Men in the Canadian Militia. LAC..

[5] Letter from G. Martin to E.A. Cruikshank, 17 March 1916. RG 24. Vol 4739. 448-14-259. Coloured Battalion for Alberta. LAC.

[6] Letter from J.T. Richards to Sam Hughes, 21 November 1915. RG 24. Vol. 1206. 297-1-21. Enlistment of Coloured Men in the Canadian Militia. LAC.

[7] Telegram from B.R. Armstrong to S. Hughes, 18 November 1915. RG 24. Vol. 1206. 297-1-21. Enlistment of Coloured Men in the Canadian Militia. LAC.

[8] Letter from V.P. Rowland to W.A.Logie, 5 April 1916. RG24-C-8, Vol. 4387, File MD2-34-7-141. Organization Colored Platoons. LAC.

[9] Letter from J.B. McPhee to W.A.Logie, 5 April 1916. RG24-C-8, Vol. 4387, File MD2-34-7-141. Organization Colored Platoons. LAC.

[10] Letter from D.H. MacLean to W.A.Logie, 6 April 1916. RG24-C-8, Vol. 4387, File MD2-34-7-141. Organization Colored Platoons. LAC.

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