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The First Black Battalion in Canada

For the week of Monday June 30, 2003

On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was established in Pictou, Nova Scotia. The need to recruit more men during the First World War enabled the creation of this first Black battalion in Canadian history.

Reverend William White

Reverend William White
© Veterans Affairs Canada

After the conquest of New France in 1763, Black North Americans had begun to show their patriotism to the British crown. During the American Revolution (1775-83), many of them answered the call from Great Britain to escape the yoke of slavery and join the British. During the War of 1812, they defended Upper Canada against American attacks. They also participated in quelling the Upper Canada Rebellion (1837-39) and in the Boer War (1899-1902). Despite these acts of bravery, slavery was not abolished in British North America until 1834. Abolition, however, did not mean that Blacks were on equal footing with whites. Widespread racial prejudices meant that African-Canadians were often victims of discrimination and even violence.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Canadian Armed Forces refused to enroll Blacks by falsely stating that they were inferior and incapable of going to war. The strong determination of the Blacks to be accepted and their sense of responsibility to their country during times of war pushed them to pressure the government, particularly by organizing protests. In May 1916, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden approved the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. However, this segregated unit faced discrimination early on, which led to a decrease in its number of volunteers. Despite everything, the Canadian Army was able to recruit 603 people, mostly from Nova Scotia and southern Ontario. In this battalion, all officers were white, with the exception of Reverend William A. White, who became the first Black officer in the Canadian Army.

Pictou, N.S., 1916: The band of No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF.

Pictou, N.S., 1916: The band of
No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF.

© National Defense

The Black soldiers in this battalion worked primarily in the logging industry and lumber mills supplying the allied need for wood products. Two years after the First World War ended, the battalion was disbanded. The creation of this battalion was made possible as a result of the remarkable efforts of these men who wanted to be respected in their country at any cost. The experience of the men of this unit clearly reflects the history of all Blacks in Canada. Despite the barriers imposed on this minority, they continue to fight for full acceptance in Canada’s multicultural society.

In 1992, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F. was designated an event of national historic significance and a commemorative plaque was placed in Pictou the following year.

For more information on the No. 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F., please visit the Veterans Affairs Canada Web site.

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