No. 2 Construction Battalion
Fighting for a country that didn’t want them.
On March 25 1917, Canada’s first and only black military unit left Halifax harbor for the Western Front. Six hundred soldiers, mostly from Nova Scotia, formed up as No. 2 Construction Battalion. Many had been trying to enlist since 1914, but winning this privilege had been an up-hill fight: for two years military authorities had turned down black recruits, telling them “This is a white man’s war.”
Finally, in 1916, Canada allowed black recruits entry into a segregated united of laborers. An additional 165 African-Americans crossed the border to join them, creating a full complement of 600 men. Winning the struggle to join up hardly ended discrimination. Except for the reverend, all officers were white, and even when they went to board their transport ship on March 25 the captain initially refused to let them on, saying that he would not let them travel on the same vessel as white soldiers.
The recruits hoped to be allowed to fight when they reached France, but instead the Canadian Expediotnary Force immediately downgraded them from a battalion to a company and assigned them to fell trees and prepare positions for white soldiers. They were not ever even issued with rifles. Their work was tedious and demoralizing, and many considered themselves failures even as they suffered casualties from artillery shells and poison gas.
The unit returned to Canada in 1919, but received no fanfare upon arrival. Much like America’s black soldiers, they returned to a country that did not value them or their sacrifice and actively oppressed their rights. Most of these veterans returned to poverty and unemployment. When they finally had their first reunion in 1982, only nine could attend from twenty known survivors. Their legacy and sacrifice has been revived since then. Although very few men were allowed the chance to serve, they began the first crack in the Canadian military’s institutionalized racism.