Southwestern Ontario descendants of Canada’s first and only segregated military unit claim to seek justice and “transformative action” for the way black members were treated overseas during World War I and after their return home should go beyond a simple apology from the federal government.
The 2nd Construction Battalion was formed on July 5, 1916, following protests for the right of blacks to join the war effort. However, the volunteers were given tasks such as digging trenches, doing road works, laying barbed wire and burying the dead in dangerous conditions.
“I would like to see these men celebrated for the heroes they were,” said Barbara Porter, who is related to three battalion members and is vice president of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum (AFM).
“In any other culture they would have been called engineers, because that’s what they did – they built roads, whatever was needed for them.”
Porter’s grandfather Alfred Augustus Tudor and his two great uncles served in the unit. She made it her mission to find other descendants and piece together the remnants of the history of one of Canada’s most important battalions.
Porter and other AFM members have worked over the past four years to uncover the list of people from southwestern Ontario who enlisted in the 2nd Battalion.
Although she welcomes the government’s intention to apologize, Porter also said she was late.
“I think not only should we apologize for what happened to these men and how they were treated like second-class citizens, but the government should consider apologizing to all black people – regarding the ‘slavery, we must start to heal this country. ”
Porter said the museum was trying to contact others to collect photos and information on members who served in the battalion.
Elise Harding-Davis, African-Canadian heritage consultant and former AFM curator, hopes the government’s apology will spark a dialogue. But she is skeptical, given that it took 105 years to announce the apology. In addition, she added, the men of Battalion No.2 were subjected to poor living conditions compared to their white compatriots, while carrying out their duties without having the means to defend themselves properly.
“It was a war … but we weren’t going to get a gun. We were going to give us a shovel.”
Even returning from the war, Harding-Davis added, members of the 2nd Battalion were often not greeted with praise and praise.
“Few people received a veteran’s pension … While many white men who returned became teachers or got government jobs, this did not happen for black men. A few did. – some have received medals, but a medal does not feed. your family. ”
Now, with Ottawa’s announced plan, Harding-Davis is hoping that transformative action will take place, in addition to an apology.
“I hope this is not a political ploy and I hope it really is some sort of retributive justice, maybe more black people in leading roles in the military.”
‘They had to do what they could’
AFM Secretary Phil Alexander was a child when he lived across from James Jacobs, who was from Windsor and enlisted to join the war effort in London, Ontario.
“I always tried to say hello to him because he was going on tour in the morning to deliver the mail … He and his wife were very nice people and came to the same church we attended.”
Alexander said he hadn’t heard much from Jacobs about racism during his time in the military, but it may have been necessary to play it down.
“I can only assume he met him because he didn’t complain about mistreatment,” Alexander said. “They had to do what they could to try to fit in and not be noticed as different because that would lead to severe negative treatment.”
Dorothy Wright Wallace is President of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Her father and uncle were in No. 2 Battalion, and Wallace’s father died as a child.
She said her father did not share specific experiences of racism, but the story speaks volumes.
“Once we got there, we handed them shovels and pickaxes, and that kind of message tells you right away and over there they were just there for manual labor.
LISTEN | Learn more from Wallace on what the federal government’s intention to apologize means to her
Afternoon in the car7:07Federal government to issue formal apology to Canada’s first and only racially isolated military unit
Call for apologies for all black members
Harding-Davis says the federal government must also make an effort to apologize to all black volunteers who served in the Canadian battalions.
“The people who would have appreciated the apology most are dead. There were four or five other units of black men who volunteered to fight for King and Country. Will they also apologize?”
For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from anti-black racism to successes within the black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a UKTN project of which black Canadians can be proud. You can read more stories here.