100 years ago today, Canada’s black battalion set sail for WWI and made history

Part of our history:

They faced racism and discrimination, and they had to fight a battle at home before they could represent Canada in the First World War.

Now families of the so-called black battalion say the soldiers’ struggles carry new relevance, given the state of the world today.

Many black men were rejected from enlisting during the First World War because of the colour of their skin.

In 1916, Canada allowed them to form the No. 2 Construction Battalion based in Pictou, N.S. It was Canada’s first and only segregated military unit. Nearly half of the battalion’s 600 members were from Nova Scotia.

“When they were told ‘This is not your war, this is a white man’s war,’ they were in effect being told ‘This is not your country,” said Douglas Ruck.

‘Wall built of bigotry’

Ruck’s father, the late Senator Calvin Ruck, is credited for bringing the battalion’s untold story to the forefront when he wrote a book about their struggles. Douglas Ruck continues to act as a public speaker, championing their accomplishments.

Douglas Ruck

Douglas Ruck says its unimaginable that the Construction Battalion had to fight to represent a country that didn’t want them. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

“They were in effect separated by the rest of the forces and the rest of the country by a wall,” said Ruck, drawing parallels to race debates ongoing in the United States.

“A wall built of bigotry, a wall built of prejudice, a wall built of irrational fears, a wall built of hatred.”

Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the battalion’s departure to Europe. Even getting on the ship was a struggle. They were blocked from getting on their scheduled vessel because they were told they couldn’t travel with white soldiers.

Cultural history

Craig Smith, president of Nova Scotia’s Black Cultural Society, agrees that the timing of this anniversary is significant, coming days after the International Day to Eliminate Racism.

“If there was a time for us to need to come together, for the need for cohesion, the need to bring organizations together, now would be the time,” he said.

“It’s an amazing piece of cultural history in Nova Scotia, not just here, but one that resonates across the country.”

Source: 100 years ago today, Canada’s black battalion set sail for WWI and made history – Nova Scotia – CBC News

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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