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African-Canadians of No. 2 Construction Battalion fought to serve

July 5 marks 100 years since the battalion was formed. It was a segregated, non-combat unit and was 'a shameful chapter in the history of this country.'
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Their tools of war were axes and saws, not rifles and mortars. They spent their First World War service as lumbermen and builders, not as front-line soldiers, which was a choice that was taken from them.

The black men of No. 2 Construction Battalion were denied entry to combat units during the war due, solely, to the colour of their skin. 
 
"The story of No. 2 Construction Battalion and the service of black soldiers has not been terribly well told over the years. There are so many facets of the Great War, so many large battles and so on," said Ken Hynes, curator at Army Museum Halifax Citadel.
 
"The story of No. 2 is of one unit in an army of 620,000 soldiers. From a Canadian perspective, it is a very small story. But from a Nova Scotia perspective, it's a huge story and it's indicative of the struggles that the black community had serving their country during the Great War." 
 
Despite a 1914 edict from Sam Hughes, Canada's minister of militia, that all able-bodied men be allowed to sign up, it was the order of the day that the final decision was left up to commanding officers who could turn down a volunteer who wanted to enlist in their battalions. Most of the black men were denied by COs.
 
"Institutional racism was rampant at that time and personal racism was evident as well," Hynes said during an interview.
 
"The other part of the story which isn't as well known is that there were other black soldiers who eventually were able to join other battalions," said Hynes.
 
Thousands of men, black and white, were part of the wave of patriotism that swept Canada after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. 
 
After many blacks tried to enlist and were denied, their supporters wrote letters to the federal government and the issue was debated in the House of Commons.
 
It wasn't until 1916 that Canada's militia minister approved the formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion. A recruitment poster read "Colored Men! Your King and Country Need You! Now is the time to show your Patriotism and Loyalty."
 
When the unit did make it to Europe, it was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps in the Jura Mountains, far behind the front lines of the Western Front. There, the men felled trees, milled lumber and shipped it to the front where it was used for duckboards and shoring materials for trenches.
 
"The fact that approximately 600 Black soldiers served in a segregated, non-combatant labour battalion during World War One has been one of the best kept secrets in Canadian military history," writes Sen. Calvin Ruck in his 1986 book, Canada's Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920. It was published by the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
 
Book coverA new 30th-anniversary edition of Calvin Ruck's book about the No. 2 Construction Battalion was released this weekend. 
"The story of the overt racist treatment accorded Black volunteers is a shameful chapter in the history of this country."
 
The late senator wrote his book following a 1980s reunion of the battalion and to pay tribute to the unknown and unsung veterans. His inspiration, however, came years earlier, in the 1940s, when as a CN worker, he met fellow sleeping-car porters who were veterans of No. 2. Ruck had noticed and asked about their battalion lapel pins. 
 
In the decades following his years with CN, Ruck graduated from the Maritime School of Social Work at Dalhousie University, and he worked as a civil servant for more than 40 years and was a well-known advocate for human rights in Nova Scotia. He was appointed to the Senate in 1998. Ruck died in 2004 at age 79.
 
The senator's granddaughter, Lindsay Ruck, has written a new foreword for the 30th-anniversary edition of the book, renamed The Black Battalion: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret (Nimbus Publishing).
 
"For a long time, my grandfather's book was the only concrete piece of literature on the black battalion so its significance is great. Sadly, kids aren't learning about it in schools and I would have no knowledge of its (the battalion's) existence had it not been for my grandfather's book. It is greatly significant for the black community to have this story immortalized through the written word. Descendants of these brave men can be proud knowing my grandfather and more and more individuals are recognizing their fathers, uncles and grandfathers," Lindsay Ruck said in an email interview.
 
She said the book has historical significance for Canadians.
 
"While we shouldn't dwell on the past, it's still important to know our history and appreciate the sacrifices made by those before us. ... This piece of history should not only be important to the black community. It should resonate with every community as these men fought for a country who would not fight for their basic human rights, and that should be recognized by everyone, no matter their race," said Lindsay Ruck.
 

'This piece of history should not only be important to the black community.
It should resonate with every community as these men fought for a country who would not fight for their basic human rights, and that should be recognized by everyone, no matter their race.'


- Lindsay Ruck, granddaughter of Sen. Calvin Ruck, author of Canada's Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction Battalion


 

No. 2 Construction Battalion is not a household name in Nova Scotia, but since Calvin Ruck wrote his book in the '80s, there have been other efforts to tell the battalion's story and honour the veterans:
  • a memorial to the black battalion was installed at Pictou's Market Wharf in 1993. Pictou was the battalion's first base.
  • the Army Museum Halifax Citadel has a permanent display on the black battalion 
  • a stamp honouring the battalion was released in February
  • the new edition of Calvin Ruck's book arrived in bookstores on the Canada Day weekend
  • the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo pays homage to No. 2 Construction Battalion in this year's production
 
Two of the Tattoo performers, Gerry Clarke and John Redmon, donned the uniform of No. 2 servicemen for their roles, uniforms that are identical to the ones their ancestors wore.
 
Redmon's great-uncle, James Parris, was one of the soldiers who laboured with the black battalion.
 
"He passed away prior to my birth but I'd seen photos of him in his uniform and always wondered about him. ... Very little is known of his service.
 
"I'm assuming the James Parris on the nominal role was the same James Parris because it indicates he came from Barbados originally, lived in Nova Scotia and settled in Montreal and that is in line with the history of my great-uncle Jim."
 
Redmon, 66, of Ottawa, says he is honoured to have been asked to take part in this year's Tattoo and to co-ordinate the scene. He is a retired major, who served in the Canadian Army for more than 40 years.
 
For his role, Clarke, 73, of Halifax, wore an officer's uniform like his grandfather did a century ago. Rev. William White was the unit's chaplain and held the rank of captain. He was the only one of a few black officers in the British Empire.
 
062916TattooSoldiers1John Redmon and Gerry Clarke are playing the role of No. 2 Construction Battalion soldiers in the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)
"He (White) was originally from Virginia and he came to Nova Scotia through the efforts of a missionary ... and he became the second black person to graduate from Acadia. He established several black churches in Nova Scotia, the first being in New Glasgow. Shortly after the war started, he felt the call to get into the army and to try to bring black soldiers into the military. ... He wrote letters on behalf of potential soldiers, and eventually was successful," Clarke said.
 
"That was a huge undertaking, a huge success."
 
 
Clarke, a retired math and science teacher, says it is important to remember the work of the battalion and to honour the men's service, which is why he said he agreed to participate in the Tattoo.
 
"I considered it to be an honour, a family honour and a general honour for the community and the military and so, of course, I said yes."
 
Lindsay Ruck attended the Tattoo's Canada Day show and was invited to take the traditional military salute at the end of the show, along with other dignitaries.
 
"It was an incredible experience. I must admit I almost broke into tears several times. I was unbelievably honoured to be there. I kept thinking about how this all began because my grandfather was first curious to find out more and then driven to tell their story and honour them decades later. He would have been so proud," she said.
 
OF NOTE
  • On July 5, exactly 100 years since the black battalion was authorized, there will be a private event at Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. In attendance will be descendants of the battalion's veterans, including those of Lt.-Col. Daniel Sutherland, the unit's commanding officer.
  • On July 9, there will be a parade and commemoration service in Pictou to mark the No. 2 Construction Battalion's centenary. The parade will take place on Caladh Avenue, starting at 10:30 a.m. The service will follow at the deCoste Centre. All welcome.
  • The 2016 Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo runs to July 7.


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Christine Soucie Madill

About the Author: Christine Soucie Madill

Christine Soucie Madill has been a reporter and editor for 30 years. She has an interest in history, in particular the First World War.
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