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‘Long overdue’: Ottawa will apologize for racist treatment of all-Black First World War battalion

Nova Scotian author Lindsay Ruck wrote the foreword in the 30th anniversary edition of 'The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret,' a book about an all-Black First World War battalion written by her grandfather, Calvin Ruck. She is pictured here in her Dartmouth home on March 27, 2021. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

After more than a hundred years, the federal government says it’s ready to apologize for the racist treatment of members of Canada’s only Black military unit, which served in the First World War.

Members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, formed in Pictou, N.S. in 1916, were turned away from the Canadian Expeditionary Force because they were Black, and after years of fighting for the right to serve, were given non-combat support roles overseas.

Deployed to France in 1917, they built roads, railways and bridges, ensuring lumber could be transported where it was needed.

In a virtual address on Sunday afternoon, the government said a meaningful apology to descendants and a commemoration ceremony will take place after community consultation is completed.

“They stepped forward and volunteered for our country only to be denied because of the colour of their skin,” said National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

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“More than our gratitude, we owe these members, their families, and their community an apology for the racism and discrimination they endured in their service to our country.”

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These actions are “long overdue” say members of the African Nova Scotian community who have close connections to the battalion.

“They dug trenches, they diffused landmines, they removed the wounded from the front lines. They were risking their lives every single day, but they were never given the proper weapons and supplies to defend themselves,” said Nova Scotia author Lindsay Ruck.

“When they came home, there was no celebration, there was no parade, and unfortunately they kind of just disappeared and nobody talked about them until my grandfather’s book came out.”

Calvin Ruck spent hours poring over Canada’s archives — “so determined to tell the story” of the battalion’s 600-plus members, her family is often mistaken as descendants, said Ruck. She wrote the foreword for the 30th edition of Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret. 

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In addition to the apology, Ruck said provincial governments should include the No. 2 Construction Battalion’s legacy in their school curriculum.

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“Saying we have an intent to apologize is fantastic and wonderful and should definitely happen, but that doesn’t make up for the 100-plus years that these men were not honoured properly and not given this apology,” she explained.

“So I certainly appreciate where it’s coming from, but it’s part of the puzzle and it’s certainly not the end, to make sure these men really deserve everything they deserve as true Canadian war heroes.”

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Most members of the Black Battalion were from Nova Scotia, but some came from New Brunswick, Ontario, Western Canada and the United States. Its members returned to Halifax in early 1919 to resume civilian life, and the unit was disbanded in 1920.

One of its most famed members is Rev. Capt. William White, who served as its chaplain and was one of few Black commissioned officers to serve in Canada’s First World War army.

White is the founder of Halifax’s New Horizons Baptist Church, where Pastor Rhonda Britton now presides.

Since her arrival in Nova Scotia, she told Global News, she has noticed other similarities in their paths: they both moved to Canada from the United States, became moderators of the African United Baptist Association, and pastored at the Second United Baptist Church in New Glasgow, which he founded.

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“In many ways, I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps,” she said. “We just bless God that he’s left quite a legacy.”

Pastor Rhonda Britton of New Horizons Baptist Church is pictured outside the Africville Museum in Halifax on Jan. 20, 2020. Britton is originally from Florida. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

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White’s descendants include opera singer Portia White, former Senator Donald Oliver, actor and teacher Lorne White, poet and professor George Elliott Clarke, and other famous artists, politicians, educators, and musicians. Two documentaries have been made about his life.

“It is so long overdue for the government to apologize for the racial discrimination experienced by men who considered themselves sons of this country, and wanted to fight for this country,” said Britton.

“In recognizing these efforts, in recognizing Captain White and his efforts —  like I said, being the encourager of these men as their chaplain, being their spiritual leadership at that time — it’s something that the Black community has been waiting for.”

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A commemoration ceremony is held for the No. 2 Construction Battalion in Pictou, N.S. every year. Descendants and their allies, including former Halifax West MP Gordon Earle, have been pushing the government to apologize for generations.

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