At the outset of the Second World War, a group of Canadian and Caribbean men and their allies stood up to join the effort to defend their country and the world against Nazi tyranny. But they were told ‘no’– rejected by Canada from serving because they were Black.
“The Airforce and the Navy had very restrictive policies about who could join at the outset of the war,”said Canadian filmmaker, Adrian Callender. He is the writer and director behind a new Canadian original documentary, Black Liberators WWII — exploring the untold stories of Black Canadian soldiers and their allies who served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War.
“Their desire to fight, their patriotism really forced Canada to rethink its treatment of Black people in the Canadian military.”
He says some Black Canadians eager to enlist, like Sam Estwick, took their case to Ottawa to petition the country to allow them to serve. Eventually, the Royal Canadian Air Force dropped their racist restrictions in 1942, and Estwick went on to become a flight lieutenant with the RCAF.
Estwick would be one out of a handful of Black Canadians, at first, to break the colour barrier — opening the door for more to follow.
“They went into the Royal Canadian Air Force, they went over and some fought at D-Day … they went overseas … they went to all the different battles, they helped to liberate Holland,” said Kathy Grant, public historian and contributor to the Black Liberators WWII documentary. Her father, Owen Rowe, joined the Canadian army in 1942 as a Royal Canadian Corps of Signals member and later as a soldier in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“They served like everybody else. They served — they wanted to defend their country. Even though their country may not have loved them as much,” said Grant. “They loved Canada, my Dad loved Canada, and you speak to all the veterans … they wanted things to be better for their children, their wives, like everybody else.”
Callender and Grant say that despite the valiant contributions of Black Canadian soldiers, in the pages of Canadian history books their names and stories have largely gone unwritten. The two are now on a mission to highlight their forgotten efforts in the documentary — which tells the stories in their own voices — of seven Black Canadians who answered the call to arms.
“I think we as a culture, we just get into this mode of telling stories the same way over and over,” said Callender.
For Grant, it was important to document the stories because of the tendency for Canadian history to be told through an exclusive lens.
“Most people are familiar with seeing a certain type of story and we’re just trying to introduce other stories,” she said.
She said for many Black Canadians enlisting in the army, it meant feeling for the first time like they were part of a collective, like they were valued.
“They were treated like men for the first time and it really made a difference and a huge impact for them that they were treated like they were part of a team.”
Grant says these men — who back home in Canada were subjected to racism and discrimination — weren’t only fighting to free the world from the Nazis, but to free themselves.
“Here it is, they are over in Europe — you’re eating in these fancy restaurants and you’re being served and you come back to Canada and they say, ‘we don’t serve these people,” said Grant. “That really hit hard.”
“They were fighting for their rights on Canadian soil as much as they were fighting for Canada.”
For Callender, it’s why documenting the stories of Black Canadian veterans, in their own voices, is so important.
“Their contributions to the country, their contributions to the Canadian military — it’s an ongoing project, you know? Equity is an ongoing project,” said Callender.
“We have to realize the stories of all of us, of all Canadians. We all contributed to the story of Canada and how Canada arrived at the place that it is today.”