Apology to No. 2 Construction Battalion set for July

No. 2 Construction Battalion

Members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Photo Courtesy Black Cultural Centre For Nova Scotia.

Joanie Veitch 
Trident Newspaper

In a recent event coordinated with the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, the Federal Government reaffirmed its commitment to apologize for the treatment of No. 2 Construction Battalion members, Canada’s only all-Black unit active during the First World War.

“[This] is an important step to address this historical wrong and to ensure that we learn from the past so that we build a more equitable and just future for the members of our Canadian Armed Forces,” said Anita Anand, Minister of National Defence, via Zoom.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Black men across the country responded to the call but were turned away by recruiters. They persisted and finally on July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was established in Pictou, NS, before being transferred to Truro.

More than 600 Black men volunteered for service — with about 300 from Nova Scotia and the rest from other parts of Canada, the United States, and even some from the British West Indies.

In his remarks, Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre, paid tribute to the research and work done by the late Calvin Ruck, who, in 1986, published Canada’s Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916 – 1920; and the late Captain (Retired) George Borden, for his work in advocating for recognition of the battalion.

“The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion is a story of resilience, pride, and honour that was unfortunately marred by the effects of racial discrimination,” he said.

Over the past year, a National Apology Advisory Committee, created by the Black Cultural Centre in partnership with the government, has held a series of consultations in an effort to engage with as many descendants as possible.

While the apology is an important step forward, Douglas Ruck, son of Calvin Ruck, and a member of the National Apology Advisory Committee, said what happens next is equally important.

“That’s the unknown,” he said, adding that if the apology is not followed by “substantive actions” then the words, despite the best of intentions, will have no meaning.

“Not only is it time for the men of the battalion and their descendants to receive an apology, it’s time that changes take place. We heard the Minister’s commitment to reforming, restructuring, and improving the Canadian Armed Forces; the time is here to make sure that happens,” said Ruck.

At an earlier online event, held in recognition of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and hosted by the Maritime Forces Atlantic Defence Visible Minority Advisory Group, Anthony Sherwood was featured as guest speaker. 

An actor and activist, Sherwood can trace his roots in Nova Scotia back to the late 1700s; he is also a member of the National Apology Advisory Committee.

Sherwood’s great uncle, Reverend William Andrew White spearheaded the movement to allow Blacks to enlist, and eventually became chaplain of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

When Sherwood read the diary his great uncle kept during the war, it inspired him to create Honour Before Glory, a film about the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which he produced in 2001.

In 2016, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Sherwood wrote and produced The Colour of Courage, based on a story from his great uncle’s war diary.

The official apology to the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, and their descendants, will take place on July 9 in Truro, N.S.

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