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Black History Showcase To Celebrate Canada’s All-Black Unit During World War 1

The No. 2 Construction Battalion. Photo credit: Nova Scotia Archives.

Black History Showcase To Celebrate Canada’s All-Black Unit During World War 1

By Neil Armstrong
Contributing Editor

TORONTO, Ontario (Friday February 17, 2023) — Several construction trade unions and partnering organizations are collaborating with Afroglobal Television, to honour the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, during World War 1, as the highlight of their Black History Month celebration, which will be presented by the media company and hosted by the Carpenters’ Union.

Chris Campbell, Vice-president of Carpenters Union Local 27 and Director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Carpenters’ Regional Council, says its theme this year is: “Honouring the Past, Inventing the Future.”

“The Carpenters Regional Council stands in solidarity with our Black community members, Black Canadians, and all people of African descent. We are proud of the contributions they have made, and continue to make, to build our Union and our country. We strive to promote equity, diversity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging for all people within our organization,” Campbell stated.

Campbell says, at its celebration on February 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bellagio Boutique Event Space in Concord, Ontario, the Carpenters’ Union will present replicas of the $20 Fine Silver Coin that commemorates and recognizes the contributions of the No. 2 Construction Battalion of Nova Scotia, as these were fellow comrades in the construction field.

The keynote speaker of the event will be Jean Augustine, who, in 1993, made history as the first African-Canadian woman to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons as the Member of Parliament of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. She served with distinction winning four consecutive elections until she decided to move on to new challenges in 2006.

Chris Campbell, Vice President, Carpenters Union Local 27 and Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Carpenters’ Regional Council. Photo contributed.

An article about the No. 2 Construction Battalion, written by Lindsay Ruck, in the Canadian Encyclopedia, indicates that it was the largest Black unit in Canadian history. 

“On 9 July 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized, on behalf of the federal government, to the descendants of No. 2 Construction Battalion for the systemic racism experienced by members of the battalion. In the ceremony at Truro, Nova Scotia, he also announced that the Royal Canadian Mint would honour the battalion with a commemorative coin for Black History Month in February 2023,” notes the article, which was initially written in June 2016 and updated in August 2022.

At the end of last month, the Royal Canadian Mint announced the release of the coin on its website and paid homage to the No. 2 Construction Battalion with the following preamble.

“They served with distinction, and they were willing to risk their lives to preserve the very rights and freedoms that weren’t always afforded to them before, during and after the First World War. From the unit’s formation in 1916 until its disbandment in 1920, the members of No. 2 Construction Battalion — the largest all-Black battalion-sized unit in Canadian military history — persevered, in the face of anti-Black racism, to provide vital support to Canada’s war effort, by assisting Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) lumber operations in France.

“This 99.99% pure silver coin honours the brave men, who served in No. 2 Construction Battalion, and brings to light their often-overlooked contribution in the First World War. Despite racial prejudice, the members of No. 2 Construction Battalion persevered in their determination to serve, and a century later, their legacy remains an inspiration.”

The Royal Canadian Mint notes that it is Coin #5 in their annual Commemorating Black History series, which celebrates the achievements of Black Canadians and highlights the struggles that are an important part of Canada’s story.

This is the first coin to highlight Black military history in Canada and the experiences of Black Canadian soldiers,” it said.

The Royal Canadian Mint certifies all of its collector coins, including this one, which has a limited mintage of just 5,500 coins, worldwide.

The reverse design of this coin, by artist Kwame Delfish, features a soldier of No. 2 Construction Battalion, standing at attention between two railroad tracks. His battalion’s cap badge is prominently displayed on his right, adjacent to a landscape of France’s Jura region, where the battalion assisted with logging and building a railroad. To his left, battalion comrades marching in a parade prior to their March 1917 deployment to Europe, notes a press release from the Royal Canadian Mint.

“The existence and accomplishments of the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion is another part of Canadian history that is to be acknowledged, celebrated and honoured forever,” said artist Kwame Delfish. “I hope I was able to capture these honourable men in a way that represents their strength and resilience, while also raising awareness about the important role that No. 2 Construction Battalion had in the Canadian armed forces.”

The obverse of the coin features an updated obverse design that will appear on 2023 collector and bullion coins until a new permanent obverse is adopted on Canadian coins.  The Susanna Blunt-designed effigy of Queen Elizabeth II, set against a repeating maple leaf-patterned background, is accompanied by a special marking consisting of a vertical inscription of the dates “1952” and “2022”, separated by four pearls symbolizing the four effigies that have graced Canadian coins throughout the reign. 

The cost of the $20 coin is $99.95 and there is no GST/HST and, in terms of packaging, the coin is encapsulated and presented in a black Royal Canadian Mint-branded clamshell with a black beauty box.

“In 1916, Canada set an ambitious target of one-half million recruits and the number of available White volunteers was dropping. Thousands of Blacks had volunteered but [had] been rejected. Official government policy stated that “There is no colour line; coloured battalions are not to be raised; coloured men are to be allowed to enlist in any battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” write Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze in their book, Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience.

Despite this, they were shut out at recruitment offices but, according to the book, renewed their attempts to form all-Black regiments.

“Black Canadian leaders persisted and, in what was viewed as a human-rights victory, forced the issue to be debated in the House of Commons. Finally, authorization was given for the creation of an all-Black unit. In 1916 the Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed, its Black soldiers recruited from across Canada. Clearly, this was a compromise move by Ottawa, but an important first step for Blacks,” notes the book.

Alexander and Glaze write that the battalion was a concession. “Barring Blacks from enlisting was deemed anti-democratic. The only solution was to give them a regiment of their own, albeit one ruled by white officers. It was a temporary measure, which allowed the Canadian military to circumvent more difficult issues of inclusion and integration. Once again, it appeared that exceptions would be made during war-time, but after the conflict ended the status quo returned.”

In the book, My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Stanley G. Grizzle notes that: “The Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion recruited into its service 850 men from across the country, mainly Nova Scotia and Ontario. The Officers were all white. The No. 2 Construction Battalion served overseas in England and France, but were never allowed into battle.”

Alexander and Glaze write that between 1914 and 1918, “Black Canadians at home were actively involved in the war effort. Black associations, on their own and in cooperation with white groups, launched fundraising campaigns and distributed propaganda leaflets. Some Black agencies were founded specifically, to help Canada during these years of crisis.”

In her book, Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, Natasha L. Henry writes: “During the First World War, dozens of Windsor’s Black men enlisted in the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion in 1916, whose duties included logging, milling, and shipping.” These Black volunteer militiamen were allowed to serve as non-combat troops in the battalion. 

In a later edition, Henry notes that the construction unit’s duties included building roads and bridges, defusing land mines, logging, shipping, and milling. “Later, Black men were able to enlist in racially integrated units in the Second World War.”

Alexander and Glaze further state that even though “several Blacks served with distinction in white regiments, there was never any intention of allowing the “No. 2s” into battle.”

The Nova Scotia Archives underscores that the No. 2 Construction Battalion was “the only Canadian battalion composed of Black soldiers to serve in that war, and indeed, the only predominantly Black battalion ever, in Canadian military history.” The battalion was authorized on July 5, 1916.

Campbell, who is also a member of the George Brown College Foundation Board of Directors, will announce the new $100,000 endowment scholarship for Construction and Trades students at George Brown College.

The Chris Campbell Perseverance Award will support full-time students enrolled at the Angelo DelZotto School of Construction Management and the School of Apprenticeship and Skilled Trades at the Centre for Construction and Engineering Technologies. 

These programs offer hands-on training that provide the technical expertise and the skills critical to excel in these industries. Furthermore, this award will highlight and recognize the achievements of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) students in these programs, who demonstrate passion and commitment to their field of study through their extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, and involvement in the classroom.

Campbell has always encouraged youths to start a career in the unionized construction skills trade industry that provides a liveable wage, pension, benefits, training, and a sense of pride for being a part of building the province. 

With the support of the District Council of Ontario — which has over 30, 000 members — Campbell decided to establish the scholarship to assist young people pursuing a training certification course, diploma, or degree studies in the construction industry or labour studies. 

“Thirty-three years ago, I was fortunate to walk through the doors of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA) to start a career as a first-year apprentice at the 64 Signet Drive office. This is an opportunity to give back. It’s another chance to “walk the talk” of making a difference for many years to come for the local communities,” says Campbell.

Donations can be made to the scholarship fund and tax receipts are available for eligible donations.

The Black History Showcase on February 23 at 6:30 p.m. is presented by Afroglobal Television, Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, the Painters Union, the Plumbers Union, and other partners. Silvertrust Media and the Transformation Institute for Leadership and Innovation are the principal project development and implementation partners. It is free to attend, but requires registration or RSVP at: info@afroglobaltelevision.com

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