Remembering Canada’s only all black battalion from World War I

By John Brannen    Published on July 7, 2013
PICTOU – It was 20 years ago that former mayor of Pictou, Lawrence LeBlanc, requested the Black Cultural Society for Nova Scotia hold a ceremony commemorating World War One’s only black battalion in Pictou.
Now 20 years later, the ceremony honoring the only predominantly black battalion in Canadian military history is alive and well.
Members of the black community, Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia, Town of Pictou and Canadian Armed Forces, were in attendance at the deCoste Centre for the 20th commemoration of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Special guests in attendance included their honours, Lieutenant Governor J. J. Grant, his wife Joan, MP Peter Mackay, Pictou Mayor Joe Hawes, and Pastor Brian Johnston, president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia.
“[The Society] honours the officers and men from across Canada, the United States and the Caribbean who showed that persons of African heritage could rise above the humiliating treatment and racial bigotry to serve in Canada’s No. 2 Construction Battalion, 1916 to 1918,” said Johnston.

Lt.-Col. Chip Madic, left, salutes as he marches past Lt. Gov. J. J. Grant, Pastor Brian Johnston, MP Peter Mackay and Pictou Mayor Joe Hawes. 
In honour of the town’s support of the ceremony for 20 years, Johnston presented a certificate to Hawes and former mayor LeBlanc on behalf of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia.
“This is going to hang in council chambers where it can be seen by all,” said Hawes.
When LeBlanc took to the podium he recognized the efforts of the late senator Calvin Ruck, a noted activist for equal rights in Nova Scotia, saying he was “truly a gentleman.”
Through their efforts, the Market Wharf in Pictou was declared a national historic site on July 9, 1993.
“Today on our 20th anniversary remembrance ceremony, we celebrate the legacy of those veterans as we look toward a more enlightened future,” said Johnston, who has attended 19 of the 20 services held.
While Canadians of African descent served the British Empire valiantly in the wars of 1812 and the rebellions of 1837, they were prevented from serving in WWI and were told it was ‘a white man’s war’.
Due to slumping enlistment as the war entered its third year, on July 5, 1916, the military authorized the creation of No. 2 Construction Battalion with headquarters in Pictou. With the exception of the unit’s chaplain, all the officers were white. African Canadians enlisted from across the country and the United States.
Lt.-Col. Chip Madic, commanding officer of 5 Engineer Services Unit, noted the units service with the Canadian Forestry Corps.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in 1917 as Canada's first all-Black regiment.
Harold E. Wright, Heritage Resources, Saint John —– c. 1916 —–  Photograph
No. 3576——–© 2008, Heritage Resources, Saint John. All Rights Reserved.
“Canada has always bred a hardy militiaman; one whom was equally at home propelling a boat or chopping his way through virgin forests,” said Madic. “Not only did they have to prove that they were fit to serve, but they did so under the pall of racism.”
No. 2 Construction Battalion was officially disbanded on Sept. 15, 1920. But the legacy that it left has endured.
Madic said that while a lot has been done to eliminate racism and inequality from the Canadian Forces, it’s still a work in progress.
“We look at Canada’s demographics and try to have a military that reflects that,” he said.
“Their struggle has opened the door to opportunity for African Nova Scotians in the police, military and politics,” said Johnston. “We owe this all to them.”

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