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Prime Minister’s remarks to apologize to descendants of No. 2 Construction Battalion

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Good afternoon.

Thank you, everyone, for gathering here in Truro for such an important event.

I want to thank Lieutenant Governor LeBlanc, Deputy Premier MacMaster, and Mayor Mills for being with us.

Thank you to Minister Anand and Minister Sajjan for all the work you have done to make today happen. And our Black caucus and Nova Scotia caucus members.

But none of us would be here without the important work of the descendants of No. 2 Construction Battalion; the members of the National Apology Advisory Committee; many people from the African Nova Scotian community, and members of the Black community across Canada; Russell Grosse and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia; and Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Pitcher from the Canadian Armed Forces.

Thank you all. You have persevered and kept the memory of Canada’s first and only Black battalion alive – No. 2 Construction Battalion.

We are here to accept responsibility for mistakes of the past and to pledge ourselves to working every day to build a better future.

Today is a historic day and I’m glad to see descendants here. I’m also happy to see so many young people are here today, including my son Xavier.

Among the most selfless things a person can do is stand up and volunteer to fight for their country.

To risk your life to defend your values and your loved ones is an act of extraordinary bravery. Of honour. Of sacrifice. Of loyalty.

When the First World War broke out in Europe, and Canada joined the fight, men from across the country flocked to enlist.

Among those brave volunteers were hundreds of young Black men, eager to serve, who loved Canada, and were ready to take up arms to defend King and country.

They were willing and able patriots who wanted to serve.

They wanted to serve their country and protect the freedom we hold dear.

They wanted to fight with honour against tyranny and oppression.

In repeated acts of discrimination and racism, almost every single Black volunteer was turned away and denied the honour of serving their country.

In one instance, a group of 50 Black volunteers journeyed from Sydney to New Glasgow by train and waited all day at the recruiting office, only to be told that this was “a white man’s war.”

Those recruiters did not see men willing to fight for our collective freedom. They only saw the colour of their skin.

Back then, there were unwritten laws of segregation. But some were more explicit. In 1910, when the Naval Service of Canada was founded, its recruitment practices excluded non-white members.

And while there was no official policy for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, it was left up to commanding officers, who repeatedly turned Black volunteers away.

These shameful, discriminatory practices did not go unnoticed by the public.

Letters came from across the country demanding to know why Black men could not enlist.

In 1915, George Morton from Hamilton, wrote the Minister of Militia and Defence to speak out on behalf of his fellow Black citizens, and I quote:

“They think they should be permitted in common with other peoples to perform their part and do their share in this great conflict.” He stated that Black men wanted to “work out their own destiny” and were anxious to serve “in this critical crisis in [the country’s] history.”

What more devotion to country could we have asked for?

And yet, senior military leadership at the time continued to turn a deaf ear.

How quickly the military leadership of the day had forgotten the history of Black soldiers.

For over a century, Black soldiers had sacrificed so much to serve this place they called home.

During the War of 1812, Black soldiers defended Upper Canada.

In 1859, William Edward Hall, a son of former slaves, was one of the first Canadians to be decorated with the Victoria Cross for valour.

In 1861, the Victoria Rifle Pioneers Corps became the first authorized military force in Western Canada and was comprised entirely of Black men who had come to British Columbia to escape racial persecution down south.

By the time of the First World War, Canada already had a long history of loyal Black military service.

But, in 1916, a Major-General took it upon himself to write a memo that disparaged the loyalty and combat capabilities of Black men.

This is what systemic racism and anti-Black hate does.

It suppresses the truth. It tries to rewrite history under false narratives. It buries the bravery, humanity, and common cause we share. But human nature shows us, again and again, that people will always find ways to stand up and demand their dignity.

And the Black men who wanted to serve never gave up.

Two years after the war began, Black men were finally permitted to form their own battalion: No. 2 Construction Battalion. Canada’s first and only Black battalion.

While many members were from around here, in Nova Scotia, Black men and boys travelled from across the country to enlist. Two sons of the famous cowboy John Ware, Arthur and William, came all the way from the family’s Calgary homestead.

Some 600 patriots from all over the country came here, to Truro, for training. They proudly donned the Canadian Expeditionary Force uniform after two years of being denied. 

But they were never given the same opportunities or support as their white counterparts. 

When these Black men had answered the call of duty, they had dreamt of fighting on the front lines.

But, instead, they were deployed to Europe as a labour unit.

They had to sail on a separate ship and were sent to the Jura Mountains of southeastern France, where they joined the Canadian Forestry Corps.

They did gruelling work, and their contributions were invaluable to the war effort.

The lumber they cut lined the trenches on the front lines, became railway ties, and was even used in aircraft.

Thanks to their faithful and disciplined work, the mills produced double the lumber of other comparable units.

But still, they had to live in segregated camps and without proper medical care, rations, or equipment.

Twenty-three members of the battalion died in Europe – their lives lost while serving their country.

When the war was over and the battalion came home, the living were never given the heroes’ welcome they deserved.

In the poem we heard earlier, Black Soldiers Lament by Captain George Borden, the opening lines are haunting:

“The bugle called and forth we went

To serve the Crown our backs far bent

And build what ere that must be done;

But ne’re to fire an angry gun

No heroes we nay not one.”

That last line. How could they not be seen as heroes?

As a country, we failed to recognize their contributions for what they were. Their backbreaking work. Their sacrifice. Their very willingness to put country before self.

The Great War was won at the hands of every soul that served.

We owe these men, these brave Black men, so much.

I am here today to offer the Government of Canada’s official apology for the appalling way these patriots were treated.

For the overt racism of turning Black volunteers away when they offered to sacrifice their lives for all, we are sorry.

For not letting Black service members fight alongside their white compatriots, for denying members of No. 2 Construction Battalion the care and support they deserved, we are sorry.

For failing to honour and commemorate the contributions of the members of No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants, for the blatant anti-Black hate and systemic racism that denied these men dignity in life and in death, we are sorry.

While we cannot change the past, we must take every opportunity we can to learn from our mistakes.

Sadly, we know that systemic racism and discrimination, including anti-Black racism, is still a reality for too many members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

We are committed to meaningful change, where the dignity of all service members in the Canadian Armed Forces is upheld. Where everyone is welcome; where everyone can rise through the ranks; where everyone has opportunities to distinguish themselves.

We cannot, and we will not, ever let what happened to No. 2 Construction Battalion happen again, in ways large or small.

And we cannot let the service of any member of our forces ever be overlooked and forgotten.

Today, very little would be known of the battalion’s legacy if it weren’t for the efforts of their steadfast descendants, relentless historians, and Black leaders.

I want to, again, thank Russell Grosse, and those at the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, for their work to research and preserve the memory of No. 2 Construction Battalion.

I also want to thank former Member of Parliament for Halifax West, Gordon Earle, for his dedication to commemorating the battalion.

There are two other names I want to mention, of those who are no longer with us:

First, Senator Calvin Ruck, who devoted himself to documenting Canada’s Black military history and sharing the stories of the members of No. 2, including publishing a book on the men.

And Captain George Borden, who was a descendant of serving members and served in the military himself.

Captain Borden was a ceaseless advocate of the battalion, who also wrote that beautiful poem we heard earlier.

I also want to acknowledge, among all the various descendants and family members, Audrey Parris, who is the oldest direct descendant. Her father, Sheldon Parris, served in No. 2. Audrey can’t be here today, but I know is watching from Toronto.

Thank you.

Over the past few decades, efforts have been made to recognize the battalion, including exhibitions, publications, Parks Canada events, and a stamp.

Well, today, we are announcing that, next year, during Black History Month, the Royal Canadian Mint will release a pure silver collector coin honouring No. 2 Construction Battalion, which will allow Canadians, no matter where they live, to be a part of remembering this extraordinary legacy.

Today, I hope all Canadians will take a new look at our history and seek out the unwritten and untold stories. Like that of No. 2 Battalion, which shows us that the strength and resilience in our common humanity go much deeper than the colour of our skin.

All members of the Canadian Armed Forces fight under the same flag. Our flag may have changed since the First World War, but what we stand for never has: freedom, peace, justice, fairness, and hope.

This is the promise of Canada. And while we still have work to do, this should always be what we fight for, at home and around the world.

To the memory of these Black soldiers we would like to say: Today we see you, and we honour you.

And to their descendants, we hope you see yourselves as you are: heirs to the memory of true Canadian heroes.

Thank you.