The tradition of military service by Black Canadians has a history that goes back to times before Confederation.
Many Black Canadian have roots to Loyalists who came north in the 1780s following the American Revolution; American slaves were offered freedom and land should they agree to fight in the British cause and thousands took the opportunity to build their new lives in British North America.
Some soldiers saw action in the War of 1812, helping to defend Upper Canada against American attacks. A number of volunteers were organized into the “Company of Coloured Men”; this played an important role in the Battle of Queenston Heights. Black militia members also fought in many other significant battles during the war, helping to drive back the American forces.
During the Upper Canada Rebellion, ( 1837 – 1839 ) approximately 1000 Black militia men fought to help put down the uprising, taking part in some of the most important incidents.
Black volunteers served with British forces far from home, including the Royal Navy. In fact, William Hall earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery in India in 1857. Hall, who served on the British Royal Navy Ship HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship) Shannon, was the first black person – and the first Nova Scotian – to receive the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for military valour.
In 1857, Hall, was sent with a brigade of soldiers to Lucknow, India, to relieve the besieged British garrison that was fighting a rebellion there. As a member of one of four gun crews, Hall was attempting to help break through the walls of an important enemy stronghold. It was a very dangerous mission and heavy enemy gunfire eventually left only Hall and one other officer still alive. However, they continued to load and fire the last gun until the wall was finally broken through, allowing the soldiers of the British garrison to escape.
Hall survived the battle and returned to Nova Scotia where he died in 1904 at his farm in Avonport. Today, his Victoria Cross is on display at the Nova Scotia Museum, alongside his other medals.
Black people in the west created their own military traditions.. In the late 1850s, hundreds of Black settlers came to Vancouver Island from California to pursue a better life. Approximately 50 of these new immigrants organized the “Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps”. It was disbanded in 1865 but was the first officially-authorized militia unit in the west coast colony.
It would be in the First World War that a huge change would take place in how the Black Canadians served…