Along with others, Black Canadians were keen to serve in the First World War ( 1914 – 1918 ). Unfortunately, prejudiced attitudes of those in charge of enlistment made it difficult for these men to join the army. However, some Black Canadians did manage to join up during the opening years. Because they wanted the opportunity to participate on a larger scale, these men pressured the government to allow them to do so. And so, on July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Pictou, Nova Scotia; it was the first large Black military unit in our country’s history.
Recruitment took place across the country; more than 600 men were accepted, most from Nova Scotia but others came from Ontario, New Brunswick, the west, as well as some from the United States. The chaplain was Reverend William White; he had played a leading role in getting this unit formed. As an honour, he was given the rank of Honourary Captain, one of the few Black commissioned officers to serve in the Canadian Army during the war.
The battalion was tasked with non-combat support roles. Following preliminary training in Canada, the battalion sailed on the SS Southland for Liverpool in March of 1917. The members were sent to eastern France later that year where they served honourably with the Canadian Forestry Corps. They helped provide the lumber needed to maintain trenches on the front lines; they also helped construct roads and railways.
At the end of the war in November 1918, the men sailed to Halifax in early 1919 to return to civilian life; the unit officially disbanded in 1920.
In addition to the Black Battalion, approximately 2000 other Black Canadians managed to join regular units; some went on to give distinguished service that earned them medals for bravery.
Black Canadians contributed to the home front. They worked in factories making the weapons and supplies needed by soldiers fighting overseas, they took part in patriotic activities, and helped raise funds for the war effort.
The dedicated service of the “Black Battalion”, along with other Black Canadians who fought in WWI is considered a cornerstone of the tradition of Black military service in Canada.