Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, says the apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday “is a remarkable part of the journey of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.”
“It’s been a long period of trying to create awareness, whether it was the start with Senator Ruck, or Captain George Borden, or the tireless efforts of the others at the Black Cultural Centre like Henry Bishop who kept the momentum going to where we’re at today,” Grosse said. “And I think today’s apology is just the start of something more.”
“I don’t think it’s a one-and-done. I don’t think it’s the end. I think that the government has shown true leadership in wanting change and creating opportunities for change.”
Earlier on Saturday, Truro Mayor Bill Mills announced that Truro Amateur Athletics Club Grounds (TAAC Grounds) where the ceremony took place, and where the No. 2 Construction Battalion performed its training duties over a hundred years ago, will be renamed in honour of the battalion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered the apology on Saturday. He was joined by National Defence Minister Anita Anand.
“I am here today to offer the government of Canada’s official apology for the appalling way these patriots were treated,” Trudeau said.
“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.”
Hours earlier, hundreds of people, including many Black Nova Scotians from Truro and other parts of the Maritimes and Canada started filing into the TAAC Grounds.
At around noon, military veterans from, and with ties, to Truro gathered down the street, outside of Zion United Baptist Church, Truro’s historic Black church, founded in 1896.
One of the co-founders of the battalion was Rev. William A. White, father to world-renowned African Nova Scotian concert singer Portia White. Rev. White was minister at Zion Baptist from 1905 to 1918.
In her 2001 book titled Colored Zion: The History of Zion United Baptist Church & The Black Community of Truro, Nova Scotia, the late Donna Byard Sealey wrote:
Following the authorization of No. 2 Construction Battalion on July 5, 1916, Rev. White was appointed its Chaplain with the rank of Captain. He is known to be the only Black commissioned officer in the British Forces during World War I. On September 9, 1916, the Battalion Headquarters was moved to Truro from Pictou. This move not only resulted in Rev. White officiating at the marriages of several of the troops before going overseas; it also made Zion the “home church” of the Battalion while in Truro with many of the troops actively participating in Zion’s services.
The Black veterans from Truro were joined by other veterans and currently serving military servicemen, including many Black servicemen, some of whom wore replica uniforms similar to those worn by members of the battalion. Black members of the RCMP and a Black member of the Truro Police were also present.
At 12:30, a military procession started from the church, traveled west on Prince Street before entering the TAAC Grounds where the procession was met with applause by the hundreds gathered at the ceremony, including many additional Black military veterans and other veterans and service people.
Also in attendance were many direct descendants of the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and members of the National Apology Advisory Committee (NAAC).
After a gun salute, African drumming, and opening remarks by Anthony Sherwood, the emcee for the event, Pastor Lennett Anderson of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hammonds Plains shared a prayer on behalf of the African United Baptist Association.
Reeny Smith of North Preston sang O Canada and the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice.
Before a musical performance by the Stadacona Band, attendees heard remarks from several of the dignitaries in attendance.
Nova Scotia Deputy Premier Allan MacMaster offered remarks on behalf of Premier Tim Houston.
“People of African descent have been in Nova Scotia for over 400 years. Let us take a moment to honour with gratitude those ancestors of African descent who came before us to this land,” said MacMaster.
Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor Arthur J. LeBlanc also spoke and acknowledged former Lieutenant Governors Mayann Francis, the province’s only Black Lieutenant Governor, and John James Grant.
“Today Canadians gather to pay tribute to the selfless service of more than 600 men who served king and country during the First World War while experiencing anti-Black racism and discrimination in many forms,” said LeBlanc.
After an additional musical performance by Reeny Smith and her family members, there was a video package about the No. 2 Construction Battalion that was voiced over by the late Captain George Borden.
Trudeau then took to the stage and gave a brief history of the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion before giving the official apology:
“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 south-eastern France where they joined the Canadian Forestry Corp. 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, 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 without proper medical care, rations, or equipment. Twenty-three members of the Battalion died in Europe, their lives lost while serving their country. And when the war was over and the Battalion came home, the living were never given the hero’s welcome they deserve.”
“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 their country before their self. The great war was won at the hands of every soul that served. We owe these men, these brave Black men, so much.”
Trudeau said next year during Black History Month the Royal Canadian Mint will release a pure silver collector coin honouring No. 2 Construction Battalion.
“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,” he said.
Trudeau also acknowledged the efforts of the late Captain George Borden and the late Senator Calvin Ruck, as well as the only former African Nova Scotian member of Parliament, Gordon Earle, and Black Cultural Centre executive director Russell Grosse for their roles in having the apology come to fruition.
Joyce Ruck, the widow of the late African Nova Scotian Senator Calvin Ruck, was also acknowledged earlier in the ceremony. Calvin Ruck was the author of The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secrets, which highly credited for having kept alive the memory of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Ruck’s son, Douglas Ruck is a member of the National Apology Advisory Committee that helped advise the government on the apology. Ruck was designated an honorary colonel prior to the ceremony.
“I appreciate the words that were stated by the prime minister the words of Minister Anand, but we all know the reality is that the words cannot right the wrong. The wrongs will remain. Those wrongs have scarred us in many respects. Those wrongs are part of our history, part of our being,” Ruck said.
“And while I appreciate what was said, I also know that we have walked this path before. Far too often the only thing that remains are the words.”
“Prime Minister, on behalf of the descendants, we are privileged to have been here … and to hear what was said by yourself and the minister. And I say to you sir and Minister Anand with all due respect, you were equally privileged to have been able to give an apology to the descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Equally privileged to do so.”
Following the event, the Examiner asked Gordon Earle about his involvement in bringing forth the apology. He said it started with a letter George Borden had written in 2019 and was published in the Chronicle Herald.
“And he put forward the case of the Black Battalion and the need for an apology and that sort of thing, and he was trying to move something forward on it. And so he was writing to everybody and I thought, ‘Well, the best way to get this moving is to go to the top.’ So I wrote to the prime minister and enclosed George’s letter as a part of the text and urged the prime minister to take some steps to move forward on this,” said Earle.
Two current serving Black members of Parliament were also in attendance Saturday: Ontario’s Matthew Green of the NDP, and founder of the Liberal Black Caucus, and the Parliamentary Black Caucus Greg Fergus from Quebec. Fergus was also one of the speakers.
“When we talk about the past, when we talk about the contributions and advocacy work of Black Canadians, that work is often left out,” said Fergus.
One name that was left out during Saturday’s ceremony was that of Nova Scotia’s first Black doctor, Dr. Clement Ligoure. Ligoure co-founded the No. 2 Construction Battalion along with William White. Ligoure helped recruit members through various means, including The Atlantic Advocate, the province’s first media outlet “devoted to the Interests of Colored People.” Ligoure was the publisher of the paper.
After initially passing a physical exam, Ligoure was slated to serve as the Battalion’s physician overseas, which would mean he, along with Rev. White, would be required to serve in the rank of an officer.
Shortly before the battalion was set to leave for France, Ligoure was told that he had failed his physical exam by one point, which meant he was unable to serve. A white man, Capt. Dan Murray, instead served as the battalion’s physician.
Just over a year later, through his clinic on North Street in Halifax, Ligoure would go on to be the only doctor in Halifax’s north end to tend to severely injured victims of the Halifax Explosion.
At the time the Battalion was overseas contributing to the war effort in France. In her book Colored Zion, Donna Byard Sealey wrote:
In 1917, Mrs. Hattie Borden, President of the Victoria Club received contributions to aid the club in send Christmas boxes to the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, serving in France. during the absence of the pastor and the men of Zion, the church struggled to keep her doors opened. By 1918, money was sorely needed. The Victoria Club held a “May Supper” on May 2. Some of the meals served were cold meals, scalloped potatoes, brown and white bread, biscuits, parker house rolls, cake; and jelly cream. Fifty dollars was raised.
Following the event, Grosse also talked with the Examiner about the work of the National Apology Advisory Committee (NAAC) and community consultations NAAC held with descendants of the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
“The other thing that we learned a lot about is the aspect of how these men contributed to society beyond their service life,” Grosse said. “Lots of times when people finish public service in that respect they don’t give back to the community, and these brave men have amazing stories of sharing with community and being pillars of their communities.”
Click here to watch the full video of the No. 2 Construction Battalion National Apology.
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The unwritten story is the one of the significant number of Black men, mostly Nova Scotians, who signed up,were accepted and served in the Infantry before No 2 was formed. Some of the names are known but no historian/scholar/campaigner has made a list. The most prominent volunteer was Jeremiah Jones signed up June 19 1916, a few weeks before his 58th birthday, knocked 10 years off his age when he was attested, served in the infantry on the front lines and survived the war and lived until he died at the age of 92.
Seems disingenuous to write this comment without noting that protest erupted over the enlistment and, while a handful of Black men did manage to enlist, the protests led almost immediately to the creation of the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion, the ONLY place Black men were allowed to participate from then on. And despite the stand-out bravery of Jeremiah Jones at Vimy Ridge, he was never given a medal until almost a century later after his death.