Trudeau apologizes for hateful conduct faced by all-Black Canadian unit in WWI

The federal government has officially apologized for anti-Black racism experienced by No.2 Construction Battalion. Melissa Nakhavoly has the details.

By The Canadian Press and Michelle Morton

The prime minister and the national defence minister delivered an apology on behalf of the government for the systemic anti-Black racism members of No. 2 Construction Battalion experienced before, during, and after the First World War.

Justin Trudeau, joined by Anita Anand and Armed Forces officials, made the apology at a ceremony in Truro, Nova Scotia on Saturday.

“As a country, we failed to recognize their contributions for what they were — their backbreaking work, their sacrifice, their willingness to put their country before their self,” Trudeau told the crowd.

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces have said the systemic racism endured by the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion qualifies as hateful conduct.

“For the overt racism of turning Black volunteers away to sacrifice their lives for all – we are sorry,” Trudeau said as descendants of the battalion applauded.

“For not letting Black service members fight alongside their white compatriots, for denying members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion the care and support they deserved – we are sorry. For failing to honour and commemorate the contribution of No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants, for the blatant anti-Black hate and racism that denied these men dignity in life and death – we are sorry.”

The move follows consultations with descendants of the 600 members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, described as heroes by Defence Minister Anita Anand when she announced plans for the apology in March.

“I am committed to eliminating systemic racism so that the discrimination faced by the No. 2 Construction Battalion, and those who followed, never happens again,” she said.

Hundreds of Black men in Canada were turned away when they volunteered to fight overseas in 1914 because they weren’t wanted in what was considered a white man’s war.

Following two years of protests, the Canadian military was granted approval in 1916 to establish the segregated, non-combat battalion, and more than 300 of those who enlisted were from Nova Scotia.

Only a few of its members would see combat, mainly because the battalion was repeatedly told its help wasn’t wanted on the front lines, and they received no public recognition when they returned home.

Many of the descendants of the battalion members said they were pleased with the apology and the fact more people will learn of the unit’s history.

“I’m really proud. It’s been a long time coming,” said Master Corp. Nolan Reddick from New Glasgow, N.S.

The 21-year veteran of the Armed Forces said his great-uncle George Reddick served in the battalion and often mentioned the poor quality of the boots given to the Black soldiers compared to those given to their white comrades.

Reddick said his great-uncle said the people of France treated them better than Canadians at home.

Tamara Tynes Powell from Truro said the history of the battalion can’t be hidden anymore.

Her grandfather’s uncle, Jack Tynes, was a member of the battalion, and she said the apology helps provide the respect the men deserve.

“The apology shows that even though they were treated less than human men, they are more than heroes now,” she said.

Trudeau announced that next year, during Black History Month, the Royal Canadian Mint will issue a pure silver collector coin honouring the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces have said the systemic racism endured by the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion qualifies as hateful conduct.

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