Calgary

'White man's war': Military Museums exhibit takes honest look at ugly period

At one time in the Canadian Army, black soldiers were thought inferior, were not allowed to fight alongside white soldiers and many doctors wouldn’t tend to them.

Anne Murray's dad was one of the few doctors who would treat black soldiers at the time

Canada's dark military history with black soldiers 0:47

At one time in the Canadian Army, black soldiers were thought inferior, were not allowed to fight alongside white soldiers and many doctors wouldn't tend to them.

Those details and more form an honest and at times ugly exhibit running this month at Calgary's Military Museums to honour Black History Month.

Al Ross is a military buff and the volunteer researcher who curated the exhibit that opened this week.

Al Ross is a military buff and the volunteer researcher who curated the exhibit that opened this week. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

"It originally came out of the Boer War, that some African-Canadian soldiers that fought were told that it's a 'white man's war.' Fast forward to the First World War and that same concept is still there. It's a white man's war and they are not accepting people of colour because the [white] soldiers just didn't want to fight alongside with these other fellows," Ross told The Homestretch.

But two years after the start of the First World War, things started to shift. A little.

"The No. 2 Construction Battalion was raised in May 1916, they were finally given approval to raise the battalion," he said.

Anne Murray’s grandfather, captain Dan Murray, was with the Canadian Army Medical Corps assigned to the No. 2 Construction Battalion as their physician and surgeon. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"It was an all-black, segregated battalion that was involved only in construction duties. Even back at that time, they felt soldiers of colour wouldn't make appropriate fighting soldiers on the front lines."

Ross says a black man named William White continued the progress.

"He was a chaplain and an honorary captain. There were few African-Canadian captains at that time, very few. He was pivotal in recruiting soldiers for the No. 2 Construction Battalion."

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was an all-black, segregated battalion that was involved only in construction duties. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Some black soldiers saw combat in those days, with 16 African-Canadian soldiers in the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) and others scattered throughout a few other battalions, Ross said.

The exhibit even draws a connection to singer Anne Murray.

"Anne Murray's grandfather, captain Dan Murray, was with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. He was assigned to the No. 2 Construction Battalion as their physician and surgeon. He was one of the few white doctors that would attend to African-Canadian soldiers," Ross said.

'The No. 2 Construction Battalion was raised in May 1916, they were finally given approval to raise the battalion,' exhibit curator Al Ross says. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Ross says being a volunteer curator allows him to uncover interesting periods in our history, both good and bad.

"When we were tasked last year with doing this exhibit, it was just so exciting and novel because we'd never heard of it before."

The exhibit runs until the end of February, with a lecture and panel discussion on Feb. 8. at 7 p.m.

Back in 1914, there were hundreds of black Canadians who wanted to fight for Canada during World War I but they were turned away because they were told it was "a white man's war". But two years later, the Canadian government authorized the first and only all-black battalion in Canadian military history. This relatively unknown piece of history is being showcased at The Military Museums in Calgary in recognition of Black History Month. Al Ross is a military buff and the volunteer researcher who curated the exhibit that opened today. 4:42

With files from Tracy Fuller and The Homestretch

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.