Nova Scotia

African Heritage Month celebrates men who fought to fight in WW1

When the First World War erupted across Europe, many Canadians rushed to join the military to fight overseas. Most soon found themselves serving on the front lines as the Allies crashed into the Central Powers, but some were told they couldn't fight.

Nova Scotia honours the all-black battalion that helped Allies win

Photo reminds us of Canada's first all-black battalion


5 years ago
CBC's Colleen Jones with No. 2 Construction Battalion's unique place in Canadian history 2:02



As the First World War erupted across Europe, many Canadians rushed to join the armed forces to fight overseas. 

Most soon found themselves serving on the front lines as the Allies crashed into the Central Powers, while others were told they couldn't fight because of the colour of their skin.  

But some black men fought to fight, and won.

As part of African Heritage Month, Nova Scotia's Black Loyalist Heritage Centre is recognizing the 100th anniversary of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the all-black unit that was formed in 1916. 

Beverly Cox, site manager at the centre, will host the celebrations in Birchtown at 11:30 a.m. on Friday. Her great-great grandfather, Pte. William Isaac Clemens, signed up for the battalion.

This restored photo of some of the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion is at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre. (Courtesy Black Loyalist Heritage Centre)

He's featured in Calvin Ruck's book The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret.

"It's a story of triumph. These men were told they couldn't serve because of the colour of their skin and they continued to rattle the chains and make noises and finally they decided that, yes we are going to make this battalion of black people," Cox said. 

In 1916, the battalion was formed. The men, almost 1,000 strong, came from across Canada and the United States, including many Nova Scotians. Their work was hard: they dug trenches, built roads and bridges overseas. 


Pte. Ottus Farmer from Shelburne County volunteered. His great-great grandson Jason works at the heritage centre, which has photos and attestation papers of the men who volunteered.

Pte. Ottus Farmer, from Shelburne County, was one of the members of the black battalion. (Courtesy Black Loyalist Heritage Centre)

He's proud of his great-great grandfather and the recognition the battalion is finally getting.

"It took 100 years, but finally these men can be recognized for crashing down barriers here in Canada," he said, looking at black-and-white photos of the warriors. 


Friday's event will include the Grade 2 class from Hillcrest Academy in Shelburne. The students studied the soldiers' stories and will present them on Friday. The students were struck by the men's bravery. 

"It's important that people know about this history and it's been forgotten," said Cox. "They felt they were Canadians and they wanted to fight for their country and they were denied that right at first and they still volunteered and risked their life for their country."

Canada Post has issued a postage stamp to honour the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

Canada Post has come up with a new stamp to honour the men in No. 2 Construction Battalion.

The centre's own roots trace back to the many people held as slaves in the U.S. who chose to fight for Britain in the American Revolutionary War. After the war was lost, many migrated into what would become Canada to take the freedom they'd earned. 

Veterans Affairs Canada says black soldiers fought through discrimination to serve in the War of 1812, the Upper Canadian Rebellion (1837-1839) and overseas.

Nova Scotian William Hall received a Victoria Cross medal for bravery for his heroics in India in 1857. He later had an Arctic patrol ship named after him.

It was only during the Second World War that black Canadians were allowed to serve alongside white Canadians. 

Pte. Basil Bell and a furry friend pose for a photo. (Courtesy Black Loyalist Heritage Centre)




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