Nova Scotia

Some hope for reparations beyond upcoming federal apology to No. 2 Construction Battalion

Activists and descendants of the No. 2 Battalion are hoping the federal government will go beyond a formal apology and do more for Black communities in the form of reparations and "meaningful action."

National apology event is being held in Truro on Saturday

A group of men in military uniforms pose for a photo in 1916.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was based in Nova Scotia. The segregated battalion served in the First World War. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Activists and descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion are hoping the federal government will go beyond a formal apology and do more for Black communities in the form of reparations and "meaningful action."

The federal government announced in March it would apologize for the racist treatment of the No. 2 Construction Battalion at a national apology event in July. 

The Nova Scotia-based segregated battalion served in the First World War. It was founded in Pictou and was the first military unit in Canada made up largely of Black personnel.

Although Black soldiers offered to serve in the war, they faced overt racism and discrimination from military and government officials before, during and after their service.

Nova Scotia's Black Cultural Centre and the government of Canada worked together to prepare for the apology event, which is happening in Truro on Saturday, including the development of a database to help identify members of the battalion and their descendants. 

This allowed them to engage and consult with some descendants and community members ahead of the apology.

Russell Grosse, the executive director of the cultural centre, said many descendants and people with ties to the battalion are coming to the event from across Canada, the United States, Barbados and the West Indies.

"It's going to be a remarkable day, a historic day for all Canadians," Grosse told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia on Wednesday.

"Realistically, what we've learnt along this journey is that this is most likely the first apology by the government of Canada to Black Canadians."

Lynn Jones will be one of the descendants at the ceremony on Saturday. Her maternal grandfather, Percy Sinclair Corbin of Amherst, served in the battalion. Her paternal grandfather, Jeremiah Jones, was a storied war hero who served in 106th Battalion and fought at Vimy Ridge. Her cousin, Sydney Morgan Jones, also served during the First World War.

She said she wants to see more than an apology, especially since Canada has failed to address or offer reparations for the "atrocities that stem back to the transatlantic slave trade." 

Lynn Jones is a longtime African Nova Scotian leader and activist. Her maternal grandfather, Percy Sinclair Corbin of Amherst, served in the No.2 Battalion. (Information Morning Nova Scotia )

"With the apology, what kind of reparations, what kind of action — meaningful action — will [the federal government] be administering as a result of this atrocity?" Jones told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Tuesday.

"What will the government be doing for the African Canadian, African Nova Scotian communities, to try to right some of those wrongs, even as far back as 1914 to 1918 during that First World War?" 

Nevin Jackson, a semi-retired education administrator who's been researching the No. 2 Battalion for families in Truro, had a similar sentiment. 

He questioned why only the No. 2 Battalion are being apologized to, when "dozens and dozens" of other Black soldiers also faced discrimination.

He's also worried the "highly publicized" event could mask the fact that much more needs to be done.

"I'm a little leery about having one big event in terms of the policy and people thinking, 'Well, OK, we've done our job. We've apologized,'" he told Mainstreet. "It's that legacy piece that I'm concerned about and we'll be watching out for."

Jackson said in his talks with Grosse, there was some discussion about better education in Nova Scotia schools and possible scholarships being named after the battalion.

"I think that is just barely scratching the surface when you look at the social injustice, but also the impact that that treatment as well as other treatments of Blacks and other major incidents have left," he said.

"In terms of the families, you want to talk about intergenerational trauma and things like that. Those things are certainly hard to quantify, but they cannot be ignored."

He said he hopes to see a positive impact on Black health and wellness, education, economic and employment opportunities following the apology.

He also suggested a heritage hall in Colchester County be named after the No. 2 Construction Battalion, as a place to honour their sacrifice but also to celebrate local Black history.

The national apology event will be held in Truro on Saturday. 

It will begin with a parade at 12:30 p.m. AT and then a ceremony will be held on the grounds of the Truro Amateur Athletics Club — the same area where the No. 2 Construction Battalion would have trained.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet, Information Morning Nova Scotia