'They fought to fight': Veterans advocates push for Toronto to honour black soldiers

Veterans advocates are raising funds to build a memorial wall and garden in Toronto to honour the contributions of African-Canadian soldiers.

Inaugural African Canadian Veterans Summit & Gala will raise funds for a memorial wall

Illustration of Black Loyalist Richard Pierpoint and a photo of two black soldiers who served in the First World War. (Malcolm Jones/Canadian War Museum/City of Edmonton Archives)

On the eve of Remembrance Day, a growing chorus is calling for the creation a permanent memorial to honour the contributions of black soldiers throughout Canadian history, beginning with the War of 1812 during which a squad of formerly enslaved and free black men campaigned for and won the right to join the fight. 

"These men banded together to say, 'No, we have abilities.' They fought to fight," said Kerry Ann Thomas, a representative with the Black Veteran Affairs Council, an organization that advocates on behalf of black service members. 

The Coloured Corps, as it was dubbed during the war, was instrumental in shaping what would become Ontario, according to Thomas. 

But even she only learned about the corp last year.

"Why hadn't I known this before? And if I felt like this, how many others could feel like this?" Thomas questioned in an interview with CBC Toronto. 

The proposed memorial will be a reflection of their contribution to Canadian history, said Kerry Ann Thomas. (Kerry Ann Thomas)

Now she's calling for a memorial wall and garden for African Canadian soldiers — including those killed in combat, veterans and those currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces — to "immortalize the lives of those who have fought in various battles.

"Everyone needs to know that we are very much embedded in the fabric of this Canadian identity — it would be suiting for the rest of Canada to know these contributions," Thomas said. 

To raise awareness about the effort, the organization will host the inaugural African Canadian Veterans Summit and Gala on Friday evening at the Toronto Plaza Hotel. 

While the summit will focus on a number of issues, including the need for resources for veterans transitioning back into civilian life, the gala will also help raise funds for the memorial.

Four soldiers with the Canadian Corps during the First World War. (Canadian War Museum, George Metcalf Archival Collection)

Thomas said the goal is to raise $25,000 by February next year, with the hope that all three levels of government and other advocacy organizations like the Salvation Army and United Way Veterans Fund will also contribute. 

One solider who Thomas would like to honour is Henry "Bob" Braithwaite, a veteran of the Second World War. 

His daughter, Diana Braithwaite, can still clearly remember her father's stories about what life was like for black soldiers. 

"They were still living through discrimination against their own race in Canada. And then you add discrimination to the mix from their superiors and the other soldiers against them. And so it was very challenging," she said. 

Braithwaite said her father and his black peers faced a litany of broken promises when they returned home.

As for having their contributions to Canadian history recognized, black veterans themselves created the Toronto Negro Association in 1946. The organization advocated on behalf of veterans and worked to build support networks within communities at home. 

All these years later, Braithwaite is thrilled that there could soon be a memorial to pay homage to the largely overlooked sacrifices of black soldiers. 

Henry "Bob" Braithwaite and his wife Rella in an undated photo. (Rella Braithwaite Foundation)

"I really wish that my father was alive to see this because I'm sure he would be just so impressed and appreciate what's being done today," she said. 

​Jane Street and Wilson Avenue has been proposed as a potential location for the monument and garden.

Thomas said she has already approached several city councillors about the idea.

Once built, she hopes the memorial will finally give black soldiers the credit they are due. 

 "It also spreads awareness that if other individuals want to join the forces, there are role models to look to. There are stories to hear."