PICTOU - If attendance is any indication of the will to remember and recognize the African-Canadian No. 2 Construction Battalion, the ceremony is alive and well.
Despite the carnival rides, a tailgate party and modified boat races elsewhere in Pictou, nearly 200 filled the deCoste Centre for the 21st ceremony celebrating and reflecting on Canada’s first all-African Canadian battalion.
Contingents of navy, army and air force members and the RCMP marched proudly down Caladh Avenue to the music of cadets from HMCS Acadia’s band program in Cornwallis. Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov. J. J. Grant took the salute on the dais near the granite black battalion monument.
Pastor Brian Johnston, president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia led the ceremony in prayer and recognized the growing number of young people at the event.
“More than ever we need to be able to pass our history, which is a beautiful and glorious history, on to our children and our children’s children so that 100 years from now, they’re able to come and celebrate their ancestors as we have.”
Master of Ceremonies Sgt. Craig Smith of the RCMP noted the significance and role of the late Senator Calvin Ruck in bringing the accomplishments of the battalion to the forefront.
“Every event large and small begins with a thought,” he said. “It was because of his vision in wanting to recognize the No. 2 that we are able to have these commemorations 21 years later.”
Ruck’s book Canada's Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920, along with his and the efforts of others, was the impetus recognize the battalion.
The Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia’s history of the battalion records how countless African-Canadian volunteers were turned away from recruiting stations because of the colour of their skin. The only way to serve was through a segregated battalion, which was formed in Pictou in 1916.
Keynote speaker Sgt. Phillip Safire of the Royal Canadian Army, noted the prevailing racist attitudes towards African Nova Scotians continued after WWI.
“In recruiting for Canada’s Armed Forces, a crucial requirement was to be a British Subject of European descent,” he said. “These attitudes prevailed in the navy for example, until 1943.”
Safire is the only living military relative of William Hall, the first Black person, first Nova Scotian and third Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for valour. Hall’s grandparents were slaves in the United States who escaped to Canada during the war of 1812.
Keynote speaker Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Perry Colley noted that the history books on WWI record the generals who led troops, the great and significant battles and the leaders and prime ministers of the day. For the construction battalion, despite their humble task of repairing roads and relaying water supplies, their accomplishments do not go unnoticed.
“This is not just a Pictou event or just important for Pictou,” said Colley. “This is a part of our Canadian history.”
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