‘A white man’s war’

Remembering what Canada's first and only all Black battalion overcame 98 years later

Published on July 2, 2014
Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Perry Colley, a native of East Preston with over 37 years of Naval Service, holds the distinction of being the first coxswain of African descent at Halifax’s Naval Reserve Division HMCS Scotian. He will be this year’s guest speaker at the 21st annual Black Battalion Ceremony at the deCoste Centre on July 12. 

A little over one hundred years ago, a radical Yugoslav nationalist assassinated an Austrian duke in Sarajevo. Within months, most of the world including Canada would be plunged into a deadly total war.

While hundreds of thousands of men and women would sign up to serve, there were some in Canada not welcome in the military. Among them, African Canadians were told this was a ‘white man’s war’.

Despite blatant racism, some still heeded the call to serve and an all-Black battalion was formed in 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

For Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Perry Colley, a navy man with 37 years of service, the story of the battalion is close to his heart. Growing up in East Preston, racism is something he dealt with when he enlisted in 1977.

“That was something back in my early days, but I don’t like to focus on that,” he said. “It was the driving force, that kept me going for 37 years.”

Since then, he said Canada’s military has come a long way and continue to work through any issues regarding equality.

“It’s a much better place for people of colour now.”

Colley, who worked at Halifax’s Naval Reserve Division HMCS Scotian, holds the distinction of being the first coxswain of Scotian from African descent. His accomplishment led to his invitation to speak at this years’ Black Battalion Memorial service on July 12 at the deCoste Centre in Pictou.

This year marks the 21st time that the battalion has been recognized.

Made up of men from across Canada and the United States, the battalion departed for England with a little over 600. All but one of the officers for the group was white. They were attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps upon arrival and were charged with the production of timber for the armies to use and repairing roads.

Now, nearly 100 years after the battalion was formed, Colley emphasized the importance of their struggle to serve.

“It’s crucial for all to understand that this is where we came from as a black community.”

He noted that it was likely that many of the men who served came from families that included former slaves.

“In these families, they passed on the loyalty and sense of belonging because they had been slaves. They wanted to serve even though their country didn’t want them.”

In contrast to the attitudes of 1916, Colley received a steady stream of congratulatory emails and phone calls when his appointment as coxswain of HMCS Scotian was announced.

“As a community we celebrate milestones achieved by people of African descent - be it in politics, business, or in my case, the military,” he said told The Trident, the newspaper of Maritime Forces Atlantic. “It’s becoming more important as we in the community try to teach more about our history in the military.”

The latter point about teaching military history is especially important for Colley.

“The No. 2 should be written in every history book, a national thing people should hear about.”

The Trident also noted that despite a natural tendency toward modesty, Colley recognizes the importance of letting people know about his achievement and the many successes and firsts of the African Nova Scotian community. He said role models are key to helping build and motivate communities.

 “CPO2 Colley is a very accomplished sailor who has a solid reputation in the fleet,” Lieutenant-Commander Derek Vallis, commanding officer of Scotian, told the Trident in 2011. “He was chosen not only because of his achievements in the navy, but his dedication to sailors, connection with community and example as an excellent role model.”

With his speech at the No. 2 Construction Battalion ceremony, Colley hopes that the importance of the service and battalion will grow.

“Outside Nova Scotia and Pictou, it’s seen as a Pictou event so we need to get the word out and people educated on these issues.”

The 21st annual Black Battalion Ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the deCoste Centre on July 12.



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