It was only through determination and perseverance that Canadian Black men were granted the opportunity to serve their country during the First World War. The No. 2 Construction Battalion was the largest Black battalion-sized unit in the history of the Canadian military. A new series of commemorative Canadian coins pays tribute to their contribution to the Allied victory in World War I and to Black Canadians’ proud tradition of military service.
How Did the No. 2 Construction Battalion Come To Be?
When war was declared in August 1914, thousands of men from across Canada attempted to enlist for military service, including many Black Canadians. Most Black men who volunteered for service during the First World War were rejected. Often, they were not given a reason but were merely told that their services weren’t required. Others were informed that the conflict was a “white man’s war.”
On the one hand, the Militia Headquarters in Ottawa knew that some white men would refuse to serve with Black soldiers. On the other hand, leaders of Black communities across Canada wrote letters expressing dissatisfaction with the exclusion of Black men from service. There were not enough Black men in Canada for an all-Black infantry battalion, and the British War Office didn’t want Black soldiers in combat (though some Black Canadians did participate in major battles) for fear it would lead to unrest in the colonies after the war.
As the war raged on, labour to support campaigns was in critically short supply. At Militia Headquarters, the chief of the general staff proposed a Black labour battalion that would address both the shortage and the requests that Black men be allowed to enlist. In May 1916, the War Office approved the idea.
What Did the No. 2 Construction Battalion Do During the War?
The No. 2 Construction Battalion consisted of 595 enlisted men, all but seven of whom were Black, and 19 officers, all but one of whom was white. The lone Black officer was Reverend William Andrew White, who had the rank of captain. The battalion set out across the Atlantic in March 1917, landing first in England. The War Office initially did not send them to France as a battalion because their numbers were short of the requisite 1,049 members. Now renamed the No. 2 Canadian Construction Company, they were sent to France in June 1917, where they assisted the Canadian Forestry Corps in the Jura Mountains.
What Is the Significance of the Coin’s Design?
The image on the coin’s reverse was designed by Canadian artist Kwame Delfish. At the forefront, it features a Black soldier representing the entire unit. To the soldier’s right (the viewer’s left) is an enlarged image of the badge that battalion members wore on their hats. In the background are battalion members in the Jura forest assisting with lumber and logging operations. To the soldier’s left (the viewer’s right) are battalion members prior to deployment marching in a parade.
Battalion members are also shown building a railroad, which was part of their duties when they were deployed in France. However, the railroad also has a symbolic meaning. It represents the journey that Black Canadians had to travel to be able to enlist in the Armed Forces and the struggles they faced along the way.
Celebrate the Accomplishments of the No. 2 Construction Battalion
February is Black History Month, a time to remember the accomplishments of Black Canadians and the hardships they have suffered under racism, both in institutions and society at large. The example of the No. 2 Construction Battalion is an inspiration but, as is all too often the case for Black Canadian history, its story rarely gets told. We are proud to offer Royal Canadian Mint coins for sale that tell the stories of Black Canadians and their contributions to our history. This coin is currently available at Colonial Acres.