An apology is coming to the descendants of the only all-Black unit in the history of Canada’s military, but the president of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society wished it would have happened several years ago.
“I just feel it’s a long time coming,” said Dorothy Wright-Wallace, whose father Arthur Wright and uncle Neil Wright were among the 600 Black Canadians who served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War.
She was watching a virtual event Sunday when Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, said the descendants of the battalion are owed an apology for the racism and discrimination these men faced, despite their willingness to serve their country.
The formal apology will highlight the fact that hundreds of Black men in Canada were turned away when they volunteered to fight overseas in 1914, Sajjan said. Following two years of protests,the Canadian military was given approval in 2916 to establish a segregated, non-combat battalion that would be tasked with building roads, railways and forestry operations.
Noting she has mixed feelings, Wright-Wallace was still “happy they’re going to say sorry.”
“But I wish they could have said it to the guys because I think that makes it a little bit better,” she said.
Holding a photo of the No. 2 Construction Battalion – part of the local Black historical society’s collection – Wright-Wallace said what she finds striking is 18 white men and one Black chaplain are photographed standing in front of the hundreds of Black soldiers who made up the unit.
With her father dying in 1951 – when she was just eight years old – Wright-Wallace never had a real chance to talk to him about the war. Her mother, Margaret, told Wright-Wallace that he was reluctant to speak about his experiences overseas.
She only knows one story about her father’s time in the war.
“Something happened over in the trenches with my father where a German soldier saw him and daddy saw him, and they acted like they didn’t see one another,” she said.
Wright-Wallace said that German man came to Canada after the war and found her father when he was living in Dover Centre, north of Chatham. She said the man rode his bicycle out to visit her father and bring ice cream.
On Sept. 15, 2020, the National Post published an article Sajjan wrote to honour the 100th anniversary of the disbanding of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
“Throughout the war, these brave individuals endured racism, prejudice and hate in many forms, including segregation, mistreatment and inadequate equipment,” Sajjan wrote. “When they returned home, we failed to honour their sacrifice and, after they died, we failed to honour their memory.
“They were skilled, loyal and resilient soldiers, and we as a country did not live up to what they expected from us. We owe it to them to celebrate their achievements and remember their sacrifices in service to Canada. They deserve our deepest respect and gratitude.”
Wright-Wallace still feels hurt because she doesn’t know if the heart and kidney disease that killed her father was eventually caused by the gassing he suffered during the war.
It wasn’t easy for local Black veterans when they returned from the war, she added. Her father worked in a local coal yard, once located near King and Adelaide streets in Chatham, as well as at the former William Pitt Hotel and for the city, to make ends meet.
Dozens of men from Chatham-Kent served in the battalion. Wright-Wallace said many of these soldiers who stood side by ide with her father in the trenches were also there for her family after he died.
“This story to me … was when daddy died, all these soldiers were around us, helping us,” she said.
With files from The National Post and The Canadian Press