Remembering the sacrifices of Black Canadian soldiers

War Museum exhibition features contributions of 22 Black Canadian soldiers

Everett Gerald "Pudge" Dawson (centre) with comrades in the Dauntless Four Gun Crew.
Credit: 
Supplied by the Canadian War Museum
A Community At War - The Military Service of Black Canadians of The Niagara Region is a current exhibition at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. The exhibit centres on contributions of Black Canadians in the Canadian military. 
 
Presented in partnership with the Niagara Military Museum, the exhibit focuses on the experiences of 22 Black individuals who served in the military from the time of the American Revolution until the present day. It is open until March 19, 2023.
 
Dr. Teresa Iacobelli, war curator at the Canadian War Museum, said focusing on the stories of 22 individuals allows people to understand the role the group of soldiers played in Canadian history, which is important considering Black military history has not been highlighted equally as other groups. 
 
“We’re looking to have diversity of stories. Speaking for the museum itself, it’s [about] getting more stories out there—more of the individual stories—[and] highlighting those stories within the broader picture of Canadian military history.” 
 
“It’s making sure those stories are well known within the context of the larger story of Canada at war. It’s teaching stories in the school system, highlighting them in our books through vignettes.”
 
While there were no policies officially barring African Canadians from enlisting, many faced issues with recruitment into the military, which is part of what makes these 22 individuals so unique, Iacobelli said.
 
According to Iacobelli, many military recruitment officers held racist beliefs and used discretion in allowing people to enlist, especially during the first World War. 
 
“There were a number of Black Canadians who did serve on the front lines. There were about 1,300 individuals who joined. There was the example of the No. 2 construction battalion, so this happens later in the war, when recruitment was lagging,” Iacobelli said in an interview with The Journal
 
About 788 Black men were a part of the No. 2 construction battalion. While they served no combat role, they built railways, cut tress, and did a lot of necessary work to keep the military going. Iacobelli said despite being denied the military roles they originally sought, battalions like the No. 2 construction battalion served a pivotal role in World War I. 
 
In July of this year, the Canadian government issued the battalion an official apology for the racism and discrimination they faced. 
 
There are also many examples of Black women serving in the Canadian army, either in uniform with the Canadian army corps, or with the women’s air force division.
 
Iacobelli shared the story of Kathleen and Connie Brown, twins from the Niagara region who served during the second World War. 
 
“I think what is unique is the fact they were willing and eager to serve, despite the fact they were facing structural barriers at home and denied rights many white Canadians would have received. The fact that they were willing to serve under those circumstances is remarkable.”
 
Black Canadians may have enlisted with the hopes of acquiring benefits and better treatment in Canada after returning home, which made their enlistment a unique sacrifice, Iacobelli said.
 
Edward Smith is one of the many soldiers whose story is featured in this exhibition, having worked in the military in various capacities for 25 years, and having done some pre-deployment training in Kingston with work experience at RMC.
 
“I spent some time doing bilateral, bi-national—I should say—training exercises with Cameroon, which is a country in West Central Africa,” Smith said in an interview with The Journal.
 
“At one point, we took over the third-year engineering class from RMC for three weeks in Cameroon to go into the bush and do their particular curriculum training exercises in an unsupportive environment, meaning that they had to do all their planning for everything they were going to need.”
 
According to Smith, the history of Black soldiers was so rarely talked about that in his 25 years of service in the Canadian military, he did not learn about it. 
 
It wasn’t until the Niagara Military Museum reached out to him that he started getting more educated on the history of Black Canadians in the military. Smith is very happy this history is being discussed. 
 
Knowing more now about the history of the Canadian military, Smith feels things have improved based on his experiences.
 
“I had suffered overt racism in every institution that I had ever interacted with [and] in every aspect of Canadian society. Whether it was school, whether it was police on the street, whether it was looking for jobs, I had been subjected to overt racism,” Smith said.
 
“[When] I joined the military, I [didn’t expect] anything much different. But it was completely different for me. I never had to deal with it ever once.”
 
The Canadian military was a large influence on Smith. He said being in the military will always be a part of his life, and military training steeled him for the difficulties of civilian life. 
 
“The military defines me; it is how I think of myself.”
 
The exhibition taught Smith a lot about Black Canadian history. He learned the way Black service members paved the way for him to have access to the rank he achieved in his career within the Canadian military. 
 
He said those soldiers persevered under soul-crushing conditions, but rarely get recognition for it. This exhibition is one step forward toward more education about the contributions of minorities in Canada’s history, but it’s only the first step, he said.
 
Despite the improvements within the military and within Canadian institutions in general, Smith said that his experience is an individual one, and while it was positive, it’s important to remember the struggles of minorities currently in the military. 
 
“The fact that [racism] didn’t happen around me does not mean it doesn’t happen.”
 

Corrections

A previous version of this this article incorrectly identfied William Chandler as the man in the photo and has since been updated.

The Journal regrets the error.

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