When the First World War began in 1914, black Canadian men responded to the call to arms. Like other loyal citizens who flocked to recruiting centers, they wanted to do their part for king and country. Despite being ready and willing to serve overseas, and contrary to official government policy, many potential recruits learned from most unit commanding officers that “this is a white man’s war” and black men were not wanted by the Canadian Military. As a result, the vast majority of black men were turned away, ostensibly to avoid a “checkerboard army.” Despite this rejection, about one thousand five hundred black men did manage to enroll in the CEF across the country.
But black Canadians were determined to serve in greater numbers. Community leaders wrote letters of protest and approached local and federal politicians to make their voices heard. Finally, with the help of supportive white Canadians, in 1916, the Canadian Military responded by establishing a segregated construction battalion.
The black population of Canada at the time was about twenty thousand, with the majority (seven thousand) in Nova Scotia. On July 5, 1916, over six hundred black men came together at Pictou, Nova Scotia. Because of its large black population, Nova Scotia became the base of the unit. Pictou was also the closest town to the residence of Lieutenant Colonel Donald Sutherland, a prominent railroad contractor, who had volunteered to form the battalion, provided he could do so close to home.
Comprised of about 300 men from Nova Scotia and another 125 from New Brunswick, Ontario, and the Canadian Prairies, 163 from the United States, and approximately 30 from the British West Indies, No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF, was established. The men who comprised about 7 percent of the total black population of Canada became the first and only black unit created in Canada after Confederation in 1867. The battalion’s mission was to support combat troops on the Western Front in Europe and was one of three construction battalions that