After the War: Black Soldiers Return to Canada

As many of you are probably aware, February was Black History Month. In the past, we’ve taken this opportunity to write about the No. 2 Construction Battalion- Canada’s first and only all-black non combatant battalion during the First World War. This year, however, in keeping theme with our “After the War” travelling exhibition, I wanted to write about the returning black soldier’s experience. It has often been argued that the all-black battalion helped fight significant home-front battles related to racism and inequality. While I am not disputing this claim, I think it also important to consider the ways in which an all-black battalion also helped reinforce segregation and inequality in the CEF and throughout Canadian society. This reinforcement ultimately lead to an increased race consciousness and social activism among Black Canadians. It is through this lens which I write this post.

Image: “Three black soldiers in a German dug-out captured during the Canadian advance east of Arras”, William Rider-Rider / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-003201.
In an editorial from the Canadian Observer on 7 December 1918 entitled “What- When Our Boys Come Home?”, Joseph R. B. Whitney asked what kind of conditions Black men would find when they returned home from Europe. [1] Following the signing of the Armistice and the subsequent demobilization of the CEF in 1919, black soldiers returned home only to find many of the same restrictions they had left behind. The Great War, unfortunately, did not end all wars and it certainly did not bring an end to racial prejudice on Canadian soil. Canadian blacks were still subjected to segregated housing, segregated employment, and in some instances, segregated graveyards. [2] According to Melissa Shaw, however, these racial injustices led to the rise of race consciousness that was vital to postwar Black Canadian social activism and growing protest politics. [3]
By 1919, Black activism was spreading across the globe. Stimulated by transnational Black Diaspora activism networks such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Black Canadians were committed to improving the conditions they faced in Canadian society. As a result, Blacks across Canada began to identify their experiences of racial injustice within a larger and more global struggle for equality and justice. The first NAACP branch in Canada was created in Toronto in November 1917, with subsequent branches appearing in Windsor in July 1919 and in Montreal in the early 1920s. Now taking matters into their own hands, Black Canadians focused their attention on intra-racial unity and social activism, as well as nurturing a greater sense of racial pride. [4] While racial prejudices persisted, Black Canadians were committed to improving their standing in Canadian society and for the first time were become involved in race politics and social activism.  
Lessons which should have been learned from the First World War, however, would regrettably resurface during a second global conflict when Black Canadians would once again be rejected altogether or be directed towards non-combative roles in the CEF. [5] Nevertheless, the wartime experience forced Black Canadians to confront their limitations in Canadian society and served as a watershed moment in their battle against racial discrimination- a long and arduous battle that would continue to be fought throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
[1] MHSO, Canadian Observer, “What-When Our Boys Come Home?” December 7, 1918.
[2] Ruck, Calvin W. The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret.  Nimbus Publishing Limited: Halifax, 1987, 72.
[3] Shaw, Melissa. ““Most Anxious to Serve their King and Country” Black Canadians’ Fight to Enlist in WWI and Emerging Race Consciousness in Ontario, 1914-1919”, Social History, vol. XLIX (100), pp. 543-580.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Walker, James W. St. G. “Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force”, Canadian Historical Review (1989), 25-6.

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A photo of a destroyed dugout near or at Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient.

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