Thursday, November 11, 2010

Black Canadian Soldiers

Flying above beautiful rolling mountains, a single helicopter heads to a scene of tragedy. Following the earthquake that devastated the nation of Haiti, Canada dedicated more than two thousand troops to help those in need. Now, almost three months later, a military-led medical response team attempts to alleviate the suffering in the remote town of Barriere Andre. One of those compassionate Canadians is Sgt. Viviane Jean-Baptiste who, like Canada's Governor General, Her Excellency, The Right Honorable Michaelle Jean, was born in Haiti. Dressed in combat fatigues while cuddling a somber child, Jean-Baptiste symbolizes the shared pasts of Canadians and Haitians.1 Haiti has a glorious history of black military empowerment, freeing herself from French rule to become the first black-led republic. Also, Haiti and Canada share a cultural tradition as they are the only two independent American nations with French as an official language. However, Jean-Baptiste is also the most recent participant in the storied tradition of the Canadian military and the little-known struggles of the blacks who served their nation. Canada's military has built a reputation of honor, duty and the defense of those in need; demonstrated in service in two World Wars, the development of Peacekeeping, and exhibited by great men like The Honorable Romeo Dallaire, who tried to defend those who could not defend themselves.
Canada's identity reflects those of varying cultures that were able live coexisting together. While this is an identity that is still being defined, its roots lay hundreds of years in the past and were only to be realized with the sweat and blood of struggle. Through armed conflict, whether it be in direct defense of their home, through internal conflict, or overseas in defense of allies and the downtrodden, those ideals that Canadians stand by become clear. Unfortunately, the stories of many of those Canadians, particularly black Canadians, are not widely known and for much of Canada's history, those men fought for these ideals of cultural and racial acceptance. Despite the harsh realities of racism at during their lives, it was those black soldiers who served in the defense of Canada during the War of 1812, Rebellions of 1837, and World War I who envisioned their country as it is today.
In 1812, the United States of America, successful in their fight for independence from the British Empire was flushed with confidence. At the same time, the implications of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe restricted the growth of the fledgling nation. First nations peoples and the British presence in Canada, living in close proximity to the U.S. posed a threat to her expansion. It became clear that the American republic felt it was their right, and in their power to obtain these lands for themselves.2 In 1811, President John Qunicy Adams declared:
The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religion and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.3
As Henry Tulloch mentions, "those customs and principles included slavery..."4 Although slavery was still legal in British North America, it was Britain, not the U.S. who had recognized their rights. These many different peoples who lived in British North America felt threatened by American invasion. It would be these principles and customs that those black participants did not feel would contribute to the future benefit of their home. By taking a stand against the U.S. all these various groups were standing for their values, which would define the values on which Canada be destined to uphold.
Black Canadians took their place amongst other peoples and races to defend not just their homes, but their rights and freedoms. As the war began, a black veteran of the American Revolution, Richard Pierpont started the Company of Coloured Men to defend their homes, which were on the front lines. Also, many more blacks served throughout the rest of the army.5 This shows the dedication and belief that blacks held to towards their country, and that they shared it with Canadians of other backgrounds. While they were not being treated fairly in British North America, it was better treatment than they had received from the Americans, and they were willing to claim their rightful place in this country by defending it. At the same time it shows the acceptance, although possibly opportunistic, of blacks inclusion from other Canadians. The Company of Coloured Men would serve proudly in the legendary battle of Queenston Heights where they, along with other white and Six Nations guerrillas would effectively prevent Americans from capitalizing on a substantial battlefield advantage.6 In this example, it was the cooperation of these different peoples that resulted in Canadian victory and black soldiers were there along with the others. Actually, blacks were believed to have fought in every major battle.7 This shows that while the war may have been a victory for the British or Canada, it was fought for by the different peoples that make up the nation today. Blacks were there at that defining moment, and they fought for and earned their place in this nation. Perhaps the beliefs Canadians hold today were dormant in those British North Americans before 1812. At the time, the war may not have been viewed as a fight for who they were, but as a fight against who they were not. However, it was not the case for black Canadians, who in fighting for their own rights and beliefs, were fighting for part of the unrealized beliefs and values of Canada. As Canada continues to find herself and her values, perhaps what the war means to Canadians needs to be reevaluated. It was a war of a cultural and racial cooperation where Canadians decided they would not be defined, but would embrace a steady, rocky path of self-determination.
At the Battle of Fort George, a loss for the British and Canadian forces, blacks along with other Canadians held valiantly. Outnumbered eight to one, these troops still fought with passion.8 "Our brave men, compelled to retire, rallied and again charged the enemy at the water's edge...And our brave troops, after retuning in the most zealous manner twice to the charge, were reluctantly necessitated to a ravine a few yards to their rear..."9 Despite the odds, these black troops held firm, like their fellow Canadians. This example would be forgotten little more than a hundred years later.
After the American victory at Fort George, the British and Canadian forces would conduct a successful guerrilla campaign against the superior American numbers. This would result in the surprise night-time skirmish at Stoney Creek and constant attack from a position near Beaver Damns.10 Part of this Canadian force in the region, "the black company also served at Burlington Heights, participated in the capture of 500, U.S. troops at Beaver Dams and fought at the Battle of Stoney Creek."11 This warfare, while not distinctly Canadian, would be an early example of the warfare U.S. would have to face in later wars. At the same time, it is an early example of military ingenuity and courage that the Canadian military would demonstrate again and again in the wars following. Once again, black Canadians participated in this heritage. They demonstrated the same courage as their comrades; white Canadians were no more loyal than the black.
While Canada was defended from direct American aggression, questions about how her people would live and be governed was still a valid question. Differences in ideals would eventually culminate in the Rebellion of Upper Canada in 1837. Within a month almost a thousand black men signed up.12 When the Anne, a ship filled with Canadian exiles and Americans tried to establish a front around Bois Blanc Island, it was the Second Essex Company that captured it. A year later, black forces helped to defend Windsor from Patriots and a black soldier named mills was one of those who died in battle.13 Those battles are yet more examples of unwavering loyalty in serves to the governing body. But was the loyalty of black troops in the wrong place?
Tulloch argues that these black soldiers were working against their own interests. The power had been under their control of the Family Compact who owned the best land and stifled industry in order to promote their own interests. This made life even more difficult for those blacks who had escaped slavery.14 At the same time, Upper Canada had become a haven for many escaping slaves, as slavery was made illegal in 1833. However, "Colonial officials like the hated Lt.-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head found ways to help slave owners regain their 'property.'"15 Furthermore, some blacks who were at Solomon Moseby's escape were imprisoned themselves and told they would be released if they fought against the Patriots.16 The selfish disregard the Family Compact had for the rights of blacks is a shameful example of the common injustice these blacks were in continuous struggle against. Although Canadian born blacks and black American refugees were mostly free, they were still faced with a racist regime that forced them to choose between "two evils". This does not mean, though, they would discontinue their individual and collective strive for their rights and freedoms as Canadians.
Where, then, did the interests of these black Canadians lie? Although Tulloch believes their interests were with the Patriots (and this may have been so) he does state that the Patriots themselves did not try to recruit black or First Nations peoples. William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the Patriots believed they were too loyal to the Family Compact due to black Canadian dislike of Americans.17 While the Family Compact may have relayed their opinions about the Patriots to many black Canadians, this alone would not necessarily gain their loyalty. The fact remains that the Patriots were getting assistance from Americans, were launching campaigns from America, and had similar radical ideals of rebellion and liberty.18 When the Americans took control of their own liberty, it meant nothing for the blacks enslaved there. With similar ideals, isolation from Britain, and America's continuous aggression, the chance that an independent Canada would be subjected to American influence was great. Black and First Nations peoples felt the hypocrisies of these ideals more than their white brethren could. The exclusion of these peoples from the Patriotic movement indicates how much they truly valued their opinions as Canadians.
While the Family Compact did not value their interests either, it could be argued they shared insight and interest with the black Canadians. The men who served in the Loyal Patriotic Society of Upper Canada during the War of 1812 would become those included in the Family Compact. C.P. Stacey argues that these men, having lived through that war, were determined to keep Canada under British protection in order to deter American aggression. He also points out that there were Reformers in this society as well, but they remained constitutional and William Lyon Mackenzie did not arrive in Upper Canada until 1820.19 Perhaps those black veterans who had influence in their communities held similar views. Blacks who had fled American oppression had obvious reason to fear any possibility of American annexation. Without British protection, the will of these Canadians would be even more restricted under American control. It was a belief that although unjust, the governing system could be improved from within. Radicalism meant false ideals and global isolation while the defense of moderation was a show of confidence and loyalty in the governing system and British considerations of Canadian ideals. One also must consider the prospects for black Canadians who would have joined the rebellion had it failed, in that racist society. This would give more fuel for the unjust to further abuse these people. While this alone is not reason enough to deter the joining of the rebellion, for many blacks who were already living in harsh conditions, the ideals and doctrines of the rebellion would have had to be supportive enough to overcome that fear. This did not seem to be the case. While not a direct gain for black Canadians, Canada received self-government, which was another step in allowing black Canadians a voice within their land.20 While controversial, this conflict shows black Canadian ideals in respect to the rest of Canadian ideals. Their choices helped to determine the form of government and the values which Canada is proud of today. While it was a struggle shared by all Canadians, more and more sovereignty has been won through peaceful means; while the United States of America won the freedom for white men through aggression and violence, a doctrine of aggression and violence has followed them ever since.
In 1914, thousands of young Canadian boys and men were excited to join the largest war the world had seen. Despite the scope of the war, racial categorization led them to believe that it would be inappropriate for non-whites to participate in the killing of whites. Walker explains, "science and public opinion accepted that certain identifiable groups lacked the valour, discipline, and intelligence to fight a modern war."21 Of course, in the Canadian context, there was already evidence from less than a century before to suggest that they had demonstrated these qualities. While the official policy was to allow blacks to enlist in any battalion, most were not accepted by any commanding officer.22 This allowed senior officials to absolve themselves of any responsibility by passing the judgment to those who could justify their decisions with the needs of the patriot war effort. Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Allen's views are an example of the justifications used:

Personally, I think coloured men should do their share in the Empire's Defence, and I believe some of them would make good soldiers. Still, if I had my choice I would prefer white men, and if the enlistment of coloured men is going to prevent better men from signing on, it seems to me that the best thing to do would be to keep them separated...Neither my men nor myself, would care to sleep alongside them, or to eat with them, especially in warm weather.23

This was reason enough to turn away black men who wished to serve their country. Also denied is their sense of manhood, which war puts to the ultimate test. This was a direct affront to these mens' dignity. The denial of blacks in the military was the attempt too deny blacks their rights as part of the Canadian people and culture. They would be forced, along to fight for the recognition of their place and a redefinition of Canadians in themselves. Despite these obstacles, many black Canadians were still determined to serve. Reverend William A. White who lived in Truro, Nova Scotia would become the main driving force behind the creation of an all black battalion. He would also become the battalion's Chaplin and the first black officer of the British Empire.24 His leadership would help black Canadians to take the government up on their belief in a strictly black battalion. Due to discomfort with allowing blacks at the front as well as Britain's call to Canada for labour battalions, Canada's black battalion would be focused on construction and labeled the No. 2 Construction Battalion.25 This would not be the end of their struggles for equality. Even just living was a fight for these men as they faced segregated theaters26 and a racist landlord who would house white troops, but not black.27 Even though these men were proud to serve, some Canadians were not proud of them.
At the same time, these black soldiers made a positive, lasting impression on many of the white residents in Pictou, where they were first stationed. The Pictou Advocate described the battalion as, "'the coloured man's opportunity to show his loyalty to the flag that has stood so long for equal rights for the men of his race.'"28 The value of these black Canadians was being recognized by some. Others may not have understood or even acknowledged the ideals that these men were fighting for, but the deeds of these soldiers would prove their meaning. In 1916, Russell Hayden, a ten year old boy with Cerebral Palsy had fallen into Pictou Harbour. After jumping in, fully clothed, to save Hayden, a black soldier returned him to his grateful mother.29 This act of heroism reflects the the character of these men. They showed compassion, loyalty and faith in a nation that had little in them. When finally being deployed to Europe, the No. 2 Construction Battalion led a street parade through Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Ms. Edith Colley, a resident of the city had fond memories of their passing, "I was only a young girl but I can still remember that day... The soldiers all looked so smart. Their buttons and boots were shining, and they were marching proudly and so straight. It was a picture to behold, it was splendid...I'll never forget that parade for as long as I live."30 These inspiring recollections show the effect these black soldier had on their fellow Canadians. They would be viewed with the pride and dignity they deserved. For the next generation, like Colley and Hayden, these men had an important cultural impact that lasted throughout their lives. Just by serving, as any man could, they were fighting demeaning and untrue prejudices.
When the No. 2 was sent to Britain, Canada found British restricts on "subject races" to be unacceptable, therefore the battalion was moved to France early.31 While the Canadian government allowed racist policies to occur within their own military, certain ideals on race were not acceptable. Perhaps the long past struggles of black Canadians had some lasting effect on Canadian identity, even if just by small amounts.
It should be noted that the members of the No. 2 were not the only black Canadians who served in World War I. Some blacks, like their white comrades, were recruited into the main Canadian Expedition Force. The 106th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, was on that was documented to have recruited several black men.32 This is encouraging because it shows that the racism was not a policy, as was also shown from the correspondence of government officials, but that some recruiters and commanding officers did not allow race to restrict these men's right to serve. It also allowed some black men to show they were no less than white men on the field of battle. Jeremiah Jones was one of these men and proved it by single-handedly capturing a German machine gun and its crew. Now a statue adorns this war hero in his hometown of Truro.33 This is the undeniable truth of black Canadians. Jones was not only a good soldier, but able to best several whites with presumably superior fire power. That accomplishment alone is one of bravery and courage. While this act of courage was documented, other acts of heroism on the behalf of black Canadians may be lost. Either way, they did fight to defend their home, Canada.
By World War II, black Canadians would begin to be accepted into the ranks of the army like white Canadians. Unfortunately, the Navy and Air Force still demonstrated racial prejudice in their recruiting decisions; however exceptional individuals, like Flying Officer Alan Bundy, served and established further precedence for successful black Canadian military men.34 While black Canadian involvement in World War II was an important part of the crucial war effort by Canadian forces, this would be only be the beginning of a trend that would last until today.
The integral part black Canadians played in the nation's military doctrine defines Canadians as a whole. These men may also be a crucial part of military strategy in the future. In a recent publication of the Canadian Army Journal, Major Tony Balasevicius while proposing new strategies for modern warfare, references strategy that was demonstrated by Canadian peoples, "In fact, compound warfare was an integral part of the early Canadian 'way of war' as both the English and French used conventional and militia units in North America that integrated irregular forces at the tactical level, such as native allies during much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."35 Therefore, black Canadians were included in this distinctively Canadian "way of war"; a strategy which may be utilized by many other nations in the future.
World War I would become a definitive event for Canada, helping to further define her values, image and independence. Canadians had proven themselves to be courageous, resilient and creative warriors. Soon after the end of the war, Chaplin Capt. A.H. Dennon presented an inspiring speech at a celebratory function. Robert Rutherdale argued that this speech reflected the roots of a new national identity, "In his talk, Dennon introduced a subtle shift from the Anglocentric colonialism that often had relegated Canada to the margins of the Empire, with a claim, about to be echoed across English Canada, that the Dominion itself had intrinsic greatness and worth, something that imperialists in Britain might well take notice of."36 Like the War of 1812, and the Rebellions of 1837, this was another conflict that would forge Canada. Black Canadians were proud to do their part. However, the largest achievement was not serving their nation in combat, as they had done before, yet it was once again leaving their cultural imprint on the Canadian identity. They were not broken by racist individuals and would rightfully represent their nation to the world. As a man who served with the No. 2, Gordon Charles Wilson later stated, "Black people refused to accept the attitude that it was a white man's war. As loyal citizens we wanted to serve our country. It was our duty, our responsibility."37 They were Canadians. If white Canadians' definitions did not include them, then non-whites would change that definition. This was a struggle to acknowledged, and while the changes made by their contribution may seem small, their service had lasting effects on what Canada would become. They were fighting for the Canada of today.

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