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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Minster of Defence announces apology will be issued to No. 2 Battalion

- African-Canadian Heritage Consultant,

Elise Harding-Davis, hopes the apology will be meaningful -

 (Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia Photo) - November 1916. 

by Sylene Argent

When African-Canadian Heritage Consultant, Elise Harding-Davis, found out the Federal government intents to give an apology to the descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was comprised of black volunteers beginning on July 5, 1916 during the First World War, she thought this was a great idea, but she hopes it will lead to something meaningful.

  The announcement was made on Sunday, March 28, when the Department of National Defence hosted a virtual meeting, noting of the intent to apologize for the treatment of No. 2 Construction Battalion Members.

  During the virtual event, Hull-Aylmer MP Greg Fergus said those who served faced significant barriers and resistance in their efforts to serve the country. “Even though many of their fellow soldiers refused to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with them on the frontlines, and yet they were unwavering in their commitment to protect and defend Canada and Canadians.”

  Minister of Defence, Harjit Singh Sajjan, said there are painful parts of history – injustices that contradict values of the nation – and they must not be forgotten.

  He shared gratitude for their resilience and bravery. “But more than our gratitude, we owe the members, their families, and their communities an apology for the racism and discrimination they endured before, during, and long after their service to Canada, the effects of which are still being felt a century after the War ended,” Sajjan said.

  He said an apology event is being planned for the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants. He asked community members and descendants to share input on how a meaningful apology can be planned.   

The No. 2 Construction Battalion, Harding-Davis said, was created out of Nova Scotia during the First World War. According to, it was also known as the “Black Battalion.”

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3194350)

  “When the First World War was started, black men were refused when they went to enlist and they were told it was a white man’s war,” Harding-Davis said. “The reasoning behind that is many individuals in the military and in society thought blacks were cowardly, that they wouldn’t be able to take instructions, that they shouldn’t be trusted with guns. That was a hold-over from slavery,” she said.

“But non-the-less, the blacks wrote letters to the government. There was a man in Buxton, named Arthur Alexander, who wrote to the Defence Minister, requesting an explanation like many, many people did, as to why blacks were not able to enlist and serve King and County like the rest of the free subjects, as they were at that time.”

  The issue was then discussed at the House of Commons, Harding-Davis said.

  The War began in 1914, and by 1916, so many Canadian Military personnel were being killed, they needed more to serve, “And it was getting harder and harder to get men to volunteer,” she added.

  The Government then issued a poster to try to enlist black men. “Our area sent quite a few black men, considering the size of the population at that time,” she said.

  The No. 2 Construction Battalion men completed work that was extremely dangerous when they had no weapons to protect themselves.

  A list from the Amherstburg Freedom Museum notes, from London to Windsor, there were around 220 black men enlisted to the Battalion; of which around 100 were from Windsor-Essex County. One of the individuals was Matthew George Matthews of Harrow, who volunteered to become a member of the Battalion at age 38.

  The ages of these men ranged from 18-45, and they were farmers, labourers, painters, elections, molders, plasterers. “They were professional people. They had skills that the Army could definitely use, but what they were being recruited for was labour and construction, digging ditches and working on machinery, Harding-Davis said.” 

  Matthews enlisted in January of 1917. He was a cook and wrote a three-volume book on his life, “Wit, Wisdom, and Philosophy,” which can be found at the Harrow Branch of the Essex County Library, Harding-Davis said. 

  He was quite the character around here,” Harding-Davis said of Matthews, adding his family came early to the area. She said she heard of the “Matthew Settlement” and that family provided the property for the SS # 11 school.

  As far as the apology the government intends to issue, Harding-Davis said, “105-years after the fact, they finally decided to apologize to a group of men who were really treated badly, whose courage was phenomenal, was doubted.” Some of the units out of the Battalion did go to France and they did fight, she added.

  “And, when they got back, they suffered from PTSD, just like soldiers do now,” Harding-Davis said.

  “It really hurts my heart that not only has it taken this long to do, I’m surprised they weren’t given an apology on the 100th anniversary,” she said, adding she was also surprised they decided to zero-in on the No. 2 Construction Battalion, when there were several other units – including the 106th – in addition to the black men who did enlist singularly. She believes all these examples should be included in the apology.

  Davis-Harding thinks it is wonderful the No. 2 Construction Battalion – a group of around 600 men – are being honoured. She also wonders what the apology will entail; if a plaque will be created, if grants will be issued to train African-Canadians going into the military to become officers.

She noted Kenneth B. Jacobs was the first Lieutenant-Colonel in the Canadian Military, taking the position in 1976. His father, Harding-Davis said, was born just outside of Kingsville.   

  “I want to have some dignity and respect from how blacks were treated,” Harding-Davis said of the apology. “There’s got to be some substance to it.”

  “These were a group of men, who, even though they were rebuffed, even though they were prejudiced against, even though they were treated to extreme racial inequality, they fought courageously. Some of them received medals of honour.”

  Richard Matthews is a descendant of Matthews and he also hopes the apology will have meaning.

  “It is long over-due,” he said, adding he hopes the government will actually do something meaningful with the apology and not just talk about it. “It is a good thing, as long as they do it the right way.”

  He added the apology would be well deserved. “It would be nice.”

  With the news of the apology, he plans to re-read Matthew’s book. He has a sense of pride to know his ancestor served his country during the First World War.

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