Shovels in Lieu of Rifles
It was March 1917, when the No. 2 Construction Battalion – consisting mostly of Black soldiers – set sail from Halifax for Liverpool, England. Although it created a sense of pride for the soldiers serving, it also acted as a reminder of the racial divide within Canada. The Battalion had not been formed to offer equal opportunity for Black Canadians but as a last resort for the army, whose rejection of coloured volunteers caused upset in Black communities.
Although important, the Battalion’s work was assigned to them because white officers did not trust them to engage in traditional combat. In lieu of wielding rifles, they built railway tracks, roads, and bridges under the supervision of white officers. While providing this difficult and dangerous service, the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion battled against anti-Black and systemic racism from all sides.
When the Battalion disbanded on September 20, 1920, there was little recognition for their heroic efforts. In July 1920, a commemorative plaque recognizing the Battalion’s casualties was unveiled at the provincial legislature in Toronto. However, despite the vital role they played in Canada’s wartime lumber operation, no subsequent recognition or acknowledgement of their contribution followed. It was as if the Battalion never existed at all.
An Overdue Apology
On July 9, 2022, the federal government will formally apologize for the treatment of the men who were a part of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. This is a very important step in the reconciliation process by the Canadian government. Not only that, it is an excellent time to acknowledge and memorialize the accomplishments of past and present African Nova Scotians who have showcased resilience in the face of inequity.
Among such men was Acadia Alumni, William Andrew White. William became the second Black graduate at Acadia University where he earned his Bachelor of Theology in 1903. He was ordained the same year and, despite racially charged barriers standing in his way, chose to serve the No. 2 Construction Battalion as an officer and chaplain in the British army. Of the officers and clergy in the army, only William Andrew White was Black.
In 1936, William was the first Canadian man of colour to be honoured with an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Acadia University. Although William passed at an early age, his impact on Acadia, Nova Scotia, and Canada was widely felt. His resilience in the face of injustice and his reconciliation ministry between Blacks and whites provided hope that reverberated far beyond his death.
A Legacy of Resilience
Following in William Andrew White’s steps, William Pearly Oliver entered Acadia University in 1930 and graduated from Acadia with a Bachelor of Arts in 1934 and a Bachelor of Divinity in 1936. In 1942, Oliver joined the Canadian army where he served as chaplain in the Halifax area. In addition to his many achievements, Oliver co-founded the Black United Front (BUF) and founded the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia. As such, he is considered the “Founding Father” of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).
This legacy of excellence continues. Rev. Dr. Lennett Anderson, who received his Master of Divinity from Acadia Divinity College, currently serves at ADC as a Lecturer in Leadership and Racial Justice. Dr. Anderson is a retired commissioned Officer in the Canadian Forces where he served as Unit Chaplain for HMSC Scotian. In spite of racial barriers that exist as they did a century ago, Dr. Anderson works tirelessly to promote racial justice with organizations such as the City of Halifax. On July 9, he will participate in the National Apology event in Truro, honouring the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
We Will Remember
Acadia Divinity College is proud to be a part of the education and tradition of African Nova Scotians who persist in the work of equity and justice. Their stories are challenging and inspiring, reflecting the strength and passion of the men who served Canada in the No. 2 Construction Battalion As the apology is given in Truro, we resolve to remember the men who fought for the betterment of our country and to celebrate those who continue to pursue justice today.
Further reading on the history of the No. 2 Construction Battalion: