By Gerald V. Paul
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
That statement graced the cover of the Remembrance 2014 program Lest we Forget / Nous Souviendrons d’eux on Saturday at Ryerson University.
Organizers Sen. Don Meredith and Ryerson noted that “the cover represents the military contributions of Black people to Canada.”
It showed images of Jamaican volunteers embarking for overseas deployment after training in Canada, soldiers manning electronic communications equipment, Hattie Rhu-Hatchett who wrote The Sacred Spot which soldiers adopted as a marching song, and RCAF Flying Officer / Wireless Air Gunner Gerald Douglas Carty in a 1944 photo courtesy of the Legacy Voices Project.
Chief Warrant Officer (Ret’d) Carl Deroche read the Act of Remembrance:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
Contributions of Black servicemen are second to none and several have earned decorations for bravery. Caribbean / Black women joined the military in wartime support roles so more men were available for the front lines.
Mayor-elect John Tory called on the distinguished gathering to build on Black History Month. He stressed the need for Canadian values, human rights and role models for young people. Tory also stressed the need to be more conversant with Caribbean / Black heroes and education.
Kevin Junor can attest to military education. Born in England of Jamaican heritage, after a decade in Jamaica, Junor came to Canada, starting as an infantryman in the Toronto Scottish Regiment.
He was promoted to chief warrant officer in 1998 and later regimental sergeant major (RSM), making him one of the youngest soldiers to achieve the two ranks by age 35. He is also the first Black to be appointed RSM for the Land Force Central Area infantry training exercise conducted in Kentucky.
Jamaican-born Meredith noted young Caribbean / Black Canadians were eager to serve King and country when war was declared. However, prejudiced attitudes of many in charge of enlistment made it difficult for these men to join the Canadian Army.
Despite the barriers, some Caribbean / Black Canadians did manage to join during the opening years of World War II. Caribbean / Black Canadians wanted the chance to do their part in a larger scale, however, and pressured the government to do so.
Many Black Veterans returned home after the war with a heightened awareness of the value of freedom and their right to be treated as equals after all they had done for Canada in their country’s time of need. The service of Black Canadians in the Second World War remains a point of pride and was a measure of how they were becoming increasingly integrated into the wider Canadian community.
Chief Warrant Officer Ray Joseph said that on July 5, 1961, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Pictou, Nova Scotia – the first large Black military unit in Canadian history. Recruitment took place across the country and more than 600 men were eventually accepted, most from Nova Scotia, with others coming from New Brunswick and Ontario. The segregated battalion was tasked with non-combat support roles.
The ‘Black Battalion’ chaplain was Rev. William White, who played a leading role getting the unit formed. He was given the rank of honourary captain – one of only a few Black commissioned officers.
Today, the Black Battalion as well as Black Canadians who fought in World War I are remembered and celebrated as a cornerstone of the proud tradition of Black military service in Canada.
Several thousand Black men and women served from 1914-18 in the bloodiest war the world has seen. Black Canadians joined regular units and served alongside their white fellow soldiers in Canada, England and on the battlefields of Europe, sharing the same harsh experiences.
Caribbean / Black people played a role at Vimy Ridge – the battle that is central to the contribution of Canada to the First World War. The majestic Canadian National Vimy Memorial commemorates more than 60,000 Canadians who died in France. More than 1,500,000 Canadians have served throughout our nation’s history and more than 118,000 have made the ultimate sacrifice.
On Saturday at Ryerson, Sabrina Mangra summed it up in her Commitment to Remember:
“They were young, as we are young,
They served, giving freely of themselves,
To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time,
To carry their torch and never forget,
We will remember them.”