By Lincoln DePradine
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t want the contributions of Black military men, who served the country more than 100 years ago, to be “overlooked and forgotten’’, and he has issued an apology to them for the racism they experienced during the First World War.
However, for many Blacks, racism in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) remains an issue and it’s the subject of a current class-action lawsuit.
Retired air force officer, Rubin “Rocky” Coward, one of four plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the CAF, said he was made ill because of racism in the military.
“When I finished serving in Germany back in 1990, I went to Greenwood and I faced systemic racism there for three years, and I ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Coward said.
Last Saturday, Prime Minister Trudeau; Minister of National Defence, Anita Anand; and Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Frances Allen were in Truro, Nova Scotia, where an apology was offered to descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was deployed overseas in March 1917.
The battalion, which trained in Truro, was Canada’s only all-Black unit to serve in the war. It comprised Canadian-born soldiers, as well as men born in the United States and the Caribbean.
Despite their invaluable contribution to the war effort, blatant anti-Black racism was meted out to the men, who were forced to live in segregated camps and not provided with proper medical care, rations or equipment, Trudeau said.
“We cannot ever let what happened to No. 2 Construction Battalion happen again,’’ the prime minister said. “And, we cannot let the service of any member of our forces ever be overlooked and
For her part, Anand pledged that concrete action will be taken to ensure the CAF is more inclusive and reflective of Canada’s diverse population.
The apology and expressed commitments from Anand and Prime Minister Trudeau are “a step toward racial equality in our country’’, said Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
Grosse and other members of the Black Cultural Centre were involved in developing a database to help identify members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and their descendants.
The federal Liberals had set up a National Apology Advisory Committee to help advise the government on what the apology should entail.
The government also wanted to know from the committee, which held consultations, whether it should expand the apology to include other Black members of the Canadian military who faced discrimination; and, as well, other Black Canadians who were outright denied the right to serve in the Canadian military.
“The consultation made it very clear that if, in fact, the apology is not followed by substantive measures, then those words, despite the best of intentions, will have no meaning, and minimal impact,” said Douglas Ruck, who served on the National Apology Advisory Committee.
More than 300 of the 600-member strong No. 2 Construction Battalion were from Nova Scotia. “The men of the Battalion enlisted in obscurity. They trained in obscurity. They served in obscurity. And they came home to a country that was quite willing to allow their service and their sacrifice to fall into obscurity,” said Ruck.
Coward, who together with Marc Frenette, J.P. Menard and Wallace Fowler, filed the lawsuit against the CAF, also believes the apology should be followed by visible action.
One of the most important aspects of the lawsuit, said Coward, is to have systemic and institutional changes within the framework of the CAF, and to have oversight from an external review authority.
Though the details are still being worked out, Coward said an agreement in principle has been reached in the lawsuit, he said.