How Black and Indigenous young men fought to support World War I effort
Professor James Walker’s account of WWI race and recruitment demonstrates how racism deepened Canada’s consequences of war
Professor James Walker’s account of WWI race and recruitment demonstrates how racism deepened Canada’s consequences of warBy Wendy Philpott Arts
World War I was initially considered to be the war that would “make the world safe for democracy,” noted history professor James Walker in the opening of his 1989 paper about race and recruitment.
But for many, especially Black, Indigenous, Chinese and Japanese people, the reality was very different. “The experience of visible minorities in World War I illustrates the nature of Canadian race sentiment early in this century, and most abruptly it demonstrates that white Canadians participated in the western ideology of racism,” wrote Walker in the paper.
As it turned out, during WWI about 3,500 Indigenous, more than 1,000 Black and hundreds of Chinese and Japanese men joined the Canadian forces.
Yet racism and prejudice prevented more from enlisting. Walker wrote: “the numbers in uniform were impressive, a demonstration of loyalty and a confidence that accepting equal responsibilities would win the advantages of Canadian citizenship. (However, by) 1919 respect and equality remained beyond reach. Lessons which could and should have been learned in the First World War had to be taught all over again in the second global conflict.”
Walker is widely recognized as a leading scholar of Canadian race relations and Black history. He is credited for reclaiming forgotten stories and advocating for equality for Black and Indigenous communities through both his scholarship and actions. His influential publications, such the book The Black Loyalists, have inspired books and films including Lawrence Hill’s international bestselling novel The Book of Negroes.
His 1989 publication “Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force” (available at Dana Porter Library) suggests how entrenched racist attitudes resulted in an even higher price of war for all Canadians.
In 1914, many communities of Black, Indigenous and Japanese young men wanted to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force but were repeatedly rejected. In the case of Indigenous men, Walker wrote that the early wartime reasoning for their rejection was that “Germans might refuse to extend to them the privileges of civilized warfare.” Among numerous other examples, he cites a group of 50 Black men in Sydney, Nova Scotia who set out to enlist but were told, “This is not for you fellows, this is a white man’s war.”
Walker wrote that the desire of men of colour to enlist was likely similar to all volunteers early in war: they were motivated in part by a young men's sense of adventure, but also by the belief that their contribution to the war effort would be rewarded with fair and equal citizenship for their communities.
“They sought enlistment in large numbers and insisted on knowing why their offer was not accepted.” No clear response from the government was offered, but by spring of 1915 it was obvious that the war was not going be “short and glorious.” More and more men were needed. Criteria for soldiers was loosened and segregated units emerged, as long as recruits declared themselves “patriotic.” But, as Walker found in numerous examples, racism continued to stand in the way.
Indigenous men were the first to be enlisted on a larger scale. Walker noted that the 114th Battalion advertised itself in newspapers as “the Indian unit” and ended up with half its members being Indigenous — many from Six Nations — and a badge featuring crossed tomahawks.
However, enlisting Black troops was severely hampered despite the growing need. Commenting on the overt racism in the rejection of Black volunteers, Walker wrote: “No one apologized […] No one seemed to think his prejudices would not be understood and shared.”
Most of the Black volunteers who did join the Canadian Expeditionary Force were not enlisted in combat units, however. From across Canada, they were sent to the segregated Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion, formed in July 1916, and went to Europe as an all-Black labour battalion.
Two years into the war, resistance to enlisting men of colour had been reversed completely, wrote Walker. But by then, many Black and Indigenous men reversed their own position and refused to enlist, angered by the discrimination they’d endured and their lost hopes for gaining respect and fair treatment in Canadian society.
Poised to retire this month from his 50-year career, Walker’s list of honours for his scholarship and long-standing contributions to civil rights includes a Royal Society of Canada fellowship (2013), the Olivier le Jeune Trailblazer Award (2015) from the Ontario Black History Society, and membership in the Order of Canada (2016).
Recently featured in a story in The Record, Walker shared his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement: “We are in the middle of a pandemic and people are out demonstrating on behalf of an issue, a principle, and I find it very encouraging.”
Marcia Smellie of the Congress of Black Women comments in the Record that he is an “unsung hero” who has mentored many who are now continuing the work he began. Christopher Taylor, professor of history at Waterloo and an expert in migration and race relations says in the article that Walker’s “The Black Loyalists” remains a foundational book that everyone should read. Taylor added, “He is a giant in the field of Black history in Canada.”
Credits: Banner image - 'No. 2 Construction Battalion, 1916. Photo: Museum Windsor/P6110
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Office of Indigenous Relations.