The Military and Police

This section contains information on the involvement of B.C. Blacks in military activities.  The province’s first militia company was formed in Victoria in 1860 and was composed of Black men.  Blacks have also fought in the two World Wars in spite of “the colour line” within the military establishment.  Information on the limited participation of Blacks in the police force from 1858 to more contemporary times is also provided in this section.



One of the societal problems that Blacks encountered in Victoria in the 1860’s was, that a “color line” was drawn when they tried to enter various civic bodies.  Wanting to express their loyality and citizenship, they appealed to Governor Douglas for permission to form a military company.  The result was the formation in 1860 of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps nicknamed the “African Rifles”.  They were officially sworn in on July 4, 1861.  Many felt that the formation of this all-Black military unit was due to the fact that they had been denied membership to the Victoria Fire Brigade.

Consisting of one captain, three officers and forty-four privates, the VRPC drilled twice a week in an old drill hall on View Street.  Sometimes, it is noted, they paraded on the “commons”, a ten acre piece of land on Church Hill.   The company is said to have had the first military band on Vancouver Island.  It consisted of nine instruments and was led by a white bandmaster who was hired to teach them music.

Many comments are made about the splendor of their uniforms.  Their dress uniforms, which included a shako for a headdress, were blue with white facings and pipe-clayed trappings.  The Hudson’s Bay Company supplied these uniforms where were made in England, and some articles state that they were made from Hudson’s Bay blankets.  Their drill uniforms were green with orange facings.

Their arms were also supplied by the Hudson’s Bay Company and consisted of flintlocks and a few more modern guns which were fitted with bayonets and loaded with black powder and lead ball.

Through its existence the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps was in need of financial support.  For the most part the Blacks raised funds through subscriptions of other projects from within the Black community itself.  Financial support from the government was minimal and at times requests for monetary assistance went unheeded.

The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps paraded regularly until 1864 when, at the welcoming of the new Governor, Arthur Kennedy, they were denied permission by the civic authorities to participate in his reception.  It is sid that the Black men held their own parade in the drill hall and later retired to a restaurant, owned by a Black man, where they had a feast.  The following day, the company was received by Governor Kennedy in front of the Legislative Buildings.  It is noted that they paraded in full strength for the new Governor who received them.

Kennedy then told the Company, he regretted that he was compelled to refuse them official recognition as there was no authority for their existence since the Hudson’s Bay Company administrative power was at an end.  He advised them to disband.  The Company is said to have saluted and marched to Beacon Hill Park where they engaged in war games before returning to headquarters.  Later it is mentioned, they surrendered their arms to the Hudson’s Bay Company and passed out of existence.

Known members of the corps are: E.A. Booth (Paymaster), W. Brown, R. Caesar (Sergeant), Paris Carter, A.H. Frances, R.H. Johnson (Captain), J.B. Johnson (2nd Lieutenant), A.C. Richards (Secretary), F. Richards (Captain), and S.A. Stevens (Corporal).

Books and Articles

Bertley, L. Canada and its People of African Descent. op.cit. , pp.102-103.

Brown, R. The Negroes.  op.cit. , pp.239-240.

Fawcett, E.  Some Reminiscences of Old Victoria. op.cit. , p. 219.

Gregson, H.  A History of Victoria.  op.cit. , p.83.

Jackman, S.W.  The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, 1860 – 1866. Journal of the Society for Arms Historical Research.  Volume XXXLV #157, March 1961, pp.41-43. (PA)

Kilian, C.  Go Do Some Great Thing.  op.cit. 1st edition: pp.76-79, 131-135; 2nd edition: 62-64, 83, 111-113.

Matthews, Major James S.  “B.C.’s First Troops Were Black“. 14th Annual Convention of the Army and Navy Veteran’s in Canada.  Souvenir Number, Sept. 1934, pp. 62-65. (PA)

Wild, R.  Amor de Cosmos, op.cit. , p.38.

Winks, R.  The Blacks in Canada.  op.cit. , pp.278-280.


Pilton, J.  Negro Settlement in British Columbia 1858-1871.  op.cit. , pp. 111-126.

Walden, F.E.  The Social History of Victoria, British Columbia.  op.cit.  , pp. 96-97, 100-101.



July 4, 1861. “The Colored Rifles Will be Sworn In”.

September 20, 1861. “African Rifles”.

January 2, 1862. “Pioneer Rifles”.

April 6, 1864. “Pioneer Rifle Corps”.

May 8, 1865. “Volunteer Rifles”.

May 9, 1865. “Pioneer Rifle Company”.

April 5, 1948. “First Victoria Regiment”.

May 21, 1961, Magazine Section p. 11. “They Were The First”.


January 28, 1863. “Victoria City Brass Band”.

September 11, 1863. “Victoria Rifle Corps”.

February 26, 1864. “Reception of the Governor”.

February 28, 1864. “Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps”.

March 2, 1864. “Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps”.

March 5, 1864. “Governor’s Reception and Rifle Corps”.

March 6, 1864. “Reply to Briton. The Pioneer Rifle Company and Ball Cartridge”.

March 8, 1864. “Reception of Governor Kennedy.  What is Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the Gander”.

March 15, 1864. “Presentation of Colours to the Pioneer Rifle Corps”.

March 25, 1864. “Question for the Proposed Rifle Corps”.

March 27, 1864. “A World to ‘Nicholas’”.

March 31, 1864. “Presentation of Addresses to His Excellency Governor Kennedy.”


May 28, 1860. “Rifle Mania”.

May 30, 1860. “New Rifle Corps”.

Juan de Fuca News Review, June 17, 1970, p. 8.

“Areas First Voluntary Army Group All Negroes”.


September 21, 1861. “Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps”.

October 9, 1861. “Volunteer Movement”.

July 3, 1861. “Rifle Volunteers”.

July 14, 1861. “Pioneer Rifle Company”.

May 2, 1862. “Arms for the Rifle Corps”.


October 1, 1935. “Victoria Had Negro Troops 85 Years Ago”.

September 20, 1952. “Negro Company Claimed Pioneer Force of Province”.

Sun.  March 17, 1951.“B.C.’s Negro Army”.

Colonial Correspondence

Fortune Richard to Colonial Secretary, December 9, 1861.

This letter is a request for funds for the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps from 250 pounds sterling available for different volunteer corps in the colony.  A reply from Governor Douglas on the same day, authorizes 45 pounds sterling for the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps.

Fortune Richard and William Brown to Governor Douglas, July 31, 1862.

This letter requests $700 from the Governor to carry out alterations on the VRPC’s armoury.  A Memorial and Financial Statement showing the income and expenses of the Corps from its formation until July 31, 1862 is included.

William Brown to Governor Douglas, August 5, 1862.

Brown supplies Governor Douglas with information on the date of establishment of the VRPC, the number of men in the company and lists their drill activities.

E.A. Booth and R. Johnson to Governor Douglas, March 3, 1863.

This letter is a request for financial help for the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company.

R.H. Johnson and E.A. Booth, June 19, 1863.

The men ask for financial assistance for the Pioneer Rifle Hall.

Richard Johnson. P. Foreman, N. Pointer and P. Lester to the Hon. W.A.C. Young, Colonial Secretary, March 3, 1864.

This letter states that the men would take responsibility for 30 rifles to be used by the VRPC on the arrival of Hon. Capt. Kennedy.  In a reply, on the same day, Young states that the rifles would be forthcoming immediately.

W.A.G. Young to Messrs. Lester, Johnson, Freeman and Pointer, June 11, 1866.

In this letter Young, the Colonial Secretary, requests the return of the rifles which the VRPC borrowed two years previously at the time of Governor Kennedy’s reception.

P. Lester, P. Freeman, N. Pointer to W.A.G. Young, June 12, 1866.

The men inform Young that they would call the VRPC for a meeting and put the arms in order so that they could be returned.  They also state that the Company has not disbanded but would meet the request to turn in the arms.

Lt. R. Caesar to W.A.G. Young, June 13, 1866.

Caesar replies to Young’s request for the VRPC’s arms “now that they had disbanded”.  Caesar states that they had not disbanded but, due to a lack of support by the government and reduction in number due to death and migration from the colony, they simply were not meeting for drills or other activities.  Caesar agreed to deliver the arms to the person named by Young.

Picture File

There is one picture of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps.


Books and Articles

Bertley, L.  Canada and its People of African Descent.  op.cit.  , p. 71.

There is a reprint of the Ottawa Superintendent of Immigration’s October 28, 1916 memorandum of Malcolm R.J. Reid’s request from Vancouver to admit Black recruits for a construction battalion.  The Superintendent replies that “… there is no great difficulty in securing recruits for forestry and construction battalions, and I think it would be unwise to allow a lot of coloured men to get a foothold in Canada, even under the guise of enlistment in such a battalion”.

Kilian, C.  Go Do Some Great Thing.  op.cit. , pp.159, 161.

In the 1st edition Kilian points out that “Though World War I made enormous demands on Canada’s manpower, Ottawa did not feel democracy quite threatened enough to warrant recruiting Blacks for combat duty”.  Blacks who volunteered were rejected or else, for the most part, assigned to construction or forestry units.  However, at least one B.C. unit accepted Blacks for oversees duty, for Leo Smith, son of John Freemont Smith, was killed in action in 1918.  By World War II “Colour lines still existed in the armed forces, though they were drawn less firmly”.  Kilian relates the example of Earl Barnswell who was rejected by the Navy “solely on the grounds of his race” but was accepted by the Army.  Other Black pioneer descendants who served included Rod Alexander, Charles Winchester, Bob Whims, and Tommy Woods.

In the 2nd edition re World War I “The government followed contradictory policies in the first years of the war: while no official barriers stood in the way of Black volunteers, local commanders could reject them if they wished.  Most did.”


Colonist, March 22, 1953, p. 6.

Times, March 23, 1953, p. 5.

These articles announce the death of Roderick S. Alexander at the age of 55.  It is reported that he was a veteran of World War I and that he was the only Black member of the 114th Veteran Guard during the Second World War.

News Herald, March 20, 1943. “Navy Lifts Color Restrictions”.

This article reports that the color restrictions against those who wished to serve Canada in the naval forces had been lifted.  It points out that although the bar was lifted on March 12, the local Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer headquarters had still not heard the news on March 16.  The writer goes on to give evidence of how the new order got delayed.

News Herald, December 29, 1943. “Color Line in Call-ups by Army in British Columbia”.

It is stated in this article that unlike Manitoba, Blacks are called up for service in B.C.  It goes on to point out that there is only one Black in Canada’s navy and a few enlisted men in the active army.  Lt. Col. E.D. MacPherson of Manitoba reports that on the request of the department, he has not called the Black men.  The existence of this request is denied by National Selective Service Officials.

Vancouver Newspaper, July 18, 1940.

The article shows a picture of Abe Mortimer being shown in as the first Black to join the army in Vancouver.

Vancouver Newspaper, December 30, 1943.

In this article it is stated that there are 100 Blacks in the province of B.C. who are subject to army draft call just the same as the whites.  It also mentions that one Negro enlisted since the “colour line” was withdrawn early that year.

Aural History Tape

Tape #796:1 Interview in 1965 with Mrs. B. Weatherell, born in 1899, a Saltspring resident of British descent.

Mrs. Weatherell mentions that the Woods family was well-liked and that Harry Woods went off to the war (she doesn’t say which war) and came back lame.


Canadian Officers Training Corp


Vancouver City Archives: Blacks – Canada

There is a photograph of the Canadian Officers Training Corps. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. Jan. 1918.  The information states “Photograph shows one black man among many white men”.



Colonist, May 30, 1917, p. 5. “Prisoner Gives His Captor Iron Cross” – “Captured German Officer Decorates Pte. R. Gilbert, a Victoria Soldier, Who Took Him and Twenty-Four Men.”

This article recounts information from Mr. Charles Alexander of 1943 Mason Street who writes” yesterday I received an Iron Cross. It came by letter from Pte. R. Gilbert, one of Victoria’s colored soldiers who went away with the 103rd Battalion, Vancouver Island Timber Wolves, and has been on the firing line several months.”

Colonist, September 7, 1917, p. 9 “Victoria Tells How He Won Iron Cross” – “Pte. R Gilbert, Colored Soldier at Vimy Ridge Brought Out Forty Prisoners – Captive Officer Decorated Him”

This is an extensive article written by Gilbert describing how he went into an enemy tunnel after the Canadian charge at Vimy Ridge and single-handed, captured some forty Germans, how the captive officer recognized his bravery and gave him his Iron Cross, and other details of the exploit, in which he was armed with a revolver, a pair of wire-cutters and some bombs, are described by Pte. R. Gilbert, a Victoria colored soldier, who went away with the 103rd Battalion, in a letter just received by Mr. Lorenzo E. Jones, 920 Caledonia Avenue. With the letter Pte. Gilbert sends the Iron Cross given him by the German officer.  It is suspended from a red and black striped ribbon.

Colonist, June 30, 1918, p. 5. Photo of Pte. R. Gilbert.

The caption below the photo reads:   Pte. Robert Gilbert went oversees with the 2nd C.M.R. and some time ago returned to the city disabled after seeing much active service oversees.  He is now at the Willows Camp.  One of the boys in France, writing a few weeks ago to a friend here said: “I was glad to hear of Gilbert again.  Everyone in France who came in contact with him couldn’t help but like him, and if it were not for his colour I believe he would have had the Victoria Cross for his work on Vimy Ridge a year ago today (April 9).  The colour business is an awful drawback at times, but we all know he is the whitest black man that ever.


Books and Articles

Bertley, L.  Black Tiles in the Mosaic.  op.cit.

Bertley records the first police force in B.C. history as being formed in 1858 and Blacks were included in this force.

Bertley, L.  Canada and its People of African Descent.  op.cit. , p. 102.

The author mentions that the colonial government finally gave in to threats of violence and “mobocracy” and had to withdraw the Black police officers after they served only a few weeks.

Cornwallis, K.  The New El Dorado: or British Columbia.  op.cit. , p. 284.

Cornwallis notes that “The newly appointed police of the place were negroes and consequently heartily despised by the Americans.”

Higgins, D.W.  The Passing of a Race and More Tales of Western Life.  op.cit. , pp. 164-165.

Higgins reports that Blacks were sworn in as constables in 1858 and were paid a salary of $70 a month.  He relates an incident which occurred when a Black policeman attempted to arrest a white miner.  The thief, who was caught in the act, refused to go with the constable and was supported by the other miners present including the man who was robbed.  This incident and several similar ones caused the government to withdraw the Black constables after two months service.

Kilian, C.  Go Do Some Great Thing.  op.cit. , 1st edition p. 151; 2nd edition p.38,130.

Kilian describes Loren Lewis as being a veteran of Victoria’s first police force.  Lewis also served for several years as a district constable on the Songhees Reserve near Victoria and later became a member of the Provincial Police.

Scholefield, E.O.S. & Howay, F.W.  British Columbia from the earliest times to the present.  op.cit. , Volume IV p. 97.

The authors state that Judge Pemberton appointed Blacks to the first police force but the miners would not accept their authority.  They relate an incident in which the Judge himself, had to save a Black constable from being thrown into the harbour by rioting miners.


Pilton, J.  Negro Settlement in British Columbia 1858 – 1871.  op.cit. , p.49.

Pilton notes that during the early summer of 1858 Blacks were appointed police in Victoria but “did not long remain for the white population would not tolerate them and they had to be withdrawn”.


Colonist, February 2, 1958. “Among the Builders, The Negro Pioneers”.

The article points out that a few Blacks were appointed to the police force in Victoria (in 1858) but had to resign as the Whites could not accept Blacks as law enforcement agents.

Provincial Archives Documents

Excerpt from letter to the Archivist from Thomas Deasy, September 1, 1934.

Deasy comments on an article extracted from “Old Timer’s diary which was reprinted in the “Victoria Daily Times” in 1934.  Deasy states that he knew “Old Timer” well and the following information contained in his diary is correct, “The Victoria Police Force was composed of Jamaca (author’s spelling) colored men, with blue coats, red sashes and high hats, but they had such a hard time with the rough miners that old Jimmy Douglas took them off.”

Excerpt from letters to the Archivist from William Daniel Anderson, September 7 and 10, 1934.

Anderson wrote to say that the information about the first troop in B.C. being Afro-Americans is correct.  He documents this with clippings his mother had and goes on to say that only one man, Lorne Lewis, remained as a policeman for some time.


Books and Articles

Kilian, C. Go Do Some Great Thing. op.cit. , p. 151.

Kilian describes Lorne Lewis as being a veteran of Victoria’s first police force. Lewis also served for several years as a district constable on the Songhees Reserve near Victoria and later became a member of the Provincial Police.

Provincial Archives Documents

Excerpt from letters to the Archivist from William Daniel Anderson, September 7 and 10, 1934.
Anderson wrote to say that the information about the first troop in B.C. being Afro-Americans is correct. He documents this with clippings his mother had and goes on to say that only one man, Lorne Lewis, remained as a policeman for some time.




Sun, July 30, 1969, p. 49. “First Negro Joins City Police Force”

The article noted that Clarke made B.C. history when he became the first Black person to join the Vancouver City Police.  He was reported as being a native of Halifax who had moved to Vancouver.  In this article it was also mentioned that “police officials said that in the past they had received a number of applications from persons of ‘Negro extraction’ but they never fully met all the standards required.”

Sun, January 24, 1970, p. 20. “City Gets First Black Policeman”.

This is a brief article announcing Bruce Clarke as Vancouver’s first Black policeman.  Clarke describes his feelings about his work.