We honour and remember the men and women who served and continue to serve, in times of war, conflict and peace.
Black Canadians have served in British and Canadian Armed Forces dating back to the American Revolution (1775–83) when enslaved people were offered freedom and land if they agreed to fight in the British cause … AND throughout our history have faced discriminatory policies and practices, yet have still fervently demonstrated loyalty to Canada by enlisting for military service.
The first recognized military unit in BC is The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. In 1859 when the volunteer Fire Department was being created in Victoria, several Black men volunteered to serve but they were rejected by the white men organizing the department. Undaunted, they met with Governor Douglas to offer their services as a volunteer militia unit. While they did initially have the support of Governor Douglas, this support slowly eroded. Here’s their story.
Image F-00641. Courtesy Royal BC Museum and Archives
In this article
World War I: Canada Rejects Black Volunteers
Roll of Honour: World War I and World War II Veterans
National Apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion and their Descendants
Black Veteran’s Website
World War I: Canada Rejects Black Volunteers
Many of the pioneers that migrated to the British colonies beginning in 1858 were young men and women and young families. It was their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who enlisted to fight for Canada in World War I and World War II.
When World War I broke out, “Throughout the country, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, large numbers of Black volunteers were being rejected strictly on the basis of our colour.” Calvin W. Ruck, “The Black Battalion 1916-1920 Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret”
In Chapter 1 of his book, Ruck cites numerous examples of this rejection across Canada, including Victoria BC. He writes “Colonel Ogilvie, the officer commanding Military District 11, Victoria, B.C., expressed some rigid views on the matter. In a letter to Militia Council headquarters dated December 9, 1915, he said that the colour line in British Columbia was sharply drawn compared with eastern Canada. Ogilvie’s recommendation left no room for misinterpretation: Several cases of coloured applicants have been reported on by Officers Commanding units and the universal opinion is that if this were allowed it would do much harm, as white men here will not serve in the same ranks with negros [sic] or coloured persons.”
By 1916, the war had been raging for 2 years “A blood bath was taking place on the battlefields of France and Belgium … casualties were reaching alarming proportions … the lack of sufficient reinforcements for battalions at the front was becoming a serious national problem“.
Despite this dire situation for Canada, Ruck goes on to cite several more memoranda expressing negative presumptions and questioning the capability and loyalty of Black men. Nevertheless, on May 11, 1916, the British War Office in London expressed willingness to accept an all-Black labour battalion.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion CEF, the first and only Black battalion in Canadian military history, was authorized on July 5, 1916, with headquarters at Pictou, Nova Scotia. Six men from BC enlisted in the Battalion. Roy Alexander, Arnold William Harris, Daniel Redman, Robert Clark Whims, James Douglas Whims, and James Edward Wintworth.
Honour Roll: World War I and World War II
This is not a comprehensive list of BC Black Veterans. It’s a beginning to raise awareness of the individual and collective contributions to Canada and the world of the many who served with inadequate recognition. It is our desire to honour the efforts and sacrifices of all who served. Are you aware of other Black Veterans from BC? Please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
|ALEXANDER: Roy Alexander, Pte. His military record states he was born October 20th, 1896. He enlisted in Vancouver in October 1916. His address at that time was 330 Union St. in Vancouver and he lists his brother, Arthur Alexander of 1407 Store Street in Victoria, as his next of kin. The records go on to say that he served in France with the 37th Forestry Battalion which was part of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Regiment No. 931612. In February 1919, he returned to Vancouver where he was discharged. Some sources state he was also the only Black member of the 114th Veteran Guard during World War II.|
|BARNSWELL: Earl Barnswell, Army. Author Crawford Killian writes “Earl Barnswell was rejected by the navy solely on grounds of his race, but the army accepted him”|
|GILBERT: Robert Burt Gilbert, Pte., 103rd Battalion, Vancouver Island Timber Wolves. The Colonist newspaper article, June 30, 1918 (p.5) with this photo of Pte. Robert Burt Gilbert recounts how Gilbert single-handedly captured a German Officer and 24 of his men at Vimy Ridge. Read more|
|HARRIS: Arnold William Harris, Pte. from Revelstoke, No. 2 Construction Battalion Regiment No 931583. He was a mechanic. Date enlisted/discharged: September 19, 1916/March 26, 1919. His attestation papers state he was born October 17, 1887, in St. Catherine, Jamaica|
|MORTIMER: Ebenezer “Abe” Mortimer, Cpl., Canadian Forestry Corps. He was the first Black to join the army in Vancouver (1940). He is the son of Lucretia (nee Alexander) Mortimer and William E. Mortimer, and grandson of Charles and Nancy Alexander. Abe was inducted into the Vancouver Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967 (age 77). He died in 1969. In July 2020 the BC Labour Heritage Centre published an article about Abe. Vancouver's Favourite Umpire. “This BC Black pioneer was a lumber worker, athlete, soldier, storyteller and Hall of Famer.”|
|REDMAN: Daniel Redman, Pte. No. 2 Construction Battalion. Regimental No. 931617, enlisted at Vancouver BC in October 1916. His attestation papers state he was born in July 1894 in Virginia, USA.|
|SMITH: Cpl. Leo Alphonsus Smith, killed in action on September 2, 1918. Leo was one of seven children of John Freemont and Mary Anastasia (nee Miller) Smith. John was born in the Virgin Islands; he arrived in B.C in 1872. His father owned and operated a retail business there. In 1902 his father became secretary of the Board of Trade; a year later, elected alderman and served for four years. |
Leo spent much of his life in the Kamloops area. His military records list him as single and his occupation as Printer. His 1st rank was Private, 172nd Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Army). 1916-10-10 to 1916-12-07. He was then Corporal, 54th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Army). 1916-12-07 to 1918-09-02. He is buried at Dury Mill British Cemetery, France,
Leo’s mother and father remained in Kamloops until their deaths in 1927 (Mary) and 1934(John).
|WHIMS: Hiram Whims, born in Tennessee and immigrated to Salt Spring c1859. Four grandsons who were brothers and cousins served in World War I. Two grandsons served in World War II. |
William David Whims, b.1890, 2nd Depot Battalion, British Columbia Regiment, 2138848.
George Harim Whims, b. 1894, No.1 Forestry Draft, 2203817. His son, Billy Whim served in World War II.
Robert Clark Whims,Pte. b. 1897, No.2 Construction Battalion, 931613. His son, Harry Whims, enlisted to serve in World War II.
James Douglas Whims,Pte b. 1898, No.2 Construction Battalion, 931614. - he may have been less than honest about his age in order to enlist; unfortunately, he died of pleurisy while on duty. He is buried in the Etaples Military Cemetery, France. He was just 18 years old.
WHIMS William "Billy" George Whims served in World War II.
William George Whims, was born on SSI in ), was the son of George Harim Whims. Billy was stationed in Petawawa, Ontario. While on leave, he met Bernice Jordan. They were married in 1943 and settled in Ontario.
WHIMS Harold "Harry" Ormandas Whims |
Harry Whims (Harold Ormandas Whims), born on SSI in 1926, was the son of Robert Clark Whims. Harry enlisted during WWII, but it is unknown if he travelled abroad. After the war, he worked as a Sleeping Car Porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway. It is thought that he may have been with the CPR before enlisting.
|WINCHESTER Charles Winchester, World War I, Army.|
|WINTWORTH James Edward Wintworth, Pte. lived in Ganges, Salt Spring Island, B.C. He served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion, enlisted on September 16, 1916 in Vancouver, Regiment No. 2073. His attestation papers state he was born in Montreal on June 19, 1973; and is listed as a mechanic.|
WOOD Robert Wood Sr. |
Robert Wood was born on Salt Spring Island in 1893. He was married, had a family and was managing a farm for the Mouat’s Trading Co. on Tripp Road for many years.
When WWII started, Robert was too old to enlist, so he wore the uniform of the Gulf Island Rangers/Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, formed to guard the Pacific coast. His son, pictured below, did enlist.
WOOD James "Jim" Robert Wood |
Jim Wood was born on Salt Spring Island in 1921, son of Robert Wood Sr., pictured above. Jim became ill with tuberculosis while training in Victoria and ended up being hospitalized in Esquimalt.
Jim returned to SSI and continued to help his father at the farm; later he and his brother Bob Jr. formed Wood Brothers Trucking.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion 1916-1920 and the National Apology July 9, 2022
This stamp uses archival photographs in the foreground to depict the faces of some members of the unit, who represent their comrades. Below, against a backdrop of tall conifers, members of a forestry crew move in silhouette, their tools on their shoulders. The men felled trees in a mountainous region of France, then milled the timbers into lumber that supported the walls of trenches, built encampments and repaired the railway lines and roads that supplied the front.
Courtesy of Canada Post. Issued January 14, 2016
On July 9, 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a National Apology to the Descendants and Families of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. The Apology took place in Truro Nova Scotia on the grounds where the Battalion trained.
“For the blatant anti-Black hate and systemic racism that denied these men dignity in life and in death, we are sorry. Only when the truths of the past are acknowledged can we begin to dress the wounds they created and build a better, more inclusive Canada for all. I would like to thank the descendants of No.2 Construction Battalion, members of the National Apology Advisory Committee, and members of Black communities in Nova Scotia and across Canada for their important advocacy which was instrumental in bringing this day forward. The story of No. 2 Construction Battalion, and the stories of bravery, honour, and sacrifice of many other trailblazing Canadians, will play an important role in ensuring this horrible treatment never occurs again.” The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada.
Ron Nicholson, pictured in this article header photo, was a member of the National Apology Advisory Committee (NAAC) and he attended the event in Nova Scotia. Ron has this to say about the committee and the event.
“The No. 2 Construction Battalion Apology Event was held in Truro, Nova Scotia on July 9, 2022. It was both an honour and a privilege to sit on the National Advisory Apology Committee, who met by Zoom over the 5-6 months prior to the event. Although I was not a direct descendant of a member of the No 2 Battalion, my research and interest in Canadian Black History earned me the invitation to participate. On July the 8th we travelled to Pictou, NS to view the memorials erected there where the No 2 Battalion had trained: and in the evening we attended a reception at the Black Cultural Centre hosted by the Minister of National Defence.
The National Advisory Apology Committee consisted of 22 members whose focus was to prepare a report for the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and The Minister of National Defence, Anita Anand: to ensure that “The Apology” was meaningful and with lasting impact. I personally found the event to be significant, meaningful and even emotional at times. It was so special for me to be part of this history making event.
There was about 2–3 thousand in attendance on a beautiful warm and sunny day. The apologies given by the Prime Minister & Minister of National Defence were sincere and appreciated by all present. Other speakers included local dignitaries, and descendants of the No. 2 Battalion. Current Military dressed in the WW1 uniforms and Members of the RCMP marched in the parade that preceded the event. Gospel singers and a band performed and were very entertaining. The event was broadcast and viewed across Canada and beyond.
I commend, Russell Grosse, Executive Director, of the Nova Scotia Black Cultural Centre, and Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Pitcher, of the Canadian Armed Forces, who co-hosted all the NAAC meetings and organized the event; and I can’t forget to thank Captain Kevin Junor, who arranged for all the accommodation and local transportation for the members of the committee.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I was very happy to have made the trip”
Ron has provided a 10-minute summary video of the apology event.
You can watch the full ceremony (2:55:46)
Find out more about the No. 2 Construction Battalion and the History of Black Canadians in the Military
Black Veteran’s Website
The intent of this site is to raise awareness of the contribution made by Black Canadians who served in the Canadian Military during conflict and in peacetime. The site was inspired by Kathy Grant, the daughter of a Second World War veteran. “She is a public historian carrying on her father’s mission to preserve stories of Black Canadian veterans.” Black Canadians Their Stories Our Canadian History
Credits and Reference Material
– Images (Accession number): Billy Whims (2004032038), Harry Whims (2004032035), Robert Wood Sr. (2004032034), and Jim Wood (2004032033) courtesy of the Salt Spring Island Archives.
– Thank you to the collaborative managers/researchers, Ceridwen Ross Collins and Chris Marshall, Salt Spring Island Archives for their tireless effort in researching and sharing their materials.
– The Salt Spring Island Archives thanks Darleene Horricks, great-great-granddaughter of Hiram Whims; for additional information regarding her family members in uniform, and for her generous donation of these archival images.
– Crawford Kilian, “The Black Pioneers of British Columbia: Go Do Some Great Thing” 3rd edition, Harbour Publishing, 2020
– Calvin W. Ruck, “The Black Battalion 1916-1920 Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret”, Nimbus Publishing Limited, 1987. Calvin Woodrow Ruck, CM, senator (1998-2000), social worker, human rights activist, author; born 4 September 1925 in Sydney, NS; died 19 October 2004 in Ottawa.
– Feature Image: Red poppies in the evening sun, Bart Ros, Unsplash
– Ron Nicholson places wreath at Ross Bay Cemetery ©BC Black History Awareness Society, all rights reserved.
– Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, Image F-00641. Courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives
– BC Black History Awareness Society. In 1978 the Society undertook a project to catalogue books, publications, manuscripts, newspaper articles and archival materials about these pioneers including their military service. A Catalogue of Information Sources: The Military and Police