By Courtney Betty

Thu., July 21, 2022

Photo Credit; No. 2 Construction Battalion website

On July 9, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a long-overdue apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion in Truro, Nova Scotia. The First World War battalion was formed in 1916 as a segregated unit. In the words of the prime minister, while Black people who wanted to enlist were told “it’s a white man’s war,” this battalion refused to give up hope.

They were true Canadian heroes who wanted to serve, and thus formed the first and only all-Black battalion formation in Canadian military history. After being told they were not welcome, they banded together and pressured the government and military officials to allow them to serve and defend their country.

Trudeau’s apology did not shy away from the government’s appalling mistreatment of these soldiers, and the pain and suffering of their families, descendants and communities. At the heart of his message was a recognition that “the most selfless things a person can do is stand up and volunteer to fight for their country — it is an act of extraordinary bravery, honour, sacrifice and loyalty.” He acknowledged that blatant anti-Black hate and systemic racism denied these men their dignity in life and in death.

Finally — over a century later — and on behalf of all Canadians, he said “we are sorry.”

The families, advocates and organizers of the official apology have made all Canadians proud. They have begun to correct a history that denied the bravery, contributions and sacrifices of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Through their efforts, they laid a foundation for addressing injustices of the past and building a more equitable future. But this work cannot stop here.

Photo Credit; No. 2 Construction Battalion website

While the apology was meaningful and impactful, there is one important question the prime minister and government must still answer: will they take real action and grant these servicemen the dignity in death that their white counterparts received? This must include taking concrete steps to extinguish the systemic racism and discrimination against Black Canadians which still exists within our government institutions. Even the prime minister himself recognized the apology is merely a starting point, as “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.”

The Black community in Canada, according to the government’s own statistics, is hurting in many areas. In the justice system, the Toronto Police Service recently acknowledged and apologized for the many years of systemic discrimination and harmful actions carried out by the police against Black people in Toronto. Health Canada studies routinely demonstrate the many health challenges our Black community faces as a result of systemic racism.

Economically, many Black people today in both the public and private sectors continue to experience a lack of promotions and advancement opportunities in their organizations. And ironically, in our Canadian Armed Forces, hundreds of Black members have reported racism and discrimination, even as Trudeau and Minister of Defence Anita Anand were delivering this historic apology.

Photo Credit; No. 2 Construction Battalion

Recognizing that Black people are an integral part of Canadian society is important — but words without real action and a real plan to address systemic racism and discrimination in Canada risk taking us backward. Hollow apologies only weaken the fabric and ideals of our great multicultural country.

Prime Minister Trudeau took the first step through his apology; he must take action to restore the dignity of these servicemen in death. Pensions, benefits and continued engagement are a necessary step for strengthening Canada’s Black community, who — like the No. 2 Construction Battalion — continue to stand on guard for thee.

Courtney Betty is a former Crown attorney at the Department of Justice Canada. He is currently legal counsel for the Black Class Action coalition.

Published in Toronto Star

Members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion
Members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion in 1916.


The Black Class Action was pleased to join descendants of the Black Battalion and members of the Black Nova Scotian community to witness the Government of Canada’s long overdue apology for its historic role in propagating systemic racism and anti-Black hate within the Canadian Armed Forces.

We stand in solidarity with the descendants of the Black Battalion families and we salute the tremendous work done by these individuals to achieve this historic moment. This apology is one significant step forward in righting a series of terrible and long-standing wrongs against Black Canadians, but it cannot stand alone.

The servicemen of the No.2 Construction Battalion were denied dignity in their service and dignity in their post-service lives and deaths. While white servicemen were granted land, pensions and generous benefits, the servicemen of the Black Battalion were left with nothing. This injustice must be addressed and resolved by the Government of Canada for their apology to go beyond words and continue the healing process.

Many members of families descended from the Black Battalion are current members of the Black Class Action. This lineage of systemic racism within government institutions is disheartening but not surprising to those of us who have experienced exclusion from hiring, promotion and professional advancement as federal employees.

In the spirit of this important apology, the Black Class Action calls on Prime Minister Trudeau to direct his government to demonstrate compassion to those Black Canadians who have experienced racism and discrimination within our country’s public service. Current and former Black federal employees who continue to experience systemic racism should not be forced to fight for justice and recognition in the courts. The government must end this legal process and come to the table with tangible actions.


Media Enquiries:

For Immediate Release

TORONTO - Today the Black Class Action released the harrowing story of Karen Marie Dickson, a former crown attorney who faced significant discrimination, racism and hardship during her time at the Canadian Department of Justice.

Sadly, we know that Karen’s story is not an isolated incident. For too long, Black employees have been the victims of systemic racism within the Department of Justice and within the Public Service more broadly - Nicholas Marcus Thompson, Black Class Action Secretariat

Enough is enough. Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Racism, we are calling on the Government of Canada to launch a formal independent workplace audit into how Black employees (past and present) are treated at the Justice Department. This investigation must include a set of concrete recommendations for addressing systemic racism and discrimination within this department. Now is the time for our government to step up and commit to protecting all current and future Black workers.

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