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After Justin Trudeau’s apology to Canada’s all-Black First World War battalion, what’s next?

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


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