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Remembrance Day: Trudeau’s apology to Black servicemen needs to be followed with action

Soldiers in uniform saluting.

Written by Hyacinth Simpson, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith. Originally published in The Conversation. 

Soldiers salute during the national apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion in Truro, N.S. on July 9, 2022.

While it’s true that actions do speak louder than words, words do matter — especially when they’re spoken with honesty and sincerity and are the precursor to meaningful action.

This was the prevailing sentiment within Black communities in Canada following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology in July 2022 to the descendants of the Black men who served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War.

The No. 2 Battalion sailed for Europe from Halifax in March 1917. The No. 2 totalled 614 men, far fewer than the roughly 1,000 that usually make up a battalion.

It was the only battalion-sized segregated unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and it existed because commanding officers routinely and callously rejected Black men who wanted to fight for the country.

As letters, memos and other military records archived from the war years indicate, commanding officers and white recruits felt that the conflict was a white man’s war. Anti-Black racism also led many to believe that Black men were not fighting material.

In one instance, a major-general who served as Canada’s Chief of the General Staff confidently declared that in the trenches “the civilized negro” was “not likely to make a good fighter.”

Those attitudes prevailed even after surviving members of the battalion returned to Canada. Historical records reveal that the men did not even receive the public expressions of thanks extended to other returnees.

An elderly man in military uniform holds a black and white photo of a younger man also in uniform
Peter Richards holds a picture of battalion member Percy James Richards during the national apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion in Truro, N.S. on July 9, 2022. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith.

A first step

Although there are those who have criticized Trudeau for “weaken[ing]the currency of national apologies by issuing so many,” many Black Canadians were glad that he gave it.

His apology did not shy away from naming racism and anti-Black hate as the reason for the horrific treatment of the No. 2 men. It acknowledged that racism and anti-Black hate are still a problem in the Canadian military and elsewhere.

The apology directly linked the anti-Black racism experienced by the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion to the widespread systemic racism in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) today. Trudeau committed his government and the military to effecting “meaningful change, where the dignity of all service members in the Canadian Armed Forces is upheld. Where everyone is welcome; where everyone can rise through the ranks; where everyone has opportunities to distinguish themselves.”

Exactly how these outcomes will be achieved remains to be seen. In 2016, a class-action claim filed on behalf of Black and other racialized personnel detailed the trauma and career consequences many have experienced due to unchecked racism in the CAF, including being silenced when they step forward with complaints and having their careers cut short.

At the apology ceremony, Defence Minister Anita Anand said she’s “committed to eliminating systemic racism so that the discrimination faced by the Number 2 Construction Battalion and those who followed never happens again.” She added that the Department of Defense must “begin working on [the National Apology Advisory Committee’s] recommendations now.”

“Now” is the operative word, and meaningful change will depend on the government and Armed Forces following through with that promise.

A white man in a dark suit shakes hands with an elderly black man wearing a shirt and tie and military cap.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with a descendant during the national apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion in Truro, N.S. on July 9, 2022. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith.

A path forward

Of course, the fact that the apology was made in 2022 is an indication that federal apologies like this one are not all about altruism and moral conscience but are in large part the result of pressure (sometimes decades-long) from communities.

So the point is not lost on some observers that the intent to apologize, announced on March 28, 2021, came in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

Despite sneers against critical race theory from certain political factions and the constant drumbeat against political correctness and being “woke,” there has been a noticeable shift toward a better understanding of anti-Black racism and the various insidious and overt forms that it takes.

This is our zeitgeist. There’s a sense within Black communities that Black people’s moment, though it’s not here quite yet, is closer on the horizon and the prime minister’s apology has aligned with the times.

But things cannot start and end with the apology. If the prime minister and his government are truly committed to meaningful change, then Black communities need to see words followed up by action.

The government and military need to respond seriously to the key recommendations put forward by the National Apology Advisory Committee that require post-apology action. They must also work with Black communities and the CAF to implement initiatives that bring about the changes that Black people themselves would like to see.

A series of small green flags with an emblem, names and No.2 Construction Battalion written on them.
Flags on display at the national apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith.

At the July apology ceremony, it was announced that the venue in Truro, N.S., where the event took place — and where the No. 2 performed training exercises — would be renamed in honour of the battalion.

But post-apology actions need to go beyond simply honoring and commemorating. They need to be truly reparative.

Justice Minister David Lametti recently announced that the government will provide funding for a Black Legal Action Centre project that “addresses the over-representation of individuals from Black communities in the criminal justice system in Toronto.”

A day earlier, the Toronto International Film Festival announced its decision to rename its largest cinema after civil rights activist Viola Desmond and also pledged to “raise $2 million over the next five years to provide support to Black women creators [and] develop programming for Black audiences.”

Both provide good reparative models. They aim to simultaneously educate and redress. Whether post-apology actions are targeted exclusively at the descendants of the No. 2 Battalion and Black men who served in the First World War or all personnel who have experienced racism, their effectiveness should be measured by how well they correct misleading narratives about Black military service in Canada.

They should also examine how well the related funding and initiatives ameliorate the anti-Black racism experienced by target groups.