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Pier 21 celebrates First World War pioneers

Black men weren't welcome in the Canadian army during the First World War... until the going got tough

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This month marks exactly 100 years since the No. 2 Construction Battalion boarded the SS Southland and sailed from Halifax Harbour to England, and then to France, where they served with the Canadian Forestry Corps during the First World War. During their deployment, they did logging work, maintained front-line trenches, and built transportation infrastructure, plus caring for the wounded and defusing land mines.

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was the only all-black army unit in Canadian military history. It was formed at a time when the Canadian military (and just about everything else in Canada) was segregated. Black men who tried to enlist were turned away simply because of their skin colour, until enlistment figures dropped drastically in 1916. Then military officials authorized the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

On March 25, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 celebrates their historic departure. The event includes musical performances from the Nova Scotia Mass Choir and The Sanctified Brothers, plus a keynote address from Douglas Ruck, son of human-rights activist, politician, and author Calvin W. Ruck.

“[Douglas Ruck] is a very engaging speaker,” says public-programs manager Rebecca MacKenzie-Hopkins. “He draws a lot of parallels between the experiences of the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and current experiences, current issues in civil rights in Canada.”

The celebration will also include an opportunity to learn more about life at home during the First World War. “One of our interpreters, Fraser MacKay, will be doing a rationing demonstration,” says MacKenzie-Hopkins. “He’ll be on-hand during the reception piece of the event to illuminate the public on the rationing in the Canadian military during WWI.”

The rationing demonstration will include an samples of a kind of hard biscuit that soldiers ate at the time.

This event ties in with Community Presents: The No. 2 Construction Battalion, an exhibition created by the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia. See it at Pier 21 until May 1, 2017.

 

 

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