No. 2 Construction Battalion recruited men from all over Canada. Many of its members were from Nova Scotia, others hailed from the United States and the British West Indies. All but one of the unit’s officers were white: its chaplain, Rev. Dr. W. Andrew White, held the rank of captain and was one of the few Black officers in the Canadian military during the war.
Not all Black Canadians were turned away from recruiting offices during the First World War. No. 2 Construction Battalion (also known as the Black Battalion) was the largest of two all-Black units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), other Black Canadians in smaller numbers served in other units. Black Canadians also participated in all of Canada’s major battles in the First World War, including Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele and the 100 Days Campaign.
On July 9, 2022, the Government of Canada issued a formal apology for the racism and discrimination endured by members of No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Designed by Canadian artist Kwame Delfish, this new Black History coin’s reverse, honours the legacy of No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), and its contributions to Canada’s war efforts during the First World War. At the centre of the design is a member of Canada’s largest all-Black battalion-sized military unit, and an enlarged view of No. 2 Construction Battalion cap badge appears to the left of him. Behind the Black soldier and to the right, members of the battalion are shown marching in a parade prior to deployment in March 1917. On the other side, the landscape represents the Jura region of France, where the battalion assisted with logging and lumber operations, and with building a railroad that, on this coin, symbolizes the journey and hardships endured by Black Canadian soldiers more than a century ago. The obverse features a maple leaf pattern and the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II by Susanna Blunt. The obverse also bears a special marking that includes four pearls symbolizing the four effigies that have graced Canadian coins and the double date of her reign.
During the first two years of the First World War, hundreds of Black Canadians eagerly attempted to enlist with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but most were turned away because they were Black. Still, Black Canadians and white supporters pressed officials to allow Black enlistment. When Britain requested more labour units from Canada in 1916, the decision was made to establish a segregated labour battalion.
Artist Kwame Delfish who designed the new coin stated; "This coin pays homage to not only the Black men who were originally recruited for No. 2 Construction Battalion, but to all those who were declined an opportunity to enlist in the military because of their race. While some men were successful in their military pursuits, it didn’t come without fight. As a result of the racism they endured, most would not be allowed to face combat alongside their fellow countrymen. The desire to fight for their country, regardless, demonstrates the bravery, selflessness and honour of No. 2 Construction Battalion. The existence and accomplishments of these men is another part of Canadian history that is to be acknowledged, celebrated and honoured—forever. I hope I was able to capture these honourable men in a way that represents their strength and resiliency, while also raising awareness about the critical role that No. 2 Construction Battalion had in the Canadian armed forces."
No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed on July 5, 1916, and was initially headquartered in Pictou, N.S. before moving to Truro, N.S. On March 28, 1917, the battalion sailed from Halifax aboard the SS Southland bound for Liverpool, England. No. 2 Construction Battalion arrived on April 7, 1917. At this time, the unit was reorganized as a labour company and renamed No. 2 Canadian Construction Company because it did not have enough men to be considered a battalion. On May 17, the unit was deployed to France’s mountainous Jura Department, where the men assisted the Canadian Forestry Corps with lumber and logging operations, transportation and railroad construction, water and power supply, and road maintenance.
While a small number of the soldiers of the battalion saw combat while serving in other units, the unit as a whole did not. Nevertheless, the battalion’s contributions to combat operations—and to the proud tradition of military service by Black Canadians—cannot be understated. In January 1919, most of the men of No. 2 Construction Battalion returned to Canada, and the battalion was officially disbanded in September 1920.