The Untold Story of Canada’s Black Battalion: A Legacy of Sacrifice and Resilience

Imagining leads to empathy, empathy leads to action, and action leads to change. The future begins here. Jade O’Keeffe

As we conclude Black History Month, we wanted to share another powerful discussion we heard in Chapel. 

One of our staff members, Jade O’Keeffe (LCS Farm Support and Curricular Experiences Coordinator) shared a deeply personal and impactful story that brought to light her family’s history that has been waiting to be told for over 100 years.

In her address, Jade introduced us to her great-grandfather, George Dixon, and shed light on the contributions made by him and 600 other Black men from Canada, the Caribbean, and the U.S. during the First World War. The story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s first and only all-Black battalion, is one of resilience, courage, and sacrifice.

Jade transported us back in time to a pivotal moment in history, where Black Canadians fought against systemic racism and discrimination to serve their country. Despite facing unimaginable hardships, their legacy has paved the way for future generations and continues to inspire us today.

Jade’s personal connection to this story, combined with her passion for the outdoors, provided a unique perspective on the intersection of race, identity, and the transformative power of nature. As we listened to her words, we were reminded of the importance of acknowledging and honouring the stories of those who have come before us.

Thank you, Jade, for sharing this story with us. 

Enjoy reading her address provided below.

I’d love to begin by introducing you all to my great-grandfather; this is a story about him and about 600 other Black men from Canada, the Caribbean, and the U.S. and their involvement in the No.2 Construction Battalion during the First World War. They are known as Canada’s first and only all-Black battalion as well as Canada’s best-kept military secret. This photo was taken in 1917 during a street parade through Dartmouth, Nova Scotia led by the Black Battalion’s very own brass band that my great-grandfather was a part of. After the joyous festivities came to an end, a day or two later they all sailed away for France. Although this photo holds a lot of promise, there is darkness that lays beneath it.

During the first World War, my great-grandfather and hundreds of Black Canadians along with their white counterparts eagerly signed up for duty. But the military rejected them. They were told, “this is not your war, this is a white man’s war.” Groups of Black men quickly formed an alliance and wrote many letters to the Canadian Government advocating for their right to fight. Hence, in 1916, two years after the war efforts began, the No.2 Construction Battalion was formed. The Black Battalion rallied together in Truro, Nova Scotia to train before they were sent overseas to Supt, France, close to the Swiss border, to contribute on the Western fronts. 

While stationed in France, the Black Battalion was kept in a segregated camp with inadequate supplies for proper survival and comfort. When they became ill and needed medical care, doctors refused to help them. Some men even went missing and it was later discovered, they had been murdered by their own white allies. When the war ended, many of these courageous men returned home, but to their disappointment were met with the same hate they received before they left. Many men who served in the Black battalion considered themselves failures because of how they were treated when they returned to Canada. They weren’t recognized and celebrated for their significant contributions to the war efforts and their loyal service. Instead, they continued to endure a lifetime of anti-Black hate, systemic racism and discrimination. Whether or not the Black Battalion knew it at the time, their impact and legacy were huge–they had laid the foundation for future social change and social justice. Today, thanks to their legacy, in the Canadian military, Black Canadians can hold any position that they’re qualified for. 

In 2018, my family and I travelled to Supt, France to visit the forest, where my great-grandfather was stationed. They were stationed, ironically, in “Forêt de la Joux”, which translates to “The Forest of Joy”. We learned there they were armed with axes and shovels instead of guns. The construction corp quickly got to work building rail lines, trenches, and bridges for the white soldiers they expected to fight alongside. 

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, for my great-grandfather, this was an adventure of a lifetime. I can only imagine he was happier outdoors. As a son of Louisiana slaves who escaped slavery through the underground railroad, innately he knew how to survive outdoors with nothing. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time he had been overseas. In his youth, he had snuck onto boats venturing to Europe to explore the world beyond his difficult life in the maritimes. It seems as though adventure was a way for him to escape the all too familiar climate of racism that Black Canadians faced every day. I believe nature and the outdoors saved him and gave him a sense of critical hope. 

The thing about nature is despite your whole world falling apart around you if you let it, it will always find a way to heal you and bring you joy. While visiting la Forêt de la Joux, it was easy to imagine all the cracks in the trees where the joyful sun would have snuck through and hit my great-grandfather’s face simply to tell him that everything was going to be okay. Sure enough, he’d return home to New Brunswick and have 11 children. One of which is my Papa, Blair Dixon, who despite much rejection due to the colour of his skin, and determined to never give up, became one of the first Black-ordained Anglican ministers in Canada. 

To close, I’d like to introduce you to a significant figure who has helped me better understand what the Black Battalion endured many years ago. Her name is Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard. Dr. Bernard is a Canadian Senator, and a highly regarded social worker, educator, researcher, community activist and advocate of social change. She presented a very powerful address at the No. 2 Construction Battalion National Apology back in July 2022. 

I had the pleasure of attending the long-anticipated event in Truro, Nova Scotia alongside my uncle, Lance Dixon and my papa, Blair Dixon. We were there, among many other descendants on behalf of the Black Battalion, to hear and accept Canada’s long-overdue apology for the poor treatment of these men. I have a clip of Dr. Bernard’s speech that I’d like to share with you. She doesn’t know it, but I have since coined this speech as her “Imagine” speech. In this brief clip, she invites you to imagine what life was like for African Nova Scotians in 1915. 

Imagine. For my great-grandfather, he didn’t have the privilege of imagining. He lived it.

Throughout your life—I encourage you to keep imagining what life is like to walk through this world as a person of colour. I want to invite you to imagine what life was like for my great-grandfather, those he fought with, what they truly fought for, and the cost each of them paid to live in a world where every human could perhaps one day be free. 

Imagining leads to empathy, empathy leads to action, and action leads to change. The future begins here. Thank you.