Black History Month

Celebrating black Canadians who served their country

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Rev. Capt William Andrew White, from Nova Scotia, was the first black officer in the British Army.

Canadian society is becoming increasingly and irreversibly diverse. As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, I am proud that the Forces serve as a mirror of our multicultural social fabric, celebrating the diverse cultural backgrounds of those who form its tapestry.

February is Black History Month. During this month, we celebrate the contributions of the black Canadians who, overcoming racial prejudices, served their country with integrity and honour.

We remember people like the five Carty brothers, who served during the Second World War, following in the footsteps of their father Albert Carty, who had served during the First World War. The elder Carty was a member of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a Canadian expeditionary force formed in Pictou, N.S., with 1,049 black men of all ranks.

Among those who saw action in the trenches from that battalion is Sgt. Seymour Tyler, who fought for Canada in both the First and the Second World War. He received a British War Medal, the Victoria Cross, a Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and a Defence Medal.

We also remember all the black women who formed the Black Cross Nurses after being denied participation in Canada’s First World War efforts to assist wounded soldiers. The Black Cross Nurses followed the Red Cross model and served in communities, providing, among other things, medical aid and child care.

As a CAF chaplain, I will not do justice to my trade if I finish this historical refresher without mentioning a black Canadian military chaplain who distinguished himself on the battlefield.

Rev. Capt. William Andrew White (1874-1936), an American-born Canadian missionary, was the first black officer and the only black military chaplain in the entire British Army during the First World War.

The son of just-freed Virginian slaves, White moved to Nova Scotia in the late 1800s. By 1903, he had become just the third Africadian (African-Nova Scotian) to hold a university degree.

At the beginning of the First World War, he helped recruit 1,049 Black men to form the No. 2 Construction Battalion. He served as their chaplain while they were overseas in France for two years.

At the end of the war, Rev. White returned to Halifax to serve at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church for 17 years. In 1919, he assumed the leadership of the province’s “Coloured Baptists,” i.e. the African (United) Baptist Association. He was the father of 13 children, including the renowned concert contralto Portia White. The novelist, playwright and current Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada George Elliott Clarke is his great-grandson.

After the war, because his 1,049 men had come from across the country (and a few from the United States), Rev. White became a de facto leader of African-Canadians nationally.

Editor’s note:
Rev. Lieut. (Navy) Éloi Gunn, PhD, D.Th., is currently course director at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre in Borden, Ont. This school trains all chaplains (regular and reserve, from different faith groups) who provide ministry to Canadian Armed Forces personnel and their families.

A minister of The United Church of Canada, Rev. Gunn is also the Presbytery-appointed supervisor of Chalmers-Wesley United Church in Quebec City, where he leads Sunday worship services when his busy schedule allows.

Rev. Gunn is originally from Togo (West Africa) where he studied to become a minister in the Methodist Church of Togo. He immigrated to Canada in 1999 and was ordained as a minister of The United Church of Canada. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2011.