Ontario historian Kathy Grant, whose Barbadian father served as a volunteer in the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War, has been researching Canada's Black soldiers for years, digitizing their photographs and records and posting their stories on social media.
But it was only last month that she was able to launch the website Black Canadian Veterans Stories, funded by Veterans Affairs Canada.
This site will be a small step in ensuring these important stories are shared with the accuracy and the respect these veterans deserve. - Black Canadian Veterans Stories website
It's curated by a team of people and includes documents on the contributions Black soldiers have made in the Canadian Armed Forces since before the First World War, when Black soldiers were subjected to extreme racism.
"When Black men tried to enlist, they were not able to get in, many of them," said Grant, who points to records documenting how commanding officers used the N-word to describe new recruits. Those who were able to enlist during the First World War most often served in Canada's first and only segregated labour unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was overseen by white officers, she said.
They dug trenches, built roads, laid barbed wire and buried the dead under dangerous conditions.
This week on the Black Canadian Veterans Stories website, Grant is unveiling the identities and stories of the six men in the photograph shot in London, Ont., in 1918. The men were deployed to France and England shortly after the photo was taken, said Grant.
"They didn't end up fighting," said Grant. "They did forestry. They would assist with the Royal Air Force in clearing the airfield in 1918."
In March, the Canadian government announced plans to formally apologize to members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion for the treatment they endured during and following their service in the First World War.
"For many years, the stories of Black veterans were not shared in the mainstream media or textbooks," reads the Black Canadian Veterans Stories website. "This site will be a small step in ensuring these important stories are shared with the accuracy and the respect these veterans deserve.
"Each one of these men has a story," said Grant.
On Thursday, Canada's Department of National Defence and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS) is holding a national virtual consultation for descendants of Black veterans or anyone interested in the federal apology, expected on July 9, 2022.
"Feedback from consultation sessions will inform the government as to how best make the apology meaningful to the
families, the community and our nation," said Russell Grosse, BCCNS's executive director.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.