Wreath will be laid to commemorate Black military members

Lt.-Cmdr. Esrom Tesfamichael will lay a wreath during the national Remembrance Day ceremony in honour of all Black military members. (Elke Semerad - image credit)
Lt.-Cmdr. Esrom Tesfamichael will lay a wreath during the national Remembrance Day ceremony in honour of all Black military members. (Elke Semerad - image credit)

Lt. Cmdr. Esrom Tesfamichael will lay a wreath during the national Remembrance Day ceremony on behalf of The Defence Team's Black Employee Network in Ottawa for the first time to officially commemorate past and present Black military members.

This past summer, the federal government issued a formal apology to the descendants and relatives of the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. This was the first military unit in Canada made up of mostly Black personnel.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that despite the work these men did for the war effort, they were still forced to live in segregated camps, and were not provided with proper medical care, rations or equipment.

Trudeau made his apology out to the men who had to deal with the blatant anti-Black and systemic racism during the First World War, which denied them of their dignity, even in their death.

Tesfamichael gave CBC some insight on what this means for him, and other Black military members.

Tesfamichael first joined the navy reserve in Ottawa at HMCS Carleton at only 16 years old. He did not take commission until the age of about 23 or 24, and became an intelligence officer afterward.

"As a young, Black, queer sailor, it was an experience," Tesfamichael said.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Tesfamichael said the apology was impactful, and long overdue, especially for those who have a better understanding of what the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion had gone through, and what they truly meant to the war effort and Canadian military history.

He also explained these men were not given combat roles, they were used for labour and sent overseas, and were denied the honour of officially being part of combat.

Tesfamichael said many local Ottawa groups, and others around the country, have already been laying wreaths for Black military members. To have it done at a national ceremony, broadcast on live TV and radio, signals to everyone on a national level the importance of acknowledging the past and its anti-Black racism, he said.

"The whole purpose of a Remembrance Day ceremony is to promote history and to remind people of the sacrifices that were made," he said.