In the 20th century, Canada fought in two world wars. Twice, Canadian soldiers, sailors and fliers went overseas to help defend Britain and its Allies. Black Canadians wanted to show their loyalty to Britain and also help Canada — still a young country — come together as a nation.

Black Canadians also knew that, in order to be treated equally with White Canadians, they needed to accept the dangers of war. But serving their country proved to be difficult.

World War I

On August 4, 1914, Germany, under its leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, invaded Belgium. That same day, Britain declared war on Germany and its empire. All the countries of the British Empire, including Canada, sent troops to fight on the battlefields of France.

Black Canadians lined up at recruitment offices to volunteer for service. But thousands were turned away. Some White officers said that Black and White soldiers shouldn't mix. Black Canadian leaders, newspaper reporters and clergymen protested strongly, and by 1915 a few Black soldiers were allowed to join White regiments.

Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion

In 1916, an all-Black unit of 600 men called the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed. They weren't allowed to fight, but they cut lumber in France, built huts for soldiers at the battlefronts and dug trenches.

Training took place in both Pictou and Truro, Nova Scotia, where the battalion formed its own brass band to lead marches. In 1917, the men sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, always under threat from enemy submarines. Among the soldiers were the sons of cowboy John Ware. After the war, No. 2 Battalion was praised for its discipline and faithful service.

It took almost two years of protesting and lobbying by Black Canadians before the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed. Its first headquarters, in Pictou, Nova Scotia, is now a National Historic Site.

On the Home Front

Black Canadians formed patriotic clubs that raised money to support the war effort. Men volunteered to work on farms and in factories and hospitals. In Vancouver, women formed a branch of the Universal Black Cross nurses to care for wounded Black servicemen.

Between the Wars

World War I was a time of pride and sorrow for Black Canadians. They were proud of their war efforts, but by the time the war ended in 1918, many Black soldiers were wounded or dead. Black Canadians hoped that their wartime service would lead to better relations between the races at home.

In 1919, Black American Marcus Garvey, who was born in Jamaica, opened branches of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (now the Universal African Improvement Association) in Canada. Its goal was to help Black people develop a sense of pride by gaining better jobs and working for their rights. The organization also encouraged Black people to return to Africa.

Black Canadians were becoming more aware of their heritage. In the 1920s, Montreal, with its many jazz clubs, became a lively centre of Black culture. Black Canadians were full of hope for their future.

But in the 1930s, the Depression brought poverty and hard times across Canada. However, it also helped improve race relations by bringing people together. No matter what their skin colour, most people were desperately poor and needed to help one another to survive.

World War II

World War II broke out in 1939. Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland. Britain, Canada and the Allies declared war, vowing to stop Hitler.

In this war, Black Canadians had an easier time enlisting in the army navy and air force, but there were still difficulties. They refused to serve in

"DO NOT LET ANY MAN TELL YOU DIFFERENT, NO MAN IS ANY BRAVER than A Black man. ... After all, the Black man went over there, he trained like a soldier, he fought like a soldier and he died like a soldier, and that is all any White man can do."

— Sergeant A. Seymour Tyler, Black Canadian World War II veteran

segregated units like the Construction Battalion. Instead, they fought in racially mixed units and helped Britain and its Allies win the war in 1945.

After the Wars

Black Canadians' participation in two world wars led to better race relations. White Canadians realized that Black sons and daughters — just like their own children — had given their lives for their country. As well, returning Black soldiers would not tolerate the discrimination of the past. It was time to ensure that all races were treated equally in Canada.

During World War II, Black women were allowed to work in weapons factories. For most of them, it was their first chance to escape from domestic work such as child-minding and housekeeping.


The Carty family of Saint John, New Brunswick, sent seven sons to World War II. Adolphus, William, Clyde, Donald and Gerald Carty all enlisted in the air force, while Robert and Malcolm joined the army. The brothers fought hard for their country and at the close of the war, all seven were discharged with high rank.


Before World War II, Black Canadian men and women were kept out of many jobs and professions. They couldn't attend nursing schools or teachers' colleges, join hockey leagues or belong to trade unions. Only the lowest-paying jobs were open to them.

In cities such as Halifax and Toronto 80 per cent of Black women worked as domestic servants in White Canadian homes. Many men worked for the railway as porters. But these were all dead-end jobs because they didn't allow for promotion to better positions.

Work as a Railway Porter

Starting in the early 1900s, large numbers of Black men were hired as railway porters. Porters carried suitcases for passengers, shined shoes and made up beds in the overnight sleeping cars.

Being a porter was one of the few steady jobs Black men could get at that time. So they came to Montreal (where the hiring was done) from across Canada, the United States and the Caribbean islands, wanting to work for Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railways.

Porters' wages were low, but the men could earn good tips. Still, they had to endure racist remarks from some White passengers, and they were separated from their families for days and weeks at a time.

Work as a Domestic Servant

Domestic servants spent the day cleaning their employer's house, caring for the children and sometimes cooking meals. These Black women were lucky if their employer was fair and kind. Then in the evening, the women had to go home and do the same work for their own families.

The pay was poor and, because they worked alone, it was hard for the women to band together and demand better conditions. Most women were paid less than men, even for the same work.

A Sense of Community

Travelling from coast to coast, porters kept in touch with Black people across the country. In Winnipeg, the men got together at Haynes Chicken Shack. This famous restaurant was owned by Piercy Haynes, a railway worker, boxer and jazz pianist.

While their husbands were away working on the railways, some Black women in Toronto formed the Eureka Friendly Club. They met every other Thursday afternoon to share a meal and listen to music. A favourite song was "Some of These Days," written by the African Canadian Shelton Brooks.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

In 1919, Black porters formed a union — an organization to help them fight for better jobs. It was the first Canadian union to allow Black members. But for years the union had little success.

After World War II, the president of the American Brotherhood of

Ray Lewis of Hamilton, Ontario, was the first porter who was also a world-class athlete. Lewis not only trained hard, but he had to overcome racial insults while working on the railway. In 1932, Lewis brought home a bronze medal as part of the 4 x 400 relay team at the Los Angeles Olympics. In 2001, Lewis received the Order of Canada, the highest honour awarded to a person by the Government of Canada.

Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, helped the porters set up branches of his union in Canada. By 1955, the new union — the Canadian Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — had won its struggle. From then on, a Black porter could be promoted to dining-car waiter or conductor.



Born in Toronto in 1918, Stanley G. Grizzle was a railway porter who became president of the Toronto branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He spent the 1950s campaigning for equal rights for Black people.

Grizzle was the first Black judge in Ontario's Citizenship Court and the first African Canadian to run for election to the Ontario legislature. In recognition of his distinguished service, he received the Order of Canada in 1995.

Hard-Won Respect

In 1944, Ontario became the first province to pass an act to prevent discrimination against any person because of race or religion. Other provinces soon followed.

When Black Canadian men were fighting in World War II, women took over their jobs in factories and other workplaces. Many Black women liked these jobs better than domestic service. But when the men came home to Canada, they wanted their jobs back. Some Black women returned to domestic service, but many upgraded their education, found new job opportunities and fought for racial equality and women's rights.

Railway porters continued to improve their working conditions. Through their efforts, the porters created new and better opportunities for Black people in Canada. 



Keith Hunt