H2/we THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL, THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 1992
| Remembrance Day always brings me back to rainy Novembers when my father would take us down to Dominion Square to commemorate the lost lives of his comrades-in-arms.
When he donned his poppy and veteran's pin, he seemed to stand taller than I ever remembered him.
Shivering from the cold, I would move closer to him for warmth. He put his strong hands firmly on my shoulder, pressing me closer to him. His pride was my pride.
I remember the preparations for that day. Each of us would have to shine our shoes, to have what he referred to as a "spit-polish shine." When you look at that shoe, you should be able to see the reflection of your face. And if you didn't, he'd make you do it again. He'd take a quarter out of his pocket and drop it on one of our beds. If it bounced, we passed inspection. Everyone understood the importance of these ceremonial proceedings.
When the final preparations were concluded, when every shirt was tucked in, every button done up and ties so tight you felt as if you were about to choke, we were ready to embark on our trip to Dominion Square.
Beaming with pride, I'd ask him, "Dad, how do I look?" And he'd reply, "Sharp as a tack and twice as dangerous." Then, like soldiers on parade, he'd march all nine of us children out the door.
My father's wartime experiences were very positive. He was very proud of being part of the liberation forces. He felt it was among the few times he, as a black man,
was regarded as a human being and I guess that's why he wanted to remember it.
Most of my dad's life was spent experiencing rejection and discrimination. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, thousands of white faces welcomed him as he marched through towns in Europe as part of the liberation troops.
Blacks were very much divided over participation in the war: for some it was a white man's struggle. Other blacks, however, saw the war as a "God-sent blessing," in the words of one black newspaper at the time, "to earn white regard and advance the standing of the race by valiant wartime service."
Even then, the debate over military service by blacks wasn't new.
Robin Winks, in his book Blacks in Canada, reports that during World War I, blacks were not allowed to enlist. The commander of the 104th Overseas Battalion
|wrote that he rejected 19 black volunteers from Saint-John: "I have been fortunate to have secured a very fine class of recruits, and I did not think it was fair to these men that they should have to mingle with negroes."
The commander of the 106th Battalion, on the other hand believed that "coloured men should do their share in the Empire's defense" and was willing to accept them. However, since several whites who were on the verge of enlisting refused to do so if black men were allowed to enlist, he decided not to accept them.
Here is how he expressed it in a letter found in the General Headquarters papers: "Neither my men nor myself would care to sleep along-side Negroes, or to eat with them, especially in warm weather."
The commander of the military came up with a compromise. He suggested that "Negroes might be welcomed into some French-Canadian units and because of their great capacity for manual work, they could be taken into a construction battalion."
And thus, the No. 2 Negro Construction Battalion was formed on July 5, 1916.
During World War II, the Canadian army initially rejected black volunteers, although seldom openly on grounds of race, and the Royal Canadian Air Force was reported to have refused to accept qualified Black applicants. Army officers had to be British subjects and when West Indian students applied for the university officers' training plan, they found "British subjects" meant "white subjects." In 1941, the black community, under the leadership of Rev. Este of the Union United Church in Montreal, protested against the racist policy of the military.
|As the war accelerated and the protest within the black community mounted, blacks in Montreal were finally permitted to serve.
As a gesture of his profound belief in democracy, Owen Rowe left his homeland in Barbados and came to Canada to join the armed forces in 1942. To his dismay, he discovered that he would not be sent to serve in the Pacific.
Rowe recalled in a recent interview: "I was supposed to go to the Pacific front but then the Canadian commander called me to his office and said, "Sorry, Rowe, it's not our fault. The Canadian troops in the Pacific are under the indirect command of the American forces and they don't want blacks." Frustrated and disgusted, he transferred into the air force and eventually became a flying officer.
Being in the air force was not without some racial tensions.
He remembered a serviceman in his barracks kept eying him. "eventually he approached me and said: 'You don't smell. You wear clean clothes. You don't talk about women all the time. I can't figure it out. You're not at all what I expected.'
"At least he had the guts to confront his prejudices. Many others didn't. What I can't figure is, when you're down there in the dirt, when you're on the battlefield, you're all the same.
"Color doesn't matter."
Oct. 24 marked the 50th anniversary of Owen Rowe's arrival to Canada, as it did the arrival of other West Indians who came to fight in World War II.
| In 1962, on the 20th anniversary, Rowe convened a reunion of those West Indian war veterans in the Montreal area. Twenty years later in 1982, they convened again and it was at this gathering that an association was formed and a decision was made to have an annual get-together.
"Tears still come to our eyes when we talk about our comrades lost in arms. It's important for us to remember. That's why we still get together after all these years. We have a responsibility to remember--that our history--black history--will be recorded for all time."
These men had fought for democracy, lived through a war, paid their dues and they had greater expectations than before. For some, it was the first time in their lives when they had experienced a kind of equality--the equality of the battlefield.
The war experience gave these black men a sense of self-worth, the belief that they too could play a role in shaping history. They came back with a sense of honor and dignity and the hope that their contribution would be acknowledged .
Dorothy Williams, author of Blacks in Montreal 1628-1986, reports that World War II helped to improve conditions for blacks. It increased employment and lessened their marginal status after the war.
The war years are remembered as the first time when blacks were able to demonstrate and exercise their level of proficiency and education.
Another key aspect was the acquisition of war veterans' benefits. The black veteran returned to the community able to benefit from university training, grants of land, loan for houses.
But some of the gains made against discrimination in the military were lost after the war. Montreal's white veterans did not want to associate with their black comrades, so the Canadian Legion segregated its members and established coloured war veterans' branch.
Well-known black historian W.E.B. Dubois once wrote of the black soldiers who fought in the wars: "Perhaps their greatest credit is the fact that they withstood so bravely and uncomplainingly the barrage of hatred and offensive prejudice aimed against them."
My father believed in the ideals of liberty, justice and equality for all, regardless of skin colour.
Ironically, he fought for these ideals halfway across the world, only to return home to face an old, familiar enemy--systemic racism.
And that battle rages on.
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