Unending Seige

Rejection of Volunteers

In Canada there was open talk of a war between white men, meaning that the sport of killing an enemy of the white race should be reserved for whites. The local commanding officers were given the responsibility of accepting or rejecting volunteers. Initially only Aboriginals were explicitly excluded, under the pretext that in the heat of battle the Germans might refuse them the treatment usually reserved for "civilized" combatants. This did not stop a number of commanders, whether or not they were aware of the directive, from accepting Aboriginals, some of whom would later earn sterling reputations, especially as snipers.

However, members of more visible groups such as the blacks in the Maritime provinces or the Asians and Aboriginals in British Columbia, who turned up in the hundreds at various recruiting centres, were barred from participating in this white man's war. In 1915 suggestions for a battalion of Canadians of Japanese origin and a battalion of black Canadians were sidelined, even though the pool of white volunteers was already running low.

Although there was no discriminatory directive as such, it was clear that a discriminatory policy was being applied. But while the idea of companies of blacks or of Asians came to naught, two Aboriginal companies were integrated with a battalion recruiting mainly in Ontario. Finally, in 1916 a black workers' battalion was formed, No. 2 Construction Battalion (Coloured). It would be commanded by whites, with its sole black officer, the chaplain, given the rank of honorary captain.

Beginning in the summer of 1916, with recruiting problems worsening, the defence department finally advocated an open policy. However, as racism was not exclusively a white man's prerogative, problems continued to arise. For example, the Aboriginals made it clear they did not want to serve in No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was short of men. They refused to associate with black men in war. Then, two years after the outbreak of war, the fervour subsided. None of the battalions raised from 1916 on, including No. 2 Construction Battalion, would manage to fill its ranks. That battalion would never be more than a big, 500-man company commanded by a major instead of a lieutenant-colonel.

When conscription came in 1917, it applied to everyone except Aboriginals, who did not fail to point out that they still did not have the right to vote. Japanese Canadians, who were no closer to full-citizenship status, claimed the same exemption. The Indian Act would be used to spare the Aboriginals, and an order in council of 17 January 1918 would exempt both Japanese and Aboriginal Canadians.

Despite these obstacles, the participation of these groups in the First World War has been established as follows: 3,500 Aboriginals, 1, 000 blacks and 600 Japanese Canadians.