Black Canadians fought racism, discrimination to serve in Second World War

Good reminder of one of the unfortunate parts of our history:

When one starts asking questions about the experience of Black Canadians during the Second World War, it doesn’t take long to land on the name Allan Bundy.

That’s because at a time when the Canadian Armed Forces is promising to crack down on systemic racism, as well as individual acts of discrimination in the ranks, Bundy’s story speaks to both.

He was one of many Black Canadians who had to overcome discrimination and racism to fight during the Second World War, says Canadian War Museum historian Andrew Burtch.

His story also highlights the long presence of racism in the Canadian Armed Forces, even as it strives today for more diversity, including by promising to end hateful conduct in the ranks.

“One of the top bullets in the most recent Canadian defence policy is looking at leveraging the diversity of the country as a strength and creating better circumstances to allow for that to happen, which would include making sure that people are supported,” Burtch said.

“Obviously there wasn’t that support before.”

Air force, navy quietly barred Black and Asian Canadians

Bundy was 19 years old when he and a white friend named Soupy Campbell went to the Halifax recruiting centre to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as pilots. It was late 1939, Germany had just invaded Poland, and Canada and its allies were mobilizing their militaries after declaring war on the Nazis.

When Bundy and Campbell walked out, however, only Soupy had been accepted to join the RCAF. Bundy, according to the stories, felt like he had been rejected because of the recruiting officer’s own racist attitudes. Such incidents had been common during the First World War, in which Bundy’s own father had served in Canada’s only all-Black unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

What Bundy didn’t know at the time was that the entire RCAF, as well as the Royal Canadian Navy, were quietly barring Black and Asian Canadians from all but the most general positions. The policy wasn’t publicized, but most jobs could only go to British subjects who were white or of “pure European descent.”

When conscription was introduced a few years later, the Canadian Army came calling for Bundy. But he wanted to fly, and he wasn’t afraid to say it when an RCMP officer visited a short time later to ask why he hadn’t responded to the Army’s summons.

“I told him that I had gone to join the Air Force in 1939 and if the bullet that kills me is not good enough for the Air Force, then it is not good enough for the Army either — so take me away,” Bundy later recalled telling the Mountie.

Soon afterward, Bundy visited the recruiting station again. By now, because of a shortage of trained pilots and aircrew, the RCAF had started to open its doors to Black Canadians and others.

Even after being accepted and trained, Bundy faced a new form of discrimination. None of the white navigators wanted to serve on his Bristol Beaufighter.

It was only after a sergeant by the name of Elwood Cecil Wright volunteered that Bundy became the first Black Canadian to fly a combat mission during the war.

During their first mission, the two sank a pair of enemy ships off the coast of Norway. They would fly 42 more missions together before the war ended and Bundy returned home to Halifax.

Service changed attitudes in Canadian society

The Canadian War Museum credits Bundy and dozens of other Black Canadians who served with the RCAF during the Second World War as having helped “change attitudes toward visible minorities in the military, and in Canadian society.”

Kathy Grant is the founder of the Legacy Voices Project, which seeks to share the stories of Black Canadians who served during the two world wars. One of those was Grant’s own father, Owen Rowe, who travelled to Canada from Barbados to volunteer for the Second World War and asked her to start the memorial project.

Grant believes the war helped pave the way for more rights and freedoms for Black Canadians.

Some such as Lincoln Alexander, who went on to become lieutenant-governor of Ontario, were able to take advantage of the benefits offered by Ottawa to veterans. Many also felt empowered to fight for those rights, and found allies in former comrades-in-arms who were white.

“They wanted things to change,” Grant said. “They were thinking: ‘Well, why are we fighting? Here it is, some of us are dying and they’re out of line by just denying us these rights.’ But it was a large shift for Canada as a whole.”

Source: Black Canadians fought racism, discrimination to serve in Second World War

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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