Black soldiers played an important role in the Canadian military units throughout the 19th century. Although some white commanding officers refused to accept Black volunteers, they still managed to serve in integrated units and in Black units like the Coloured Corps in Niagara, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps in British Columbia, and the Victoria Rifles in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Black soldiers served during times of peace and major events such as the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837-1838.
From 1800 to 1867, all men were required to serve in the “sedentary militia”. Black men in Upper Canada/Canada West and Lower Canada/Canada East could serve in their local militia in integrated units, but in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, they had to serve in segregated units attached to the local regiment. The “sedentary militia” regiments only paraded a couple of times a year. Citizens also organized volunteer units for those who wanted extra training, and Black men were accepted in integrated units or formed Black volunteer units throughout the 19th century. In 1826, the Black community at Sandwich formed a volunteer militia corps.
During the War of 1812, Black men served in integrated units and in an all-Black unit known as the Coloured Corps. General Sir Isaac Brock initially rejected the idea, but after the American occupation of Sandwich (Windsor), he authorized the unit known as the Coloured Corps. They fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights and were stationed at Fort George. By 1814, the unit had been converted to an engineer unit and helped build Fort Mississauga. The Coloured Corps was disbanded in 1815.
Black militiamen also served in integrated units, sometimes in distinct companies. The 104th Regiment of Foot from New Brunswick had all Black soldiers as pioneers, or engineers. When the regiment trekked from Fredericton to Kingston from mid-February to mid-April 1813, the Black pioneers led the way, preparing the camps where the troops would stay each night. The 104th was active across Upper Canada in 1813 and 1814, and it is likely that the Black pioneers were pressed into combat. At least one Black soldier from the 104th Foot was transferred to a veterans battalion because of injuries and fatigue.
During the Rebellion of 1837-1838 in Upper Canada, Black men were part of integrated units and also formed their own authorized Black units, usually led by white officers. Most of these units were disbanded in April 1839, and their main task was guarding vital points such as bridges. The longest lasting of these Black companies was another “Coloured Corps” that served as police in the 1840s during the construction of the second Welland Canal, among other tasks. It was disbanded at the end of April 1850.
In the 1850s, the Lieutenant Governor of Canada West approved the formation of Black volunteer units. The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps was formed in April 1860 by a group of Black immigrants from California on Vancouver Island. It was disbanded in 1865 after the next governor, Arthur Edward Kennedy, stated he would not accept any military unit based on class, colour, or nationality. Another Black volunteer unit was formed in Halifax in February 1860. The Victoria Rifles were one of the volunteer units on parade when the Prince of Wales visited Halifax in August 1860, but it had disbanded by 1864.
From 1866 to 1871, the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish independence movement, conducted a series of small, armed attacks into Canada. The Canadian Militia engaged the Fenians in the Battle of Ridgeway on June 2, 1866. After the battle, a Black volunteer unit from St. Catharines escorted Fenian prisoners on a train trip to a prison in Brantford. The Black volunteers not only had to keep the prisoners from escaping but also protect them from the local population along the route from the train station to the jail.
The Canadian Militia Act of 1868 relied on volunteer regiments as the foundation for military service. The act did not restrict Black men from enlisting, but many commanding officers rejected Black volunteers. Nonetheless, some Black soldiers were accepted and served in Canada’s official militia regiments. Many Black soldiers who enlisted in the First World War had either served in these regiments or had parents who had served. In post-Confederation Canada, there were also some Black volunteer regiments, though they were not officially part of the country’s military forces. For instance, Windsor had a Black volunteer militia that participated in a Labour Day parade in 1897, although it had not been authorized by the government. These units were part of a long history of volunteer military service by Black men in Canada.
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