1860 - 1950
December 1, 1995 Halifax Herald
After reading a Canadian Press story by Stephen Thorne in the November 9 issue of this newspaper, I was left with a feeling of outrage. The story relays the heroic actions of a brave Canadian and, in the process, depicts a historic and severe shortage of a sense of justice and proportion among our leadership. Our hero, Jeremiah Jones, was born outside the town of Truro on East Mountain in 1860 and died in 1950.
The Jones story is twofold. It’s a story about a largely unsung hero, and a revelation about the sick racism that Canada once practised openly against people of colour and today would like to pretend it didn't. Jones, you see, was Black! He was a hero, but, as far as the White leadership of World War I Canada was concerned, of the wrong colour to be officially recognized as a hero.
For those of you who didn't get to read the CP story and, thus, have no idea of who Jones was, I'll give a short rehash: At the outbreak of the First World War, Jones, who was then 56 and had an intense desire to fight for his country's freedom, lied about his age and enlisted in the armed forces. He managed to get into the 106th Battalion and, when serving overseas, was assigned to the Royal Canadian Regiment. To me, in the face of the fact that the country did not want Blacks to fight for it and took unofficial measures to insure that they didn't, this is remarkable!
To give you an appreciation of why I say remarkable, savour this: In 1916, and for decades afterwards, enlisting in the military was a humiliating experience for a black person. They faced an out-and-out refusal by most Regiments to accept and serve with them. In 1916, the subject of black enlistment was debated in Parliament. Prior to the debate, the military Chief of Staff, Maj-Gen. Willoughby Gwatkin, issued this memorandum: "The civilized Negro is vain and imitative... In Canada, he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty; in the trenches, he is not likely to make a good fighter." Other military and political figures of the day stated openly their determined opposition to black participation.
However, despite the discrimination he suffered, Jones served with distinction and valour in Europe. The C.P. story describes the deed which should have won him - and probably would have, if he had been White - a Victoria Cross, or at the very least the second highest military award, the Distinguished Conduct Medal: In April 1917, Jones “crossed the bloody battlefield at Vimy Ridge and took an enemy machine-gun nest. His action was heroic for more than the obvious reasons - not only had he contributed to one of the great victories of the First World War, the humble giant had proven a Black man's worth in a White man's army."
Jones said of the event: "I threw a hand bomb right into the nest and killed about seven of them... I was going to throw another bomb, when they threw up their arms and called for mercy."
He then marched the half-dozen survivors, carrying their weapon with them, back to Allied lines. In recognition of his display of bravery, the commanding officer recommended Jones for a Distinguished Conduct Medal. It was a medal he never received.
One can only conclude that it was withheld because of the white supremacists views held at the time by Canada's top brass, some politicians and many white citizens. After all, they contended, "coloureds" were not on par with Whites when it came to exhibiting bravery and performing in battle.
Jones served his country with distinction during the war, and was wounded at Passchendaele; yet after 78 years, his heroism still goes officially unrecognized! This lack of recognition is a travesty and a matter of shame for Canada!
My good friend Calvin Ruck, a very respected black leader, has led a campaign by the Black Cultural Centre to have the medal Jones so richly deserved awarded posthumously. To this end - because during the First World War, medals for outstanding service in the Canadian military were dished out by the British military - a pitch was made by the Black Cultural Centre to the military powers in London to have the medal awarded. Here is a quote, in reply, from Lt.-Col. Richard Bird of the British Defense Ministry: "Regardless of the right and wrong of the perceived or real discrimination against Blacks in the Canadian army, there can be no question of a retrospective award." This he stated, was because such awards had to be given within a year or so of the actual deed!
How typically British establishment! As Canadians, lets cut out the bull and get down to basics. We have here a brave black Canadian who was, in his lifetime, denied by Canadian officialdom recognition for the bravery he displayed in battle because of colour. I hope that our country is not so morally destitute that it will not take the necessary steps to right this horrid wrong, and provide Jones' heirs with official recognition of their beloved ancestor's valour.
Therefore, here is a challenge to our politicians and military: Don't continue, by inaction, to condone and perpetuate the racist actions of your forebears. Do the right thing and put an end to this travesty, by quickly finding a way to award posthumously a medal to memorialize for the nation the war-time actions of a heroic and noble Canadian, Jeremiah Jones!
Daniel N. Paul