'They deserve our respect': New project chronicles sacrifices of Black Canadian veterans
Saundra Samuels Anierobi gets emotional when she talks about a certain war hero: her uncle, Edwin Erwin Phillips.
“He had always wanted to fly,” says Anierobi. “He was a very determined young man. He felt that he wanted to live the Canadian dream.”
It was harder for him to do that service than people today might expect. During the Second World War, Phillips tried to enlist in the air force, but was repeatedly denied.
“They did not want people of colour,” said Anierobi.
But he persisted until they gave him a chance. Finally, he became a flight engineer and a sergeant.
In November 1945, he departed on a mission with four other soldiers -- flying penicillin to children in Poland.
“He left and that was the last flight,” his niece says.
The plane crashed on a hilltop near Halle, Germany, and burst into flames. Phillips and everyone else on board died.
It’s one of dozens of stories you can find on the website Black Canadian Veterans, which was started in November by historian Kathy Grant after running a similar Facebook page for years.
Grant was inspired by the story of her own war hero, her father, Owen Rowe, who also served in World War II.
“He would just love to tell the stories,” recalls Grant.
Before he retired, the elder Rowe started documenting stories of Canada's Black soldiers.
“It was important to him because there was a lot of negativity about how they portrayed Blacks in the media,” says Grant.
"He felt that if children and adults in general would know that we contributed, there might be a softening in terms of their attitudes."
By her estimates, between 3,000 and 4,000 Black Canadian soldiers and airmen served in the two World Wars. Others fought for Canada even before Confederation.
Grant says that in her research, she's noticed a common thread in why they enlisted.
“One of the main reasons why they joined was the treatment they were getting in Canada. A lot of times they couldn’t go into restaurants or movie theatres or skating rinks,” she said.
Joining the armed forces was often seen as a ticket to respect.
Veterans who knew her father later told her that her father did earn that kind of admiration, walking down St. Catherine Ste. in his RCAF uniform.
"Other veterans would say 'You know, when your dad walked down the street, the women with their husbands... would turn, and so would the husbands, because it was such a proud, dignified appearance,'" she recalled.
But many such veterans were disheartened to find, when they weren't in uniform, their sacrifices were often forgotten.
"They said it was like a kick in the belly," Grant said. A veteran told her, “I was all over Europe, and I would go into restaurants where I didn’t know what fork or knife or spoon to use, and I come back to Canada and in this cheap restaurant, they wouldn’t serve me -- and I served five years," she said.
The families of Black Canadian veterans still want to make sure their contributions are not forgotten.
"These men, especially the ones that died, they deserve our respect,” explained Anierobi, who wiped away tears talking about her uncle.
“They deserve people to know -- the young ones to know -- that they were there, and they went. They went without being conscripted, they went because they felt they were Canadians.”