Growing up in Somalia, Abdi had always felt bored by history. But he soon realized he and this soldier had something in common.
“Pretty much, my life and his life [are] the same,” said Abdi, who soon discovered his own experience of war helped him relate to Harry Timothy Jones, a member of Canada’s only all-Black First World War battalion.
For Abdi’s teacher, it’s a heartbreaking link that nonetheless allows many in her class of international, refugee and immigrant students — between them they speak 12 languages — to connect with an overlooked chapter of Canadian history.
It led to authentic and powerful conversations about war, and heartbreaking conversations about the consequences.– Jessica McIntyre, teacher
“Some of them have lived through the Syrian war, the Somali war. It led to authentic and powerful conversations about war, and heartbreaking conversations about the consequences,” said Jessica McIntyre.
The Glebe Collegiate Institute class is participating in a board-wide initiative dubbed Project True North, which tasks students with sifting through archival documents to paint a picture of the lives of First World War soldiers.
The No. 2 Construction battalion was created in 1916 for Black Canadians who wanted to enlist, but had been barred from serving. The battalion built bridges and roads and removed mines, and were considered a key support in the war effort.
“We really want our students to challenge accepted versions of Canadian history and share these stories — the true stories of what Canadian history is,” said McIntyre.
Getting to know Harry
McIntyre’s ESL class got to know Harry Timothy Jones, a New Brunswicker who signed up for war despite having a wife and four children at home (a fifth was born while he was in France). Medical records show he suffered a serious injury while logging that left him paralyzed on his left side. Three months after arriving in France, he was on his way back home.
“These documents are hard for even archivists to understand,” said McIntyre. “I think it’s incredible that these students who are learning English are able to piece together and lend their voices to this soldier who’s no longer able to share his experiences in the war. It’s truly beautiful.”
For the students, Jones’s story has revealed a difficult chapter of Canada’s past, when Canadians who wanted to serve couldn’t because of the colour of their skin.
“If I wanted to fight for my country, no matter what colour I am, I have to fight for my country. It’s surprising that they said, ‘No, because you are a Black man,’” said 17-year-old Hilal Abdi, Khalid’s older sister.
McIntyre said the project has given her students a chance to share their own experiences of discrimination.
“I’m Black, so I find people that hate my skin. I am a Muslim, I wear a hijab so I find people hate my hijab. But at the same time, I find people that are happy about my colour and love my hijab,” said Hajira Abdi, Khalid and Hilal’s younger sister. All three siblings are in the same class, and are taking part in the project together.
Sharing Harry’s story with his descendants
McIntyre said the students became so emotionally invested in Jones’s story that one suggested the class drive to New Brunswick to tell people there about him.
Though a road trip was not in the cards, they did take a journey through ancestry.com, obituaries and Facebook, managing to track down James’s great-great-grandson James.
They reached out and learned he knew nothing about his mother’s side of the family, so the class shared Harry’s story with him.
“He was so happy, it was so cool. We feel so happy that we can teach him,” said Hajira.
“For us, I think it brings the whole project full circle. We’re able to make sure his legacy lives on. Harry’s great-great-grandson has said that he’s sharing Harry’s story with his own family and how grateful he is for us sharing his story through our voices,” said McIntyre.
More than a history lesson
McIntyre’s class is one of 15 across Ottawa participating in Project True North. Over time, the goal is for students to uncover the stories of all 670 soldiers who made up the No.2, and add them to a database.
For Cam Jones, one of the teachers who developed the project, it’s a means of making students from different backgrounds feel like their own stories are reflected in history class.
“I think in Canada we often pride ourselves on not being as ‘bad’ … as other countries in terms of race relations,” he said, adding this project is even more vital now that the federal government has announced its intention to apologize to the descendants of the battalion.
“One of the things we have to acknowledge is that we have our own history that we haven’t spent a lot of time talking about.”
For McIntyre, Jones’s story has become more than a history lesson.
“What we learn from these soldiers is that no matter how young or how old, sacrifice is sacrifice, and it’s meant to be honoured. All of my students have said that they will never forget the life of Harry Timothy Jones.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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