Forgotten Labour Series: In the time of war


With the recent Remembrance Day celebrations on campus, throughout the city, and this country we call Canada I wanted to take a moment of stillness to hold the buried stories in our hearts.

Archives can be access points to stories and histories of people, and communities. In representing stories in meaningful ways it is important to acknowledge that communities have been their own storytellers for generations. In this week’s Forgotten Labour Series I hope to highlight a few of the hidden narratives that tie into war times and highlight some of the projects that push us to think about our shared histories, and the ways in which stories, and history are represented in our work and physical campus spaces.

Although Indigenous people were unable to enlist in the military until 1915, about one-third of First Nations people in Canada age 18 to 45 enlisted during the First World War. Metis and Inuit soldiers also enlisted; however only those with Indian status were officially recorded. [1]  Many returned home and did not have the same access to services as others who they fought alongside. Even though many Indigenous people served in the military, it was not until 1995 that Indigenous Peoples were allowed to lay wreaths at the National War Memorial. [2] Now 22 years later, communities continue to share stories and cultivate space for an important forgotten presence. Just this year, The Metis Federation of Manitoba unveiled a new veteran’s monument in St.Eustache to honor the Metis and local veterans. [3] Additionally, in Vancouver, people gathered at Victory square on November 8th for National Aboriginal Veteran’s day. These and other ongoing efforts engage our core understanding of remembrance.

Similarly, racist attitudes among military leaders made it difficult for black Canadians to join in the First World War, even though they had fought in several smaller contingents pre-first world war. In 1916 the first black military unit in Canada was created. The No. 2 Construction battalion in Nova Scotia was made up of mostly black Canadians from the Atlantic Provinces and Ontario. Discrimination in the Canadian military continued into the 1950s, [4] which saw black war heroes such as Jeremiah Jones who fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, not recognized with a Medallion for Distinguished service until 2010, just over 50 years after his death. Jeremiah is just one story, today projects like the Legacy Voices Project, collect stories and photos that connect us all to the history of black soldiers.

A local story that is a little bit different is that of the former William Head Quarantine Station, now William Head Prison. The facility was once used by the health department to check incoming ships and quarantine those who had or may had been exposed to illnesses. Less known is that this space was used in 1917 to train the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). [5] Couched by the British army as a non-combat “volunteer” service, thousands of men from northern China and Mongolia were shipped to Victoria, BC. Through their exclusionary practices, Canada was currently charging $500.00 a head for Chinese immigrants, which was waived for about 84,000 members of the CLC. [6] Upon arrival for those who survived the travel, their heads were shaven, bracelets were placed on their wrist, they were handed a kit. Living in a “coolie camp” run by the Canadian Militia they spent most of their time training. After training was completed, they were secretly loaded into cattle-trucks and moved across the country and then overseas to support the British in their war efforts. [7] This year, Durham University Oriental Museum, with the Ensuring We Remember Campaign has staged a new museum exhibition called A Good Reputation Endures Forever. [8] Featuring pieces of private collections, it seeks to share the stories of the thousands of Chinese labourers who risked their lives alongside the British.

Unspoken - All these stories intertwine, they walk along the same path, diverge at the crossroads and then loop back around again.  In the time of war they are a part of our collective story. Sharing them (re)shapes our collective memory and honors the sacredness of every community life.

For questions or comments about Forgotten Labour, contact Jessica Humphries in the archives, ext. 4606.

[1] “Aboriginal Contributions during the First World War,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, accessed November 10, 2017,

[2] “10/11/16 AFN National Chief Bellegarde Reinvigorates Longstanding Commitment to First Nations Veterans,” Assembly of First Nations, accessed November 10, 2017,

[3] “New monument honoring Metis and local veterans unveiled in St.Eustache,” CBC News |Manitoba, accessed November 14, 2017,

[4] “Black Canadians in Uniform – A Proud Tradition,” Veterans Affairs Canada, accessed November 14, 2017,

[5] War Memories. “Part 8: Chinese Labour Corps,” YouTube video, 7:18, posted June 27, 2016,

[6] Xu Guoqi, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), p.55.

[7] Peter Johnson, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959 (Victoria: Heritage House Publishing Company, Ltd., 2013), p.149-150.

[8] “The Campaign,” Ensuring We Remember, accessed November 15, 2017,