When 15-year-old Khalid Abdi was asked to investigate the life of a Canadian soldier from 100 years ago, he wasn’t super excited about the class project at first.
Growing up in Somalia, Abdi had always felt bored by history. But the English as a Second Language (ESL) student at Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa soon realized he and this soldier had something in common.
“Pretty much, my life and his life [are] the same,” said Abdi, who came to Canada with his family in December of 2019. Abdi soon discovered his own experience of Somalia’s ongoing civil war helped him relate to Harry Timothy Jones, a member of Canada’s only all-Black First World War battalion.
For Abdi’s teacher, Jessica McIntyre, it’s a heartbreaking link that nonetheless allows many in her Ottawa class of international, refugee and immigrant students — between the 22 students, 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,” said McIntyre.
“It led to authentic and powerful conversations about war, and heartbreaking conversations about the consequences.”
McIntyre’s ESL class is one of 15 classes across Ottawa participating in an initiative across the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board dubbed Project True North, which tasks students with sifting through archival documents to paint a picture of the lives of soldiers in the First World War.
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 Brunswick resident who signed up for the war effort despite having a wife and four children at home (his fifth child was born while he was in France, where the battalion was predominantly based).
Medical records show Jones suffered a serious injury while in France’s Lajoux forest, where he was cutting down trees that would be used for railways. The injury 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 their country 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 also 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, 14, Khalid and Hilal’s younger sister.
All three siblings are in the same class, and are taking part in the project together.
Sharing a soldier’s story with his descendants
McIntyre said her class became so emotionally invested in Jones’s story that one student suggested they 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, where they managed to track down Jones’s great-great-grandson, James McCarty.
The class reached out and learned that McCarty knew nothing about his mother’s side of the family, so they shared Jones’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,” said McIntyre. “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.”
More than a history lesson
Over time, the goal of Project True North is for students to uncover the stories of all 670 soldiers who made up the No. 2 Construction battalion, 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.
Jones said 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.