Canada’s stunning new coin honours Black military history

The Royal Canadian Mint has released the fifth and final coin of its Commemorating Black History series, and it’s stunning. 

The $20 fine silver coin is extraordinary for a few reasons, including its exquisite design. And it’s especially remarkable because it honours the first and only all-Black battalion-sized unit in Canadian military history. 

A valuable part of Canada’s past

In the early years of World War I, hundreds of Black Canadians wanted to enlist, however racism blocked their efforts. Still, Black communities across the nation persisted, lobbying government and military officials to intervene. Concurrently, war efforts were intensifying and  Britain had put out a request for more labour. 

On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Nova Scotia. It was the first and only all-Black battalion-sized unit in the country’s history and was comprised of over 600 men from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Western Canada, the U.S. and the West Indies. 

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was sent to the forests of France and served alongside the Canadian Forestry Corps (as a segregated unit). The men provided vital support to the war effort, assisting with lumber and milling and transporting much-needed timber to the front lines. 

Wood was needed to line trenches, for the construction of observation posts, gun platforms, and ammunition boxes, and to build fighter aircraft. The battalion also built and maintained the rail routes crucial for delivering the wood. Some members even fought alongside other Canadian Expeditionary Force units.

In early 1919, the No. 2 Construction Battalion returned home, and the unit disbanded in 1920.

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Formal acknowledgement 

Years later, descendants of the battalion requested a formal apology for the racism and discrimination their loved ones faced. This was granted on July 9, 2022, by Prime Minister Juston Trudeau and Anita Anand, Minister of National Defence, in Truro, Nova Scotia. 

And in 2023, the Royal Canadian Mint further honoured the legacy of the No. 2 Construction Battalion with a $20 fine silver coin. This fifth coin in the Commemorating Black History series, which celebrates achievements of Black Canadians, elevates and acknowledges the overlooked contribution made by Canada’s brave Black men in the face of racism. 

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A celebratory coin

The coin’s striking design features the work of two artists: portraitist Susanna Blunt and Kwame Delfish, the first Caribbean Canadian to design a coin for the Royal Canadian Mint.

The obverse of the coin, designed by Blunt, is an effigy of Queen Elizabeth II against patterned background maple leaves (this design is etched on all five of the coins in the series). The dates “1952” and “2022” are separated by four pearls, which represent the number of effigies that have been inscribed on Canadian coins during the queen’s reign.

On the reverse — or the “tails” side — Delfish has created an evocative scene. In the forefront a soldier stands at attention on railway tracks, symbolic of the difficult journey faced by the battalion. To the left is the No. 2 Construction Battalion badge, hovering above the landscape of the Jura region in France, where the logging and railroad construction took place. The right side of the coin displays battalion soldiers marching in a parade before they were deployed to Europe in March 1917. 

“This coin commemorates the remarkable legacy of No. 2 and builds on the formal apology that was given by the Government of Canada this past summer to ensure that this important history is remembered,” said Russell Grosse, Executive Director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, in a press release.

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Celebrating Black achievements

The Commemorating Black History series began in 2019 with a coin honouring Viola Davis. It was followed by coins paying homage to Willie O’Ree (the first black player in the NHL), Black Loyalists during the American Revolution, and the Underground Railroad. 

The No. 2 Construction Battalion coin shines a celebratory light on a part of Canada’s military history that has been relatively unknown for almost a century. 

Coin specifications

Diameter: 38mm
Face value: $20
Manufacturer: Royal Canadian Mint
Weight: 31.39 grams (1 ounce)
Purity: 99.99% pure silver
Print: 5500

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