OCDSBXL Podcast (S2E3): GCI student historians uncover the truth about the True North

By Jessica McIntyre

History students at Glebe Collegiate Institute, participating in the OCDSB’s Project True North,  have been uncovering the hidden stories of Canada’s first and only segregated Black Battalion.  By studying military service files, medical records, and other primary documents from the First World War, students become historians and piece together the untold stories of the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. 

This Canadian History class, composed of English Language Learners, has poured over the military service files of one soldier, Harry Timothy Jones; breathing life into his memory. 

Harry Timothy Jones, born July 25 1886 in New Brunswick was a labourer by trade. He married Maude O’Ree and together, they had four children. Maude was expecting a fifth child when he enlisted in the war in September of 1916.  The No. 2 Construction Battalion left Halifax aboard the SS. Southland on March 28th 1917 and arrived in Liverpool on April 7th 1917, just two days before the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.  

Once overseas this segregated battalion was tasked to support Canadian Troops alongside the Canadian Forestry Corps in logging operations.

In early May 1917 Jones was stationed in the Jura Mountains alongside the Canadian Forestry Corps. The lumber produced there would support the Allies in taking Hill 70 under the command of Canadian General, Arthur Currie. Tragically, a few weeks after arriving, Harry is horribly injured by a falling tree and suffers permanent paralysis of his left arm. He is hospitalized for three months, and sent home to Canada with a medical discharge. 

This is where Harry’s military service file ends and the questions begin. 

 “Are Harry’s children still alive? If yes, how do they feel about their father?” asks Minh Nguyen. 

“We know he was able to return home safely, however I imagine, his life after that was very difficult.” says Yuna Utsumi.  

“Was he able to find a job and keep supporting his family? How did he feel when he came home after getting hurt? Does his present-day family know about his story? I believe we could find answers to these questions by contacting his family.” suggests Megan Viquez. 

And that is what these students did. 

As a class, we pieced together the lives of Harry’s five children by searching for wedding records, death notices and census data. In a few clicks, we stumbled across the name of a living relative, Harry’s great great grandson. 

Students were thrilled when we reached out and shared Harry’s story with him, “It made me feel fulfilled because we were able to share his memory with his family” shares Megan Viquez. “It made me realize that in some way we are still connected with the past” says Orazio Zapparrata. 

These students have come to feel a deep connection to the life of this soldier. They are international students, immigrants and refugees who, in light of their lived experiences, resonate very deeply with Harry’s experiences with prejudice and the horrors of war.  “Harry’s life connects with mine because I see Harry as my grandfather. My grandfather was also a soldier. He joined the war when he was 19 years old, and luckily, my grandfather was not injured as badly as Harry was” shares Vinh Tran. 

This connection continues to leave our class with a longing to know more, “I want to visit the trench that Harry stayed in. I want to feel that atmosphere that Harry felt” says Zinho Maeng. 

It is clear that the once untold story of Harry Timothy Jones will never be forgotten in the hearts of these Glebe students. 

“Harry was courageous, hard-working, optimistic and he never gave up.” says Minh Nguyen. 

“We learned that most Canadian soldiers returned home as a heroes, but Harry’s experience was different he fought against racism and discrimination. Only decades later did the No. 2 Construction Battalion receive proper recognition for their service”  shares Orazio.   

When asked to reflect on the importance of sharing untold stories in our history, brothers Kunhao and Penghao Shi noted “there are many heroes in Canada, maybe they are not doing very important things, but they are all using their lives to protect their country. If we don’t learn about them, Canadians will never know how many heroes sacrificed for them.” 

To learn more about this project, and to hear Glebe’s students share their personal connections with Harry’s story tune into the OCDSB XL Podcast ,on Spotify to listen to Season 2 Episode 3 on Project True North.

Jessica McIntyre is a secondary school teacher in the Canadian and World Studies and Social Sciences department at Glebe Collegiate Institute. This article was originally published in the Glebe Report.

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