Lieutenant Colonel D.H. Sutherland
No. 2 Construction Battalion
Lieut.-Col. D.H. Sutherland, O.C. of the battalion, speaking for recruits, mentioned the excellent discipline the colored men already enlisted had shown, and commended them for their soldierly appearance … Many colored men, he said, were dissatisfied because they had been refused at the beginning of the war. This, he said, had been due merely to prejudice on the part of a few officers, and was not general throughout the Dominion.
(London Advertiser, 20 October 1916)
Born in Pictou, Nova Scotia on 10 September 1880, Daniel Hugh Sutherland was a railway contractor who enlisted as a private with the 193rd Battalion. In June 1916, he received a commission and promotion to lieutenant colonel to recruit No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only segregated Black battalion in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Except for Honorary Captain Reverend William A. White, all the officers were white.
Black Canadians had been refused enlistment early in the war and authorities rejected proposals for an all-Black infantry battalion. Chief of General Staff, General Gwatkin expressed the racist policies behind these decisions in an April 1916 memo:
The civilized negro is vain and imitative; in Canada he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty; in the trenches he is not likely to make a good fighter; and the average white man will not associate with him on terms of equality.
By spring 1916, the militia department conceded to raise labour unit with Black recruits from Nova Scotia, Ontario, the West, and the United States. The selection of a private to command No. 2 Construction Battalion indicated that many other officers had refused. In the context of exclusionary policies, Sutherland faced low recruitment rates and never achieved a full complement.
When the battalion went overseas in March 1917, Sutherland reverted to major to proceed to France. Although he hoped his unit would be recognized as one of the railway construction battalions, the Black soldiers served as labourers throughout the war. In fact, Lieutenant Colonel Blair Ripley of No. 1 Construction Battalion had complained to authorities that his men were unhappy to share the name with a Black unit. It was eventually renamed 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops.
With just over 500 men, No. 2 Construction Battalion was re-designated a construction company and attached to the Forestry Corps. Sutherland commanded the unit until demobilization.
Sutherland died on 30 July 1977 and is buried in River John, Nova Scotia.