GCI student historians uncover the truth about the True North

Glebe Collegiate Institute’s student historians delve into the story of one member of Canada’s First World War segregated black battalion, the No. 2 Construction Battalion. They are (from left) Yuna Utsumi, Megan Viquez, Vinh Tran, Orazio Zapparrata, Minh Nguyen and Zinho Maeng.

GCI student Vinh Tran examines Harry Jones’s enlistment papers.   Photos: Jessica McIntyre

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 have become historians and pieced 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 they had four children. Maude was expecting a fifth child when Harry enlisted in September 1916. The No. 2 Construction Battalion left Halifax aboard the SS Southland on March 28, 1917, and arrived in Liverpool on April 7, 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 in France. 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 was horribly injured by a falling tree and suffered permanent paralysis of his left arm. He was hospitalized for three months and sent home to Canada with a medical discharge.

This is where Harry’s military service file ended and the questions for Glebe students started.

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

“We know he was able to return home safely, however I imagine his life after that was very difficult,” said 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,” suggested 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,” says Megan Viquez. “It made me realize that in some way we are still connected with the past,” adds Orazio Zapparrata.

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

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 by 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 heroes, but Harry’s experience was different – he fought against racism and discrimination,” says Orazio. “Only decades later did the No. 2 Construction Battalion receive proper recognition for their service.”

When asked to reflect on the importance of sharing untold stories in our history, brothers Kunhao and Penghao Shi said this: “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 the Glebe students share their personal connections with Harry’s story, tune into the OCDSB XL Podcast on Spotify to listen to Season 2 Episode 3 of Project True North.

Jessica McIntyre is a secondary school teacher in the Canadian and World Studies and Social Sciences department at Glebe Collegiate Institute.

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