Regulation? What regulation?
By Major Mathias Joost
February is Black History month.
In late 1938 and early 1939, having just become independent from the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Air Force received approval from the Federal Cabinet through orders-in-councils to restrict enlistment in the RCAF to those of European origin.
The RCAF regulations were not, however, complete. While officers in both the Permanent (regular) Force and the Non-Permanent Force had to be of European origin, the same restriction was only applied to airmen of the Permanent Force. The reasons for this discrepancy have not been determined.
With the heavy recruiting that began with the onset of the Second World War, leadership soon realized that a new component was required for war-time service only. When it was created in December 1939, the Special Reserve also restricted enlistment to white people.
Men living in Canada who wished to join the RCAF did so at a RCAF recruiting centre, where qualifications were checked, tests conducted and the regulations enforced. Leonard Braithwaite, who enlisted in 1943 and later became a lawyer in Ontario and then a member of the provincial parliament, recounted going to the recruiting centre in Toronto on several occasions, only to be turned away each time. Allen Bundy, who became a pilot with 404 Squadron, told a similar story.
It was not until October 1941 that black and Asian Canadians could enlist in the “general duties” category of trades, which excluded trades that worked on aircraft and, more importantly, the coveted aircrew trades. In March 1942, the government approved the lifting of the colour barrier, nine months after the RCAF had recommended its elimination.
Yet, in the period when the barriers were in place, black Canadians were being enlisted. A letter from the RCAF recruiting centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, in November 1940 asked for clarification of the policy because people of these minorities were noted in RCAF uniform in the Vancouver area. In fact, by the time the colour barrier was lifted, there were at least 13 black airmen and officers in the RCAF (about 20 per cent of known black Canadians who served in the RCAF). Some explanation is possible for a few of them.
Gerry Bell had enlisted in the Non-Permanent Force before the order-in-council was approved; while Adolphus and Clyde Carty enlisted in their local Non-Permanent squadron in Saint John, New Brunswick. Sammy Estwick was able to enlist with help from his Member of Parliament. In the case of James Post, the Distinguished Conduct Medal he was awarded in the First World War while serving in the Canadian Army may have helped.
However, how do we explain Eric Watts who enlisted in May 1939, Henry Langdon who enlisted in November 1939, Reginald de la Rosa who enlisted in August 1941 (Langdon and de la Rosa as aero engine mechanics), or the others who were able to serve, only one of whom was in a general duties trade?
The explanation may lie in the simple fact that the RCAF was a microcosm of the society from which its personnel were enlisted. Canada in the period up to the Second World War was divided regarding how to treat visible minorities. While many Canadians saw minorities as equals, there were others who didn’t. It should therefore be no surprise that there were RCAF officers who ignored the regulations, to the benefit of black Canadians.
In the absence of any documentation from recruiting officers, it is possible that, for these officers, the policy may have been secondary – or to be ignored – to get the best-qualified personnel for the service. Or they chose to be “colour blind” because they disagreed with the policy. The possibility of some officers being colour blind is indirectly supported by the fact that, after these enlistment policies were eliminated, a few recruiting officers ignored the regulations and continued to bar black Canadians from enlisting.
Whether they did not believe in discrimination or whether they were trying to get the best people into the RCAF, there is no doubt that some RCAF recruiting officers were ignoring the regulation prohibiting the enlistment of black and Asian Canadians. The black airmen who were enlisted went on to serve the RCAF in upstanding fashion during the war and, in some cases after the conflict.
Major Joost is a historian with the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence Headquarters.
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