The active role played by soldiers of African descent in the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, many a time is buried and glossed over by Canadian authorities. Publicity campaigns surrounding the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games for instance placed emphasis on the symbolic role of veteran hikers as well as athletes in their toboggans in exhibiting their sporting talents in the winter wonderland.
There was a virtual blackout on Black pioneers when it comes to snowshoeing in the Canadian space. But, historical accounts reveal that soldiers of African descent snowshoed over 1,000 kilometers for about 50 days from Fredericton, N.B., to Kingston, Ont, according to the Conversation.
The Black officers were part of the 104th New Brunswick Regiment of Foot. They began this journey on February 16, 1813, through the banks of the frozen Saint John, Madawaska and St. Lawrence rivers until they reached their final destination in Kingston in April 1813. The objective of the 104th New Brunswick Regiment of Foot was to strengthen the Canadian defense system against a looming invasion by the U.S. The war was referred to as the War of 1812 though the communal clashes lasted for over two years.
Some of the Black officers of the 104th New Brunswick Regiment of Foot were Richard Houldin, Henry McEvoy and Harry Grant. Even though they were part of this epic history trek, their contributions are brushed over in the history books and national events.
Many historians have criticized Canadian authorities for the conscious culture of erasing the contributions of Black people from mainstream Canadian history, raising questions about Canada’s commitment to matters of respecting race, slavery and genocide. The only period there is mention of people of African descent is when there are talks about the Underground Railroad and how many gained their freedom from slavery in the Great White North.
There is a deliberate silence on Canada’s involvement in the 200 years of slavery on its soil and how it shapes the existence of persons of Black origin. But for the indigenous technology and survival tactics employed by soldiers of African descent, the 104th march would have been more daunting.
Historical accounts say a pair of men each pushed and pulled a toboggan stocked with food and gear. Toboggan is a traditional means of transport during winter. The men also wore moccasins which are crafted specifically for walking on ice or snow. The advantage of this shoe is that it is quite light, warm and waterproof. Though there are winter snowshoes, the moccasins were the best fit for this assignment. The winter footwear enables quick access through the snow.
With just boots, one is bound to sink in the sea with each step till mobility becomes impossible. In the event of this, one can develop cold legs which aggravate frostbite leading to the eventual amputation of the leg or death.
The soldiers of the 104th regiment used cedar branches to make their beds in the evening and covered these makeshift structures with moss. A blanket and fire in the middle of the structures provided warmth even on very cold nights.