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Veteran aims to honour 19th-century all-Black Victoria regiment with monument

Several of the men in the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps had volunteered to serve in Victoria’s fire department, but were rejected. Undaunted, they offered their services as a volunteer militia unit

Kyle Scott stood by the graves of Paris Carter, Edward Booth and Richard Stokes in Ross Bay Cemetery one morning this week — the only physical reminders of some of the men who proudly made up an all-Black militia unit in Victoria in 1860.

They might be long gone, but they’re close to the heart for Scott, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and has made it his mission to honour every Canadian who ever served. “There has to be something more to remember them, to honour them,” said Scott.

For years, he’s helped to raise money and awareness through the Last Post Fund of Veterans Affairs to place military markers at more than 450 graves of former soldiers at Ross Bay.

When money for gravestones fell outside the dates and conflicts the government allowed — like those of Carter, Booth and Stokes — Scott pushed harder and received funding and raised money on his own.

Now he has a new project: He’s started a fundraising campaign to commission a monument in a prominent place to honour the all-Black militia, known as the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps.

The militia’s 50 or so members crossed into Canada looking for better lives after the California Gold Rush, on the eve of the American Civil War.

Several of the men volunteered to serve in Victoria’s fire department, but were rejected by the white men organizing it, according to the B.C. Black History Awareness Society.

Undaunted, they met Governor James Douglas to offer their services as a volunteer militia unit. With a potential war with the U.S. brewing over ownership of the San Juan Islands and the international boundary, Douglas accepted.

After five years, however, Carter and Stokes and the others disbanded the regiment “in frustration and disgust” after facing unrelenting racism, including threats and attempted arson on their homes.

After that, the short-lived regiment faded into history.

But Scott believes the men deserve something better. “These men broke down barriers for future generations of Black men to be able to serve in Canada … they were the first. They deserve to be remembered properly in public view, for future generations to learn about.”

Scott is meeting city officials about a potential monument site.

He said the discussion of racism has to continue. “Part of this mission is by having these markers here, we’re going to talk about this. Those who forget about history are going to repeat it. It’s an old saying but it’s true.”

“I feel we don’t talk enough about racism in Canadian culture in years gone by — even today it’s still prevalent and it’s not unique to African Americans.

“I feel like we owe these men a greater sense of gratitude and respect for being willing to put their necks out by forming this unit.”

Scott said the men funded the unit themselves, raising money by staging dances and other events, and built a hall on Yates Street to drill.

They had virtually no support and were using antique muskets supplied by the Hudson’s Bay Company when the world was transitioning to cartridge rifles. “If the Americans did make an advance on San Juan Island, [the militia] would be almost hopeless, but they were going to be there regardless.”

For the most part, the militia raised money from within the Black community.

In 1864, when a new governor was appointed, the regiment was not invited to attend Douglas’s farewell banquet. When the new governor was sworn in, the corps was refused entry to the ­ceremonies because other volunteer ­brigades would not march behind them, the Black History Awareness Society found.

A final snub came from the new governor, Arthur Kennedy, after the men marched to the legislature to proclaim their loyalty, but with a caveat about the discrimination they faced.

Kennedy said he would try to bridge the gap between whites and Blacks, but nothing was done. He later recommended the unit be disbanded.

As for Scott, he hopes to find more of the regiment members’ graves. “At the very least, I want to see this monument built in Victoria to talk about their contributions and a history that very few know. Everyone needs to know the adversity they faced, and the contributions they made to this city.”

Through the Last Post Fund, Scott has been able to research soldiers and erect about 1,400 markers in cemeteries across Canada and some overseas over the past five years. Each new marker costs about $2,000.

Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery has been a major benefactor. Though he was born and raised in Alberta, the seaside cemetery has been one of Scott’s favourite sites to honour veterans because his mother, Valerie, who emigrated to Victoria with her family from Ireland in 1957, grew up a block from Ross Bay.

Scott, 42, was part of harrowing firefights in Afghanistan, including a 24-hour battle on May 17, 2006, that claimed the life of Capt. Nichola Goddard — the first Canadian woman soldier killed in combat. He watched fellow soldiers and the enemy torn up by bullets and shrapnel, took fire and gave it back. He was discharged in 2008 after sustaining multiple injuries.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he continues to receive mental-health care. “This is my therapy, too. I struggled for a lot of years. What I was missing was a sense of direction and a goal … this is it.”

Some soldiers buried in Ross Bay did not have formal recognition of their service, while others died paupers, were vilified for their race or simply took their personal horrors of war to the grave, said Scott.

“You don’t realize how privileged you are until you leave this country,” he said. “In war zones, there’s only so much training can do for you, and it does little to prepare you to come back.”

To donate to a monument for the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corp, go to and search for Memorial for the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps.

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