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February is Black History Month. This Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) article examines the challenges that several Black Canadians conquered to become members of the RCAF, their contributions to the Air Force and Canada, and their tremendous achievements during and following their military service.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has always attempted to select the best possible candidates from among Canadian society. In the period before the Second World War, there was much competition to gain one of the few positions in the Air Force. The RCAF could afford to choose the best candidates.
The need for manpower during the war did not reduce the quality of the recruits being accepted. In 1940, the RCAF had an agreement with the Army that the RCAF could talk to the best volunteers and see if they wished to join the Air Force. Post-war, the RCAF continued to select only the best. This selection of the best of Canada’s young men and women can be seen in the achievements of Black Canadians who served in the Air Force. Michael Manley served as aircrew in the RCAF and in 1972 became the fourth prime minister of Jamaica. Lincoln Alexander, Leonard Braithwaite and Lloyd Perry all became lawyers, with Alexander becoming the first Black Member of Parliament and the first Black lieutenant-governor of a Canadian province. Leonard Braithwaite became the first Black member of the provincial parliament in Ontario, being responsible for pushing through important anti-discrimination policies, while Lloyd Perry became a director in the Ontario attorney general’s office, responsible for protecting the rights of children.
Some Black Canadians remained in the RCAF after the war and went on to distinguished careers. Sammy Estwick enlisted in December 1941, serving until 1963. He worked in telecommunications in the RCAF, both as an instructor and as an operator, continuing in this field after he retired. In his retirement he helped found the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club and the Gloucester Senior Adults’ Centre as well as serving as president of both. He also served in leadership positions with the Vanier Lions Club and the Society for Technical Communication.
Eric Watts went from being an airman to a squadron leader when he retired. Wherever he went he was considered to be one of the best, whether serving as an instructor or as a section head. As the wing air armaments officer at 1 Wing in Marville, France, he took the wing’s armaments serviceability rate from last to first among the four wings in the Canadian Air Division.
The post-war RCAF also had its share of quality recruits. Among the many who distinguished themselves were George Borden and Wally Peters. George Borden served from 1953 to 1985. He then served five years as executive assistant to the province’s Ministry of Social Services, being the first Black in Nova Scotia in this position and was the province’s first literacy co-ordinator for Blacks from 1988 to 1991. He is also a well-known poet and songwriter.
Wally Peters enlisted as a fighter pilot, going on to become a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) advisor to the UN on the tactical movement of troops by air and the CAF’s first human rights officer. On retiring he went on to work with Transport Canada, helping create aviation safety programs and helping establish the Canadian Aviation Safety Board. He might be best known however, for having served as a member of the Snowbirds.
Black Canadians have always been ready to serve Canada. The RCAF has benefitted from the quality of those who have served, as has Canada and its people. The foregoing are just some of the examples of their excellence.
Eric Victor Watts
When Eric Victor Watts enlisted in the RCAF on May 10, 1939, technically, he should not have been allowed to join. The federal Cabinet and the RCAF had approved enlistment policies earlier that year that stated recruits had to be of “pure European descent.”
Eric Watts was Black.
However, the recruiting officer in Calgary, Alta., likely saw the potential in Watts and allowed him to become a member of the RCAF. The recruiter’s decision certainly seems prescient.
From the very start, Watts proved himself to be a natural leader. He enlisted as an armourer and served at several units and schools. He was identified as being a superior instructor and supervisor who rose rapidly to the rank of warrant officer class 2.
Throughout the war, the RCAF sought out members who wished to become aircrew. In December 1943, Watts began the selection process to become a pilot, for which he qualified in March 1945. He remained in Canada and served as a pilot at several schools until November 1946. As the RCAF had a surplus of pilots in the period of the interim air force of 1945-47, he went back to being an armaments instructor and supervisor of armaments sections.
His leadership skills showed through and he was continually recommended for commissioning from the ranks. Finally, in February 1951, a place was available and he was commissioned as a flying officer while on the RCAF ground defence course.
As an officer, he was as an instructor as well as a supervisor of armaments sections at Trenton and Camp Borden, both in Ontario. In November 1955, Watts was posted to RCAF headquarters in Ottawa, Ont., where he worked on armaments programs, including the development of the Sparrow II missile that was planned for the Avro Arrow.
In August 1959, Watts was finally able to get the posting he wanted. He was posted to Marville, France, as the maintenance armaments officer at 445 Squadron and eventually became the wing armaments officer at 1 Wing in Marville. He took an organization that was ranked last in terms of serviceability of aircraft armaments systems and made it the best of the four RCAF Wings in Europe. As a result of his outstanding work he was promoted to squadron leader on Jan. 1, 1962. He returned to Canada in July 1963 and served in both leadership and staff positions until he retired in 1966.
The fact that there was a Black senior non-commissioned officer supervising or instructing during the Second World War, one who was consistently highly rated, speaks to Watts’ leadership ability.
At a time when racism was still quite prevalent in Canadian society, he was continually rated as an outstanding instructor and supervisor. Throughout this service he was always considered superior, usually graduating at or near the top in his courses. Wherever he served, he held the respect of both his subordinates and his fellow officers, being regarded as an affable and highly capable individual. Considered an outstanding officer, it was only his lack of a university education that hindered his progression to higher rank.
Eric Watts passed away in Belleville, Ont., on March 18, 1993.