Keneisha Charles’ Reflections on the Vimy Pilgrimage Award

Keneisha Charles, 2019 Vimy Pilgrimage Award recipient

In April 2019, I travelled to France and Belgium to experience First World War history with 19 youth from across Canada through the Vimy Pilgrimage Award program. My expectations were trepidatious. I never truly connected with Canadian history. The experiences of Black and other racialized people are typically either ignored or offered as a fragmented side-note of incomplete trauma and superficial reconciliation. History was a confusing, bitter, and often painful subject for me.

The VPA helped me find a new meaning. As we toured monuments, museums, and cemeteries, I was able to see, touch, and feel the past. But most of all, I was able to do it through a lens of Blackness with Private Aubrey Mitchell and Private Vincent Carvery.

We’re not related, and they died over 100 years ago. But over the week, they became family.

War was for the White man. Yet these Black men chose to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. I grappled to understand the racism, the trauma they endured, but most of all, the humanity they exhibited in the face of it all.

This was a journey. It was filled with laughter and new friendships, but also pain and vulnerability as I asked questions of myself and of history that I had never known to ask. And as I learned the stories of Aubrey and Vincent, I learned more about my own, too.

I come from a legacy of resilience. And though they may not talk about Canada’s Black Battalion in textbooks or films, I will always know their names and I will always remember the place in history they carved for me—a place that I will not let be taken away.

To my fellow participants, thank you for reminding me what community feels like. Thank you for letting me draw on your strength. Thank you for walking this journey alongside me.

To the chaperones and the Vimy Foundation, thank you for giving me the space to ask the questions I needed to ask and feel what I needed to feel.

And to Aubrey and Vincent. You give me strength. Strength to face a world that I sometimes feel wasn’t made for me. Strength to continue to make space for myself and others where there wasn’t before. Strength to be Black, despite any and every thing. I am so proud to have ancestors like you.

Endless love and gratitude.