Born January 30, 1922, in Tisdale, Saskatchewan, Alvie Burden is one of the oldest surviving Black Canadian veterans of the Second World War. Enlisting at 19, Burden was posted to the Saskatoon Light Infantry Regiment. During training in Montreal, Burden became very close friends with another soldier, Art McKim. The pair were separated during the war when McKim suffered temporary blindness due to a gunpowder explosion; they had been unsuccessful in their attempts to reconnect since then.
Before meeting McKim, Burden volunteered to participate in chemical agent testing. Enticed by extra leave, fine meals, and an extra dollar a day, Burden was a member of the top-secret exercises for around 6 weeks. The testing consisted of participants wearing gas masks in a field while planes released different chemicals over them. Burden recants the experience in an interview he gave for Canada Talks:
“Mustard gas. And there was another gas, I don’t know. All kinds of gas. They’d stand you in a field, on a big blotter, about a four-by-eight sheet. And then they’d fly over and spray the mustard gas on you. And you’re standing by a sheep . . . the sheep would die, but you had a gas mask on.”
The only Black man in his company, Burden would serve over 21 months split between the Italian and Dutch campaigns. He was injured in Italy when an enemy tank shell landed behind him, and the ejected shrapnel pierced his head and wrists. Thankfully, he quickly recovered from the incident.
Burden and McKim were reunited decades later thanks to Burden’s niece, who found McKim on social media after Burden mentioned his name during a TV feature. Burden currently lives in Armstrong, BC and is over 100 years old.
Additional Reading & Further Reading:
Welsford Daniels: Another Black veteran of the Second World War
Tommy Prince: A First Nations veteran and member of the joint US-Canadian First Special Service Force who participated in the Italy Campaign
Canada Talks interview with Burden
Main photo: Lt- Present day Burden holding a photo of himself during the war. Rt- The referenced photo. (Credit: CBC News)
Burden, Alvie, interview by Eric Brunt. 2022. Four Black Canadian Veterans Remain. Alvie Burden Is One Of Them. He Just Turned 100. His Story: Accessed July 2023. https://soundcloud.com/canadatalks/four-black-canadian-veterans-remain-alvie-burden-is-one-of-them-he-just-turned-100-his-story.
Patterson, Dayne. 2022. “One of last living Black Canadian WWII veterans is from Sask.” CBC News. Accessed July 2023. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/black-canadian-world-war-two-veteran-stories-saskatchewan-1.6646704.