Tag Archives: Nicolas Debon

African Canadian Representation in The Great War

A Brave Soldier
by: Nicolas Debon

A Brave Soldier
Debon, Nicolas. A Brave Soldier. Toronto, Ont.: Groundwood /Douglas & McIntyre, 2002. Print.


War is and always has been a touchy subject. The Great War in particular is apart of Canadian (and world) history that will never be forgotten. It was a world war but more often then not it, is not the world that we see represented in images depicting the war or those who fought in it. The image presented is not one of racial diversity, which is what the world is made of. Due to this many may find it difficult to identify with the history that is being taught, this especially applies to children. Children may not always find a history lesson particularly interesting but if they can picture themselves in what they are learning about it may make their learning experience more interesting. In Nicolas Debons book A Brave Soldier there is an illustration of an African Soldier. Although his role is minimal it raises the important question of representation in the Great War, more specifically the role of African Canadians and their contribution to it.

A Brave Soldier : More than just a picture book

A Brave Soldier was written and illustrated by Nicolas Debon and was published in 2002 by Groundwood books. It is a story about a young man named Frank who enlists to fight in the war with thoughts that it would be over soon and he would be sent home by Christmas.  Frank reluctantly enlists to fight in the war as to not appear as a coward to his peers. When the story begins to unfold we as readers learn that the story is not about how or why the war started but rather, the experiences of the soldiers at the battlefront. What Frank experiences is unlike anything he has ever experienced before. He goes through training and is eventually placed on the battlefront. One of his first encounters with another soldier who has seen and experienced what it is like on the battlefront is of African descent. The soldier describes his experiences as comparable to being in hell. Although Frank is scared he continues on to the battlefront.

Through Debons illustrations he is able to depict scenes of war without being too graphic. Despite not being graphic the story that is told puts in perspective what war life is like for those who choose to fight. Even though Frank is a fictional character what he experiences on the battlefront are the experiences of many. Debons depiction of an African soldier also adds some depth to the story. The war Frank is fighting in is a world war but oftentimes it is not the diversity of the world we see depicted in war or in children’s books. Debons inclusion of an African soldier gives Black children -regardless of cultural background- something to identify with. They can begin to see themselves as part of not just Canadian history but history in general outside of the context of slavery.

Usually when any kind of Black history is taught it almost always about the enslavement of Africans in North America. There are children’s books dedicated to telling the story of plantation life, the civil rights movement and some books that depict Black contributions to American history but it is rare to find any books on Canadian Black history. It is almost as if once slaves escaped to Canada they no longer had a place in history.

Debons African Soldier 

Debons Representation of an African Soldier
Debons Representation of an African Soldier

There is no back-story to Debons African soldier, he appears once and is never seen or heard from again. Despite this, he has an entire page dedicated to his illustration. He is not a random face that appears in the background. He is right front and center. Debon must have wanted him to be noticed and have presence within the story. In the preliminary manuscripts and drafts for A Brave Soldier the African soldier was not included at all. The soldier was unnamed and his ethnicity was not specified. In later revised versions the soldier was said to be French. In the final draft and published copy of the book the soldier was made to be African. There was no given reason as to why this changed it was just by chance that Debon finalized the ethnicity of the character to be from Africa. Another important thing to note is that in the illustration the soldier is depicted as carrying not only supplies crucial to his survival but he is also armed. Historically speaking Black men were not allowed to fight alongside their White counterparts for no reason other than the colour of their skin. The fact that the soldier is armed shows that he must have fought as well, as opposed to just assisting in carrying ammunition or food rations. The inclusion of an African and possibly Canadian soldier helps to illustrate the diversity and multiculturalism that Canada prides itself on. It also helps to depict that World War One was more than just a so called “white mans war”.

Origins and Outbreak of the First World War

According to the British library the outbreak of the First World War happened in three stages. The first stage being, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Stevenson). The second phase of war outbreak took place when the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary began to spread. The conflict spread to Germany, Russia and France. The third phase took place when Germany invaded Luxembourg and Belgium with an intervention from Great Britain (Stevenson).

War Contributions by African Canadians

When war broke out in 1914, black men were initially rejected from enlisting in the army. “In August 1914 when World War One erupted Black Canadians received a devastating signal that they were considered third class citizens” (Ruck, 11). They were turned away simply because of the colour of their skin. Race is no indicator of someone’s capabilities and yet this was the sole deciding factor in their rejection from enlistment. There were no laws in place banning Black men from enlisting it was left up to the commanding officers that were at recruitment stations. Many of the Black men who made attempts at enlisting were told that it was a “White mans war” or that a checkerboard army was not wanted (Ruck, 12). At this point in war history Black men were thought of being incapable of fighting in the war. There was no evidence to back up the assumption that Black men would not make good fighters but it was the assumption that reverberated throughout many of the recruitment stations.

The fact that Black men were rejected from enlisting shows that they were never really considered full members of Canadian society. Not being a full member of Canadian society also meant that they were not thought of as being able to be patriotic towards their country. Eventually a general order was put in place that said that Black -or Colored- men who were physically fit were not to be discriminated against when trying to enlist (Ruck, 15). Despite an order being put in place Black men still faced large amounts of discrimination and racism once enlisted. It was clear that even though they had been allowed to enlist they were not wanted or accepted by their commanding officers or fellow soldiers. What resulted from the initial rejections and mistreatment of Black recruits was the formation of an all Black construction battalion. Involvement in this battalion was the only way that Black men were able to contribute to the war efforts on behalf of Canada when stationed abroad. At home both Black men and women contributed to the war efforts. They worked in factories making weapons and other supplies as well as made efforts in helping to raise money that would then be put towards the war efforts. In spite of the fact that they were thought of as third class citizens Black members of Canadian society did all that they could in order to contribute to the war efforts. It is almost ironic that although they were met with racism and discrimination Black citizens did all they could in order to show their patriotism to their country.

No. 2 Construction Battalion

No. 2 Construction Battalion
No. 2 Construction Battalion

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was the first and only Black battalion in Canadian military history (Ruck, 21). Unfortunately this battalion was not made up of men who were to fight in the war but rather men who were to dig trenches and build shelters. Despite having their own battalion, the fact that the only work that Black volunteers were given was shelter building and trench digging says a lot about their position in society. Since these men were given the lowest of the low of jobs it is as if they were not deemed worthy enough to put their lives on the line for their country. In spite of their position on the battlefront their contribution to the war effort was something that should not be forgotten. A unique aspect about the construction battalion was that it was able to recruit volunteers from all over the country as long as they passed medical examinations.

Although not physically fighting, the contribution of the No.2 Construction Battalion could be seen as a fight for equality. A fight for Black men to be seen as equal and worthy members of society who are able to show patriotism towards their country. A notable member of the No.2 Construction Battalion was Rev. William White. Rev. White was the second Black man to study at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and he went on to graduate with a degree in Theology in 1903. He also aided in the formation of the battalion itself. During wartime Rev. White would preach messages that promoted racial tolerance and hope. The reason why Rev. William White is an honorable mention in regards to the No.2 Construction Battalion is because he was the first Black man in Canada to receive a Doctorate in Theology. This honor was bestowed upon him before his death in 1936.

Rev. William White (1874 – 1936)

The No. 2 Construction Battalion did more than just break down racial barriers. It gave Black men an opportunity to show their patriotism towards their country. It gave their families and children hope for a better and more equal future. A future that would be accepting of them regardless of the colour of their skin. A future that could recognize their efforts as worthy of acknowledgement in the public eye. A future that gave their children a history that they could be proud of.

Concluding Thoughts

It is possible that the No. 2 Construction acted as inspiration for Debons representation of an African soldier in his picture book. Regardless of what inspired him to include this character it raised the important question of representation that was answered here in this exhibit. Black Canadian history is something that is not often remembered let alone taught. It is important that all members of Canadian society whether they were born here or not are able to see themselves within Canadian history. By depicting an African soldier in his book Debon gives African Canadian children an opportunity to identify with Canadian history.  Oftentimes African Canadian history revolves around the runaway slaves who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. African Canadian history is more than just escaped slaves. Despite not being as recognizable as African American history, the history of Blacks in Canada is a history that should never be ignored. Canadian children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds should be able to see themselves represented in the pages of history and in the media that surrounds them. It has gotten to a point where “white” has become the default for who and what is represented. The No. 2 Construction Battalion is just one small part of African Canadian history and there is much more that should be explored and acknowledged. Debons illustration sparked an interesting observation about the history of the Great War and hopefully this observation will start to generate some discussion on what it really means to have a “World” war.


Author Unknown. Black Soldiers. Black History Canada. Web. 21 March 2014

Black Canadians In Uniform. Veterans Affairs Canada. Web. 27 Feb 2014.

Ruck, Calvin W. “Chapter 1: The Rejection of Black Volunteers and Chapter 2: No. 2 Construction Battalion.” Canada’s Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920. Halifax, N.S.: Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in N.S., 1986. 11-30. Print.

Stevenson, David. Origins and Outbreak. The British Library. Web. 21 March 2014


Nicolas Debon’s A Brave Soldier : Remembering the Young Fallen Soldiers of World War One

© 2014, Shermein Baluch

A Brave Soldier - Written and Illustrated by Nicolas Debon
A Brave Soldier – Written and Illustrated by Nicolas Debon

 Young Canadian Soldiers:

W hen in August of 1914 public proclamations such as: “Your King and Country Need You! Will You Answer The Call?” were issued to Canadians, many families answered the call but at a great cost.  They answered the call by sending their men and boys to fight the Great War.  Proclamations containing enticements, advertisements and war propaganda created much fervor.  War promised adventure and called out to the fantasies of children as young as 15.  Caught up in the frenzy and excitement, many boys too young to enlist, lied about their age and went overseas to fight.  Service men had to be at least nineteen years of age and older.  However, sixteen year old boys could join the service with the written consent of their parents (Browne p.10).  Many parents, not realizing the gravity of their decision at the time, willfully consented to sending their underage boys off to war.

Debon's illustration of a battle scene.
Debon’s illustration of a battle scene.

Why did young men, aged 15, 16 and17 enlist in the military? Was it to sacrifice their lives in the name of pride, glory, or patriotism?  According to World War One historian Gary Browne the answer may be that, they were more susceptible to propaganda and willing to take orders.  He writes that, “They believed in their indestructibility and had a general incomprehension about risk or danger” (Browne p.14).

Canadian men and their families were under the assumption that the war would end shortly.  They assumed that the boys would be back home by Christmas the same year but their hopes were shattered because the war went on for many years and a great many lives were lost.   Frantic letters and telegrams by parents to those in-charge, pleading for the safe return of their underage sons went unanswered because sadly, it was too late for many.

In Loving Memory of Brave Soldiers 100 Years Later:

3. Farewell
Frank says good-bye

On the 100th  year anniversary of the Great War that started in 1914, the Children’s Library Archive at Ryerson University looks back to honor those who lost their lives in World War One.  Housed in the CLA collection is Nicolas Debon’s A Brave Soldier.  A beautiful book that narrates a tale of loss, separation, war and wisdom.  Rooted in history, Debon‘s story is a fictional account of the journey of one brave young soldier named Frank.  Debon narrates Frank’s journey to the front lines of the battlefield in France during the Great War era.  Debon’s story is unique because it highlights the loss and disillusionment of warfare rather than the glory and victory that are usually associated with war in conventional war stories.

Nicolas Debon’s A Brave Soldier:

Battle scene as depicted by Debon
Battle scene as depicted by Debon

Written and illustrated by Nicolas Debon, A Brave Soldier is a work of fine art.  Debon currently lives in France.  He is a writer and an illustrator of immense talent.  The English edition of this book is published by Groundwood Books, a Canadian company.   Groundwood Books published A Brave Soldier in 2002 as part of a line-up of radical texts.  Radical children’s texts contain a different message than conventional texts geared towards children.  Rather than obedience and complacency, the message here is of critical thinking and questioning authority (Mickenberg & Nel).

Debon’s illustrations are powerful yet subtle.  The illustrations are congruent with the message that war is destructive.   Illustrated using Winsor and Newton acrylics, the images are produced in a painterly style.   A majority of the 34-pages that this hard-cover edition comprises of, consist of Debon’s fine illustrations.  The images are an important part of this book, which is ideal for children as young as four and up.  Even adult collectors of beautiful books would enjoy this piece in their personal libraries.

The Story:

Set in 1914, this is a story about Frank’s journey as a young soldier to the front line of battle and the wisdom that he acquires once there.  A young Canadian boy named Frank joins the regimen with his older friend Michael.  Without knowing anything about war, Frank enlists in the military. They travel to Europe by ship to fight alongside the British.  Saying goodbye to his father, his mother, and his sweetheart, Frank embarks on a journey to no man’s land.  However, Frank’s initial enthusiasm fades once he confronts the reality of war.  He witnesses death, destruction, disease, and misery in the trenches.  Frank is seriously injured and watches his friend Michael die on the battle ground.  That moment changes his entire perspective.  Needless to say, that this story does not have a happy-ending.  It is sombre and closes with Frank standing alone in a field full of the gravestones of the dead and buried soldiers, including his best friend Michael.  In A Brave Soldier, Debon’s genius is manifested through a delicate storyline that contains a powerful latent message and is told in the most sensitive manner.


Groundwood Books is an independent Canadian publisher operating in Toronto for the last 35 years.  They produce texts of fiction, non-fiction and picture books for children and adults of all ages.  Published by Groundwood Books Nicolas Debon’s A Brave Soldier follows a theme that their other publications for children tend to follow as well.   Some scholars have called these “Radical Texts” (Mickenberg & Nel).  Radical texts tend to be about war, poverty and social inequality.  They emphasize the need to question authority and to speak up against injustice.  Radical texts for children deal with complex social and political issues in a sensitive way, making it easier for children to understand historical, social and political material.  Indeed, they deviate from the conventional lesson of obedience to authority that  children are usually taught.  Radical texts are coded with subversive messages that encourage children to speak up, ask questions and to think critically about the world that they live in.


A Brave Soldier was well received by a number of reviewers.  Canadian educational institutions were among those who appreciated the content and the context of Debon’s work.  Reviewer Victoria Pennel writes that, historical fiction allows readers to “vicariously experience the past through a storyline” (Pennel p.5).  It presents concepts that are sometimes hard for children to grasp such as war.  However, she argues that “historical fiction is generally a more interesting way for children and young students to learn history but in using this approach with students it is important to make them aware that the main aim of this genre is to tell a story and not to provide historical data” (Pennel p.5).  At the same time, Pennel writes that Nicolas Debon’s A Brave Soldier is “sensitive” in its telling of the horrors of war (Pennel p.5).  Other reviewers such as Hazel Rochman of The Booklist, an on-line forum of expert reviewers from the American Library Association, have praised A Brave Soldier for its poignant approach in depicting the futility of war.  Reviewers generally agree that A Brave Soldier is an important text, and recommend that it should be used in school libraries for elementary school children across Canada.

Narrative Structure:

A Brave Soldier resembles the traditional structure of an adventure tale.  The hero leaves ordinary human society in order to accomplish something great but he experiences disillusionment rather than glory in the battle field.  From the beginning, to the middle and till the end, the narrative progresses sequentially from order to chaos, light to dark and from innocence to wisdom.

The story strays from the conventional message of adventure tale because it depicts war as a tragedy.  It does not promote the idea that war is fun, exciting, and necessary.  Instead, it professes the view that, war equals destruction and those who choose war should question their own choices.  A close reading of Debon’s text reveals that it contains a radical and rebellious message.  It emphasizes the need to speak up against war.  Coded within the structure of adventure tale is a tragedy that needs to be confronted.  Michael dies at the end and Frank is injured physically and burdened emotionally.  In this story as in real life, war equals heart-break.

The storyline progresses from order to chaos.  Beginning with the tranquility of home and family, it quickly progresses towards uncertainty of place, insecurity of life and ambiguity of purpose.  This is a narrative of sacrifice.  A brave soldier sacrifices everything and puts his life on the line.  Of all the sacrifices though, the biggest and most ironic sacrifice seems to be of the soldier’s own personal freedom.  Frank exercises his agency by enlisting in the military and by doing so, he willfully consents to forfeit his own freedom.   After he enlists, we see that his personal freedom vanishes completely.  As a soldier Frank is plucked from his hometown, shipped overseas, given orders to follow, provided a uniform to wear and placed on the front line of the battle ground.  Ironically, in fighting for peace and freedom the soldiers give up that very thing, their own personal freedom.

Plot and Theme

6. Injuries
An injured soldier being carried away

The plot revolves around the Great War and a young man’s journey from home and to the trenches.   A boy is removed from his hometown in Canada, and placed in the war-zone in France only to end up in a graveyard.  The two main characters are Frank and his older friend Michael.  Frank survives while Michael dies at the end.

Frank goes to the market.
Frank goes to the market.

Some of the major themes found in A Brave Soldier are sacrifice, war, propaganda, ignorance and wisdom.  The narrative also touches on the phenomenon of group-think mentality and the importance of independent thought.  For example, when Frank goes to the market and sees the crowds gathered, it is then that his friend Michael influences him to enlist in the military.  Both Michael and Frank follow the crowd and line up to enlist.  Besides, their motives to go to war do not include patriotism.  Both Frank and Michael join the war for superficial reasons, spawned by misinformation.   Their decisions are based on the need for adventure, thrill-seeking and peer pressure.  Michael is looking for an adventure and according to Debon, Frank knew nothing about war but did not want anyone to think that he was a coward.  Their motives indicate the degree of their youth and innocence.  Debon’s characters are not motivated by patriotism nor loyalty to the King.  They are simply misinformed young boys who end up making the wrong choices.


Debon’s painterly depictions of the narrative are remarkably beautiful and powerful in a subtle way.  Using an analogous color scheme of earthy yellow subdued acrylics and complementary hues of blue, Debon captures both the innocence of the soldiers and the chaos of the war in a muted way.  The faces are expressionless.  There are no sharp edges.  The images seem to melt and fade into one another.  This creates the effect that the reader is viewing a recollection of faded memories.  The illustrations are done with Winsor and Newton acrylics on cold pressed water-color paper.  They are crucial to the story and add a visual layer of meaning that compliments the story.

Debon’s illustrations for A Brave Soldier are rich with repetitions and motifs.  At a closer look, we see that the image of the cross is present in almost every illustration.  Crosses in the context of WWI signify the church, religion, the monarch and death.  However, when the image of the cross is rotated slightly it represents something entirely different but very much within the context of Debon’s message.  The cross rotated represents a negative, something crossed out, wrong, faulty, something to be removed.  It is precisely the lesson that the protagonist learns, that war is wrong and must be avoided.  As well, the expressionless faces depicted by Debon are intense in the effect that they create.  They invite the  reader to respond with empathy.  By filling in the facial expressions through his/her imagination, the reader is more likely to relate to the characters on a personal level.


Nicolas Debon’s book A Brave Soldier is a beautifully illustrated text with a highly thought provoking narrative.  As a text of historical fiction for children, this book is a great tribute to the young brave soldiers of the Great War, on the 100th year anniversary of World War One.  It gives voice to those Canadian soldiers who lost their lives, as well as, to those who survived and lived to tell about the horrors of war in the trenches.  It does not glorify those deaths but rather poignantly and silently depicts the destruction of warfare, and the disillusionment felt by a soldier.  This story gives the reader an opportunity to remember the war and its cruelty.  While at the same time, it gives the reader an opportunity to pay respect to, and to meditate on, the great sacrifices made by the brave soldiers of World War One and their families.

War is not glorious and nor is it an adventure but it is a reality.  Although Frank and Michael enlist in the military by choice; however, societal pressure and war propaganda compel them to make that choice.  Nicolas Debon’s A Brave Soldier shows how misinformation that associates war with adventure, and the fear of being called a coward; combined with, appeals to a population’s patriotism in the name of ideology, is the crudest form of war propaganda, and it guides individual behavior.  Debon’s text is a critical look at war.  It is an important text because it seeks to inform and to empower children.  By educating children at an early age about the reality of war propaganda, as well as, about individual agency and the freedom to choose we may change the world and produce a future generation of peaceful critical thinkers.

7. Death
A Brave Soldier – Written and Illustrated by Nicolas Debon

Link to CLA Catalogue


Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory . Manchester, U.K: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

Browne, Gary F. Forget-me-not: fallen boy soldiers. St. John’s, Newfounland and Labrador: DRC Publishing, 2010. Print.

Canada.  Canadian Hertitage and Canadian Meuseum of Civilization Corporation. War Meuseum.ca: Canada and the First World War. Web. 10 02 2014. <http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/guerre/home-e.aspx>.

Debon, Nicolas. A Brave Soldier. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2002. Print.

Fisher, Susan L. Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Print.

Mickenberg, Julia L. and Philip Nel. “Radical Children’s Literature Now!” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 445-473. Web.

Pennel, Victoria. “Exploring our heritage: An overview of recent Canadian historical fiction for children and young adults.” School Libraries in Canada 22.3 (2003): 5-11. Web.

Rochman, Hazel. “A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon.” Rev. of A Brave Soldier, by Nicolas Debon.  The Booklist (2002): 491. Web.

Royde-Smith, Johm Graham.  “World War I (1914-18).” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 22 02 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/648646/World-War-I>.