Black History Month: RSM Edward Watkins, EM

Black History Month is a time to honour Black Canadians, both past and present. It is also a time to reflect and learn more about their distinguished service. The Royal Montreal Regiment (RMR), by its nature as a ‘city regiment’, reflects the communities that it draws recruits from. In honour of Black History Month, the RMR Foundation is publishing profiles of service of some of the Black Canadians who have served (and continue to serve) in our ranks.

RSM Edward (Eddie) Watkins, EM, circa 1961 (Photo credit: RMR Museum), the first Black Regimental Sergeant-Major of The Royal Montreal Regiment, and quite likely in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Westmount, Quebec – 01 February 2021: 60-years ago this year, WO1 Edward (Eddie) Watkins became the first Black Regimental Sergeant-Major (RSM) of the RMR, being the first of several firsts. First that he was the RMR’s first Black RSM, second that he was quite likely the first Black soldier to be promoted to that position in the entire Canadian Army, and most importantly – he wasn’t the RMR’s only Black RSM. He blazed a trail that has been followed twice more since.

Group photo of the RMR Warrant Officers and Sergeants’ Mess taken in the armoury in front of the memorial tablet, 1962. RSM Edward Watkins is seated in the centre of the front row.

Born in 1919, he deployed to Europe at the start of World War 2 with the 1st Battalion RMR on 07 December 1939, returning six long years later in 1945. As a member of the 1st Battalion RMR, he would have been witness to the unit passing through a long series of reorganizations. These saw the unit’s role shift from Machine Gun, to Armoured Reconnaissance and Armoured Cars, and finally to the designation of “First Canadian Army Headquarters Defence Battalion”. On 28 July 1944, the company landed in France as a unit of First Canadian Army Troops, and it continued to serve in North West Europe until the end of the war. The overseas battalion was disbanded on 30 September 1945 upon returning to Canada.

Men of the RMR taking a break in training in Epsom, United Kingdom. Private Edward Watkins is seated on the table in the centre of the photograph. Picture taken on 02 September 1940.

A distinguished WWII veteran who grew up in Montreal’s “Little Burgundy” area amongst musical giants, such as Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones, Charles Biddle and Daisy Sweeney, with the enduring reminders of Montreal’s golden age of jazz and its connection to a historic and vibrant Black community.

Five RMR members are discussing the plan of the ongoing exercise, amongst them are RSM Edward D. Watkins (centre) and Robert A. Wheaton (far right), and Sergeant Douglas Newcombe (second from left).

As the RSM, WO1 Edward Watkins was instrumental in preparing the Unit to receive its third set of Colours in 1964. The drilling of all ranks for many months preceding the parade, the endless inspections to ensure that not a single button was out of place, that all that was supposed to glisten did so, and ensuring that all of the complex drill movements were executed flawlessly was his responsibility alone. On 20 September 1964, in Westmount park, the entire serving battalion, the veterans of both World Wars in the RMR Association (Branch 14), the regimental band, and the affiliated Cadet Corps were all on parade for the event. After inspection, the old Colours were marched off to “Auld Lang Syne”, the new Colours were consecrated by Command Chaplain Lieutenant Colonel The Reverend J. L. Rand and by the RMR Padre Captain The Reverend J. N. Doidge and they assumed their position between the Regimental Guards. Every single motion planned and rehearsed by RSM Watkins to ensure the prestige of the Regiment was upheld, allowing him to retire from military service later that year, his duty done.

The Regimental Colour is being handed by Major-General Georges P. Vanier, Governor-General of Canada, during the Presentation of New Regimental Colour held at Westmount Park on 20 September 1964.

Upon retirement, former RSM Watkins was an active member of the RMR Association (Branch 14) of the Royal Canadian Legion and was fondly remembered for his remarkable service as well as his great singing voice and piano skills at many a Sgts’ Mess Dinner.

Members of the RMR and guests are gathered for the post-Remembrance Day reception in Warrant Officers & Sergeants’ Mess in the mid 1980’s. Retired RSM E. Watkins (far right of photograph) is seen chatting with a fellow veteran.

He was a major contributor to the regimental family and social life, using his leadership and organizational skills to maintain the bonds of service. According to Volume 3 of the RMR’s history, “When the fifth journal, bearing the same title as the fourth, of the RMR’s newsletter the “INTERCOM” was authorized by the Honorary Colonel, Colonel R.C.P. Lawson, CD, W on 2 May 1985, it was published and circulated to all active and retired members of the Regiment by 1 July 1985.  The Managing Editor and the person who does a magnificent piece of work is RSM (R) E.D. Watkins, with the mailing executed by Mrs. Patricia Glen.” 

The RMR newsletter, the “INTERCOM”, from the time period that RSM (ret’d) Edward Watkins was the Managing Editor

RSM Edward (Eddie) Watkins died on 06 February 2001 at the Ste Anne’s Veterans Hospital, Quebec. He is buried in the Last Post cemetery in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Lest We Forget.