Barney Danson: A gentle Gentleman

Barney Danson had a heart as big as Mt Everest and a smile that could stop a Mack truck.

Canada’s defence minister  for Trudeau, it was no easy task working for a boss who had mostly contempt for the military. But Barney soldiered on and was one of the best
friends the average Canadian rifleman ever had in Ottawa. As Peter Newman once said, he was the only defence minister in a quarter century who made any difference.

Danson  was a Liberal MP for over a decade; but it was always hard to think of him as a politician.

Barney was the gentlest, most non-partisan, least acidic person on Parliament Hill. When he was eventually defeated (by a Tory), who should phone up to offer condolences, but John Diefenbaker.

A great “gentleman” in that Victorian sense, Barney would be utterly out of place in today’s Ottawa. He was an easy man to love.

Barney maintained his interest in military affairs long after he left office. He was a chancellor of the Royal Military College and played a major role in launching the new War
Museum in Ottawa (where a theatre is named after him).

He remained devoted to the cause of veterans and helped raise funds for a television documentary series “No Price Too High” which was broadcast on CBC.

A sergeant in the Queen’s Own Rifles, Barney had been in the thick of the vicious fighting in Normandy.

A few years ago he wrote a charming autobiography “Not Bad for a Sergeant.”

He was virtually blind by this stage because of a degenerative disease in his remaining eye. His book was later made available for the visually impaired by the CNIB, a cause to which he became increasingly devoted.

Two years ago, when I was thinking of writing my own book on Kapyong and the Korean War, I consulted Barney, asking him if it was a worthwhile project or a self-indulgent whimsy. Press on, he said, it is gravely important that Canadians know such tales. And after the publication of Kapyong this spring, I was asked to record it for the CNIB. I thought of Barney and quickly did so.

On the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, Barney and I wandered together down the rural road where he almost died in the Normandy countryside. It was then (and still is), a quiet country lane between two fields, looking for all the world like a scene from a Van Gogh painting, with a great blue sky and glorious sunflowers among the wheat fields.

Suddenly mortar or artillery rounds came crashing down all around. Barney pointed toward the horizon to show me where he thought the enemy gunners had lain in ambush. He never saw them, but they saw him. Danson was wounded after only a day or so in combat. He almost died, lost one eye and damaged the other.

Later during our Normandy journey, we went to the Canadian war cemetery at nearby Beny-Sur-Mer, the last resting place for 2,000 Canadians (and a French resistance fighter who died fighting alongside the Canadians, but who had no known family. So in death, the Canadians became his countrymen).

Barney had visited these graves many times before. It was unthinkable that he would be in the neighborhood, as he put it, “and not drop by to say hello to old friends.”

Three particularly close friends, killed in the Normandy fighting, are buried here. “”We were closer than brothers,” he would tell me.

On each visit over the years, Barney would always put little pebbles on their headstones, an ancient Jewish custom. And he did so again when I was with him. He then began to quietly cry. I asked him: did he think there’d ever be a time when he’d  stop crying for his lost friends?

“No,” Barney said. “I think I’ll cry for them forever.”

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About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at: danbjarnason@gmail.com
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