He suffered the scars of the Second World War. He led Canada’s military as defence minister. Without him, there might never have been a new Canadian War Museum. Pierre Trudeau had a heck of a time with his name.
Barney Danson’s passing deprives Canada of a distinguished public figure who served this country in war, in peace and in memory of war. He died Monday at the age of 90.
When Danson was running for Parliament in 1968, Pierre Trudeau couldn’t get his name right during a campaign rally. He called him Bernie Dawson and later called him Bernie Danson. When Danson passed him his business card, Trudeau shrugged and told several thousand supporters: “Whether his name be Bernie or Barney Danson, he’s a good man and we want him in Ottawa.”
During his 11 years in cabinet in Urban Affairs and as defence minister, Trudeau routinely called him Bernie Dawson as a joke.
Years later, Danson took over the campaign to give the national capital a new, expanded and improved war museum. Prying funds from the government and private donors became a passion, for a man who will be remembered both for his gentlemanliness and persistence.
“You always left him with an empty pocket and a smile on your face,” remembers Sheila Copps, who was the minister responsible for the museum in Jean Chrétien’s government.
That new and beautiful museum in LeBreton Flats is in many ways his finest memorial.
Barney Danson was born on Feb. 8, 1921, in Toronto. He was named after his paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Lithuania via England and Ireland in the 1870s. Young Barney, the third of four children, grew up in south Toronto. His father, Joseph, ran the family business until the Depression wiped it out. The family even lost their home. While his father tried to rebuild, Barney worked after school selling newspapers on street corners, magazines door-to-door and delivering bread for a bakery and prescriptions for a pharmacy. As it turned out, he had the business sense his father lacked.
School was not for him, and at 16 he quit to work with Columbia Pictures as an office boy, moving up the latter until he dropped it all because he wanted to fight Hitler, even though war hadn’t been declared.
In December, 1938, he joined the Queen’s Own Rifles with his best friend, Freddie Harris. He chafed at the delay until his unit arrived in England in 1941, by which time he was Sergeant Danson.
In England, he met Isobel Bull through Freddie, who was staying at her family’s home just outside of London along with other Canadian soldiers. Smitten, Sgt. Danson used every leave he could finagle to visit Isobel. They married in February, 1943. After a very brief honeymoon, he returned to Canada for officer training; she joined him six weeks later.
Lieutenant Danson was still in Canada on D-Day when Freddie was killed during the Normandy invasion. In early July, 1944, he rejoined his regiment in England. That Aug. 20, his unit was in Normandy, positioned just east of Falaise to cut off retreating German troops. He had just put on his helmet when shrapnel hit its tip, lodging in his temple, eye and mouth. After stays in several British hospitals, during which his first child was born in Toronto, he returned to Canada in December, 1944. He had lost one eye.
While still recuperating, and with a family to support, Danson joined his father’s insurance business. But it was not for him, and he left in 1950 to join a plastics company. Three years later, he started his own plastics company, Barnett J. Danson and Associates, although there were no associates. The company thrived and was renamed Danson Corp. By the late 1960s, it was grossing $6-million annually. A shrewd businessman, he was also a popular boss who allowed employees to buy shares in the company.
Danson grew up attending Holy Blossom Temple. By 1953, he was dissatisfied with the direction of its leadership. He joined several other like-minded members to start a new synagogue. After a great deal of fundraising, Temple Emanu-El opened its doors in 1963 in North York. It was a foreshadowing of things to come.
Mr. Danson’s run in the 1968 federal election campaign in the riding of York North was the culmination of a philosophy born during the war, he wrote in his memoirs, Not Bad for a Sergeant, published by Dundurn Press in 2002. “If you fought for your country, you had a right to play a part in changing its future, as well as a responsibility to do so,” he said. That, for him, meant being involved in the political process.
But which party to support? After much soul-searching, he chose the Liberals, beating Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s grandfather, the bandleader Mark Kenney, for the nomination.
Life as a voiceless backbencher did not sit well with the tough, outgoing former army officer and owner of a thriving plastics business. He quickly made himself known by introducing several private member’s bills that died after first reading. A man far ahead of his time, one of his proposed pieces of legislation would have empowered the government to collect alimony payments and child support from errant husbands and deadbeat dads.
Trudeau put him in cabinet in 1970 as urban affairs minister, and two years later he was handed defence. Once appointed, he embarked on an aggressive plan to acquire modern equipment for the Armed Forces, including the new CF-18 fighter aircraft. Trudeau severely curtailed the expansion during the 1978 economic downturn. But Danson had set the stage for much-needed change.
As defence minister he also opened all areas of the Armed Forces to women, who had traditionally been restricted mainly to clerical duties. It was also under his watch that Katimavik, a highly successful national youth service program, was created.
“He was a war hero, an outstanding member of Parliament, a very fine minister of defence,” said his former cabinet colleague and friend John Turner. “And he will always be remembered for that war museum.”
The seven-year process from the museum’s inception to its opening in 2005 was “a huge political operation, which he quarterbacked,” said Copps, who was federal heritage minister at the time. Not only were there funding issues, there were also battles over its mandate that Danson deftly stickhandled. In Ottawa it was a joke that if you saw Barney Danson coming toward you, you ran in the opposite direction, because otherwise you were going to end up helping his museum.
But there was more to Danson than politics. As well as business and religious interests, he served as consul-general in Boston, won recognition as a highly honoured philanthropist, advocated for the visually impaired and was a dedicated supporter and fundraiser for the arts.
He produced a highly acclaimed six-part television series, No Price Too High, on Canada’s role in the Second World War. Among his many honours, he received the Churchill Society Award for Excellence in the Cause of Parliamentary Democracy, honorary life membership in the Ontario Métis and Non-Métis Status Indian Association, the Order of Canada, the Vimy Award, an honorary doctorate from York University, the French Legion of Honor award and the B’nai Brith of Canada Family of Man Award.
He also served on many corporate and not-for-profit boards, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Empire Club of Canada and Royal Conservatory of Music.
By the late 1990s Danson was slowly going blind. Age-related macular degeneration was taking away the vision in his remaining good eye. He became a supporter and volunteer with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. He never let his failing eyesight stop him.
Turner recalled an incident on a cross-country ski trip to Collingwood, Ont. Turner was ahead on the trail. Danson kept telling him: “Keep talking, John, I can’t see you, but I can hear you.”
Danson leaves his wife, Isobel, and children John, Timothy and Peter and their families. He was predeceased by his son Kenneth.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story published online and in Thursday's newspaper incorrectly referenced Barney Danson's son, Kenneth. This version has been corrected.