Each of the thousands of Remembrance Day ceremonies across Canada has its own significance, meaning and poignancy. But the one that played out in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery had something no other could claim: a tribute to an extraordinary hero who for a time was nearly forgotten.
Under leaden skies and sporadic drizzle hundreds of people made their way through the winding roads, past the graves of the famous and the obscure, ending at the mausoleum where rows of chairs were set up for the event. At the base of the stairs was an unusual monument: two plaques mounted on an angular slab of granite, with what appeared to be the blade of a propeller pointing towards the sky.
One plaque had a picture of a serious-looking young man in military uniform. The other had an inscription: “William Barker, VC, 1894-1930, The Most Decorated War Hero in the History of Canada and the British Empire.”
The ceremonies had the usual elements: The Last Post, a reading of In Flanders Fields and the two minutes of silent tribute. But it was also infused with the memory of Billy Barker and what he did.
“We gather at this particular spot today because of one person: Lt. Col. William Barker,” said the keynote speaker, Lieutenant General Michael Hood, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
With a class of senior grade school students listening, rapt, the nation’s senior airman recounted the heroics of a fighter pilot from almost a century ago.
On October 27 1918, only a couple of weeks before the end of the war, Barker encountered a formation of German aircraft over the Western Front. Utterly outnumbered, he managed to shoot down several enemy planes and break up their attack. His elbow was shot off, he was gravely wounded in the hip and he crash-landed heavily, unable to pull back the throttle because of his ruined arm.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour for bravery. In all, Barker received 12 decorations for valour, including citations from France and Italy—more than any person in any branch of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Despite the lingering effects from his wounds, he had great success in civilian life, even becoming the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I suspect he may be rolling over in his grave back there since 1967,” quipped the general, drawing some rare titters for a Remembrance Day service.
When Barker died in a plane crash in 1930, his funeral was the largest Toronto had ever seen. His remains were entombed in Mount Pleasant but gradually over the decades the memories of his feats faded—until September of 2011, when a group of admirers erected the monument.
“Until that time, no one knew he was here,” said John Wright, Chair of the William G. Barker Legacy Group.
Every year since there has been a Remembrance Day service, “to honour him, both as an individual and as a symbol of all those who have served in the Royal Canadian Air Force,” said Lt. Gen. Hood.
Afterwards, school children and seniors alike crowded around the monument and pinned their poppies to the ceremonial wreaths.
The general made his way inside the mausoleum to see Barker’s resting place, itself festooned with poppies. It was his first visit, and also the first time an RCAF Commander had attended these Remembrance Day services.
“In the air force when we look historically we tend to think about aircraft and maybe it’s a bit in the Canadian psyche we tend to downplay the people and we’re trying to change that because we’ve had some tremendous leaders.”