Trudeau-era minister Barney Danson dies

Barney Danson, former defence minister and D-Day veteran, has died at the age of 90.

 Barney Danson's life was forged on the battlefields of Normandy, where he was wounded, lost his three best friends and the sight in one eye, and found himself as a person.

Danson, who died Monday in Toronto, returned from the Second World War to found a successful business and an equally successful political career that saw him become defence minister. He went on to win many awards, help build the Canadian War Museum and be named a companion of Order of Canada.

But it was his experiences at war with the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, where he rose to lieutenant from ordinary rifleman, that had the greatest impact on him.

"Many of the things from my military experience were invaluable in shaping the rest of my life," he said in a 2002 interview.

"Certainly it was a great motivating factor in getting into politics in the first place."

Danson was born in Toronto in 1921 and enlisted in February 1939, right after his 18th birthday and even before the start of the war.

The buck private was eventually commissioned a lieutenant before landing in Normandy. His combat career lasted only a few weeks before he was badly wounded.

Like many veterans, Danson came home from the war determined to make changes in the world he had fought for. First, however, he had to build a business and make a life for himself and wife Isobel, the young British woman he had married while overseas in 1943.

He went to work in the family insurance business, formed his own plastics company and established a consulting firm. But he never lost the political itch.

In 1968, when the swashbuckling Pierre Trudeau turned Canadian politics on its ear with his dashing "Trudeaumania" campaign, Danson won the Toronto riding of York North.

"It was Trudeau that really brought me in," he said. "Those were exciting days."

He was Trudeau's parliamentary secretary in 1970-72, before entering cabinet as minister for urban affairs in 1974. He jumped at the chance for the defence portfolio when James Richardson quit two years later.

Danson was one of the last defence ministers with military service in his resume.

As minister, the retired lieutenant from the Queen's Own found himself working with Gen. Jacques Dextraze, the chief of the defence staff, who fought in Normandy with the Fusiliers Mont-Royal.

The two hit it off well and Danson revelled in the job: "It's the best-kept secret in the world, but it's the best portfolio of the whole lot."

Things were easier for the minister back in the Cold War, Danson said.

"We had an enemy, a respectable enemy. You knew what your role was, everybody knew what their role was and we got decent budgets and equipment.

"There was an increase in morale. People knew where they were going. Now you just don't know where you're going and what's coming up next."

As defence minister, one of his proudest moments was the selection of the CF-18 as the new generation of fighter-bomber, even though it wasn't actually purchased during his tenure.

Of his cabinet role generally, he was proudest of his work in establishing Katimavik, a national exchange program for young people. It reminded him of the camaraderie of his army days, he said.

Danson was defeated in the 1979 federal election and returned to Toronto and his business after almost 11 years in the House of Commons.

As the years wore on, he dwelt more and more on his wartime experiences and the men who didn't come home, like his friends Fred Harris, Gerry Rayner and Earl Stowell. He always remembered them as "good chaps."

"We were terribly close, as you tend to become in the army," he recalled decades later in an interview for the Historica-Dominion Institute's Memory Project.

"Closer than brothers, in many ways. We were just kids. I was 22 at the time."

Harris "was killed right on the beach. He hardly got out of the landing craft."

Stowell was there when Danson was cut down by shellfire.

"He came over to me and we ... I guess we cried a bit," Danson said.

"He was going to go on and finish the war, but a month later he was dead, too. So that has an impact on you which is pretty profound. And, frankly, as you get older you think of those people a lot more."

Although Danson had never been active as a war veteran, he began to consider what he could do to honour the fading memory of his lost companions, whom he remembered as "the beautiful, young Canadians."

When asked to produce a TV series on Canada's war, entitled No Price Too High, he jumped at it.

"Nobody had any real concept of what they were forgetting, the really great contribution that Canada made and how the country changed during that period," he said. "I said I'd get it produced.

"Then I had to go out and raise a couple of million dollars."

When the Canadian War Museum stumbled into a controversy in the mid-1990s over a plan to build an addition with a special Holocaust Gallery, Danson was called in to lead an advisory committee and straighten out the mess. He raised another couple of million dollars and helped win federal approval for a whole new museum.

In his later years, a condition known as age-related macular degeneration began to steal the sight of his good eye. But it didn't stop him from completing his memoirs in 2002 and it spurred him to greater efforts on behalf of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

Danson was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996. In 2008 he was promoted to a companion of the order. In 2007, he was named a chevalier of France's Legion of Honour.

In 2000, the Conference of Defence Associations gave him their Vimy Award, an honour given annually to someone who has made a great contribution to defence.

In presenting that award, then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson said: "Barney Danson belongs to the generation after Vimy who went to the next war as very young men and who were willing to sacrifice everything, anything. ... His war experience obviously had a very profound effect on him and on his actions, and when he went into politics and became an outstanding minister of defence, he showed that he knew what he was talking about.

"And he always believes what he talks about."