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Exploring Toronto’s little-known Remembrance Day history

A man is silhouetted as he walks past thousands of Canadian flags placed in honour of Remembrance Day in Toronto on Monday, November 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Toronto is filled with war monuments and cenotaphs, but the city boasts many more lesser-known commemorations of Canada’s triumphs and sacrifices in the First and Second World Wars.

This war history is all around us, even in forms and places you’ve probably never noticed. Here are just a few.

William Barker Monument

 The First World War flying ace was celebrated in his time but quickly forgotten; so much so that it took 81 years for Toronto to erect a monument to the most decorated serviceman in Canadian history.

Library and Archives Canada

Barker won 12 awards for bravery including a Victoria Cross. He was the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and over 50,000 people lined the streets for his funeral in 1930.

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READ MORE: Meet William George Barker, Canada’s most decorated war hero

Canada’s best-known flying ace Billy Bishop called Barker “The deadliest air fighter who ever lived,” yet Bishop has overshadowed Barker in almost every conceivable way.

Even the Toronto island airport was Barker’s brainchild; he floated the idea of an island airport in a letter to the mayor of Toronto back in 1919, but the facility was eventually named after Bishop.

Barker is interred in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, but even his crypt denies recognition, since it bears the family name Smith.

Finally, in 2011, a memorial was unveiled at the cemetery to commemorate “most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations.”

Barker was also honoured in 2015  with a bronze statue at Billy Bishop airport.

The life-size monument depicts the first meeting between Bishop and Barker, which is estimated to have taken place in 1919, when Barker was recovering in London from injuries he suffered in his aerial battle of Oct. 27, 1918.

Vimy Avenue

This modest street near Jane Street and Lawrence Avenue is of course named after one of Canada’s greatest victories of the First World War.

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However, Toronto once planned a much grander roadway named for Vimy.

In 1929, the city was considering a stately traffic circle and towering monument at the intersection of University Avenue and Richmond Street.

Vimy Circle was to intersect with Cambrai Avenue, named for one of the first great tank battles of the First World War.

The Toronto Board of Trade, TTC and then-mayor Sam McBride all supported the plan, which would soon die after the  stock market crash of October 1929.

Shannon Street

 

 

 

 

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This one-block street near College Street and Ossington Avenue serves as a microcosm of the First World War’s impact on Toronto.

READ MORE: Grief’s geography — Interactive map of Toronto’s First World War dead

Ten different families on this short street lost a male relative during the war.

Families living at 59 and 60 Shannon St. lost men within seven weeks of each other in 1916.

Topham Park

This small park and nearby Topham Road near O’Connor Drive and St. Clair Avenue are both named for a Toronto-born hero who won a Victoria Cross for “outstanding bravery” in the Second World War.
This small park and nearby Topham Road near O’Connor Drive and St. Clair Avenue are both named for a Toronto-born hero who won a Victoria Cross for “outstanding bravery” in the Second World War. Library and Archives Canada

George Frederick Topham was serving as a medical orderly with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on March 24, 1945, when he aided and rescued several wounded men even after he was shot through the nose. He later dodged intense German artillery fire to pull three men from a burning vehicle.

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“For six hours, most of the time in great pain, he performed a series of acts of outstanding bravery and his magnificent and selfless courage inspired all those who witnessed it,” his award citation reads.

Valor Boulevard

Just steps away from Topham Park, Valor Boulevard lies among several streets named for Canadian warriors. It directly connects Topham Road with another street named for a Canadian war hero.

Merritt Road takes its name from Lt.-Col. Charles Merritt, the first Canadian-born soldier to win a Victoria Cross during the Second World War. Merritt led an audacious attack during the Dieppe raid in 1942, telling his men, “Come on over. There’s nothing to it!” as German shell fire rained down around them. He later helped hold off enemy forces while his unit evacuated the beach, despite being wounded twice. He lived out the war as a P.O.W. in Germany, escaping once, and later became a federal MP.

READ MORE: What you may not know about Remembrance Day poppies

Bisecting Valor Boulevard is Furnival Road, whose history is hazier. Two Toronto men, Reginald and Thomas Furnival, fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, but there’s little record of their service.

Also close by is Barron Road, which shares the name of another VC winner. Colin Fraser Barron earned his award in the First World War when he charged a German machine-gun nest during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, inflicting heavy casualties and allowing the Canadian advance to continue.

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