The Unknown Story of Toronto's Largest Funeral

William G. Barker, VC: Canada's aviation hero

Crowd Gathers on St. Clair Avenue for Barker’s Funeral Procession by City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1266, Item 19526RCAF Foundation

Crowds Line the Route

The largest funeral in the history of the city of Toronto, Ontario took place on March 15, 1930. More than 50,000 people lined the route of William G. Barker’s funeral procession to Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. 

f1266_it19520 copyRCAF Foundation

The Funeral Procession

That Saturday afternoon, the funeral procession began at the home of Barker’s father-in-law, Horace Bruce Smith.

It was approximately 3km from the home to the cemetery. 

Barker's Father-in-Law's HomeRCAF Foundation

The Horace B Smith House

Located at 355 St. Clair W., this house was where William Barker had married Jean Kilbourn Smith on June 1, 1921. They had been introduced by fellow First World War flying ace Billy Bishop.

355 St. Clair West Toronto, Ontario as it appears today.

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In Attendance

2000 service members paraded in Barker’s honour. Behind the casket walked family, friends, Howard Ferguson (Ontario Premier), Major General Andrew McNaughton (Chief of the General Staff), and a group of Victoria Cross recipients. 

The US Army had also sent an honour guard.

Two Planes Fly Over Mausoleum During Barker’s Funeral, City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1266, Item 19530, From the collection of: RCAF Foundation
f1266_it19536 copy, From the collection of: RCAF Foundation
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During the funeral service, six Toronto Flying Club aircraft flew over the mausoleum and released thousands of rose petals in tribute to Barker. He was laid to rest in his wife’s family mausoleum. Barker started as an observer/machine gunner in the Royal Flying Corps. He received his pilot's wings in February 1917. 

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Well-Known Pilot

Why was William Barker’s funeral so heavily attended?  

Barker was one of Canada’s most accomplished pilots of his era and remains the highest decorated service member in Canadian military history. He would have been a celebrity at the time.

Portrait - W/C Barker W.C., U.C., DSO. Director, RCAF. April 1, 1924RCAF Foundation

Early Life

Barker was born near Dauphin, Manitoba on November 3, 1894. He served in the prewar militia for 2 years. He enlisted with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles in November 1914. In September 1915, the Mounted Rifles were sent to the Western Front. Barker served with a machine gun crew.

Major William George Barker and OfficersRCAF Foundation

Barker Transfers to the RFC

In March 1916, Barker transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He initially served as an observer and machine gunner in two-seater aircraft.

As a gunner, Barker downed two German planes and was awarded the Military Cross for his actions.

WG Barker in Fokker VIIRCAF Foundation

Barker Becomes a Pilot

In November 1916, Barker was sent to England for pilot training. He received his pilot's wings on April 2, 1917. After still serving as a gunner for a time in No. 15 Squadron, Barker was given command of “C” Flight. Wounded by artillery in August 1917, he returned to England.

Barker LetterRCAF Foundation

Barker and "The Flying Circus"

In a letter to friend, Barker describes fighting against the famed German "Flying Circus," led by none other than Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

Major Barker in ItalyRCAF Foundation

Barker in Italy

Barker and RAF 28 Squadron was transferred to Italy in late October 1917. On June 3, 1918, he was given command of 139 Squadron. In early August, Barker dropped an Italian army agent behind enemy lines, earning the Silver Medal for Military Valour, one of Italy’s highest awards.

Major Barker with Machine in which he won the Victoria CrossRCAF Foundation

Barker's Victoria Cross

In September 1918, Barker was assigned to command an aerial combat school in England. Before beginning, he flew a brief tour of duty on the Western Front. He joined No. 201 Squadron for 10 days. Barker was given relatively free range to engage enemy aircraft.

Major William G. BarkerRCAF Foundation


On 27 October 1918, Barker attacked an enemy aircraft and shot it down. Simultaneously he was attacked by a Fokker biplane, wounding him in the right thigh. He also brought this aircraft down.

WG Barker in flying suit (1919)RCAF Foundation

Courage Under Fire

At this point, he was attacked by 15 enemy aircraft. Wounded several times and his plane riddled with bullets, Barker shot down 3 more aircraft bringing the total to 5. Twice fainting from loss of blood, Barker crash landed behind Allied lines. He was taken to the hospital.

WG Barker on wing of aircraftRCAF Foundation

Recognition of Barker

Barker survived the crash but suffered from many injuries.

His Victoria Cross citation noted that “In one of the most dramatic dogfights of the war, Barker’s pilot skills, marksmanship and a good measure of luck enabled him to prevail against seemingly impossible odds."

Barker with Crashed AircraftRCAF Foundation

Most Decorated Canadian in Military Service

Barker was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals for Military Valour, and the French Croix de guerre. He was also mentioned in despatches three times.

WG Barker in civilian attireRCAF Foundation

Barker’s Post War Struggles

Following the war, Barker struggled. His wounds caused him considerable physical and emotional pain for the remainder of his life. His legs were damaged, and his left elbow was nearly immovable. He also suffered from alcoholism and, possibly, post-traumatic stress disorder.

WG Barker with three officers plus a civilianRCAF Foundation

Barker and Bishop

After the war, Barker, with Billy Bishop, founded the company, Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes in November 1919. It was a commercial failure and ceased operations in 1922.

RCAF Cap BadgeRCAF Foundation

Barker in the Royal Canadian Air Force

In 1922, Barker joined the Canadian Air Force. He was made commander of the air station at Camp Borden. In early 1924, he became acting director of the  Royal Canadian Air Force. He resigned from the RCAF in 1926 due to personal dispute with new RCAF Director, J.S. Scott.

Conn SmytheRCAF Foundation

First President of the Toronto Maple Leafs

In 1927, J.P. Bickell, Owner of the Maple Leafs, together with Conn Smythe, former RAF pilot and managing partner, appointed Barker as president, a symbolic gesture to help raise the team’s profile. The relationship did not last long due to Barker's struggles with alcohol.

Major Wm. George Baker, V.CRCAF Foundation

Another Aviation Opportunity

In January 1930, Barker became vice-president and general manager of the Fairchild Aviation Corporation of Canada. 

Wreckage of Aircraft that Killed BarkerRCAF Foundation

Barker's Death

On March 12, 1930, William G. Barker died when the Fairchild KR-21 trainer he was demonstrating for the Department of National Defence crashed in Ottawa. He was 35 years old.

Barker MonumentRCAF Foundation

Barker Monument

Largely due to the effort of the RCAF Foundation Chair John Wright, a monument honouring Barker stands at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. It was unveiled on September 22, 2011.

Barker's achievements began to receive proper recognition.  

Barker's CryptRCAF Foundation

Memory of Barker

Barker remains the highest decorated military service member in Canadian history.

He was incredibly well known at the time of his death but with time the memory of him faded, largely to his death at a young age. 

That memory, due to the work of many, is being revigorated.

A statue of Barker in Spresiano, Italy. The monument was donated by David Mackenzie, Barker's nephew.

Statue of W/C William G BarkerRCAF Foundation

New Statue

A new statue of William Barker has been completed. It will be the centerpiece of
‘Barker Parkette’ in Ottawa, located near CFB Rockcliffe, the site of Barker’s tragic death in 1930. The park will be unveiled by the RCAF Foundation and the City of Ottawa in Spring 2024.

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