War veteran remembered as ‘a great Canadian’
Son of railway porter broke into executive ranks at Eatons department store company
‘Believe you can and you can. Believe you will and you will. See yourself achieve and you will achieve. Never give up.”
Welsford Daniels carried those words with him everywhere, even to his room at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre where they were taped onto the wall.
“It’s my motto,” he said in an interview prior to this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Daniels lived by those words as a pioneering member of Canada’s black community. He served on the front lines of the Second World War as a signalman — a position few black soldiers were then afforded — then returned to Canada where he was among the first blacks in the country to break into the executive ranks of the T. Eaton Company.
Daniels died this month from the complications of diabetes and weakened kidneys. He was 92.
Daniel Clapin, managing director of the The Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre Foundation, called Daniels “a great Canadian.”
“I feel blessed to have known him, if only for a short time. He was my friend and a hero,” said Clapin.
“He was one of those special people that just seemed to define the word ‘grace’ by his simple everyday acts of kindness to those around him.”
Daniels’s son, Ted, said his father was a strong and accomplished man who believed that “everything had to be done the proper way.”
“I’m aware of all of the things he’s done in life, but I knew him as my father,” said Ted Daniels. “He always told us never to stop trying to grow and to become better people.”
Welsford Arnold Daniels was born in Halifax on Sept. 14, 1920. His father worked as a railway porter, one of the few steady jobs then open to the country’s blacks.
The family settled in Montreal when Welsford was three. Always poor, the family moved often as his father tried to stay ahead of rent collectors.
Welsford did well in school, particularly in math, and he went to work at 16. He was first a boat hand for Canada Steamship Lines, then took a job as an office boy with the Montreal Standard Publishing Co., where he earned $7 a week.
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Daniels enlisted in the army reserves.
The army was then his only military option. At the beginning of the war, black volunteers were not welcomed into the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy, both of which maintained a “colour line.”
In 1939, recruits to the navy had to be “of pure European descent and of the white race.” The air force had a similar requirement. (Both services dropped their racial barriers midway through the war.)
Daniels became a full-time member of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in August 1941 and ignored racial epithets to concentrate on his craft: Morse code, radio communications and electronics repair.
In July 1944, he landed in northern France with the 4th Canadian Armoured Division.
As a signalman, Daniels’s job was to repair radios and other electronics equipment that kept division headquarters in contact with troops on the front lines.
It meant he often travelled alone to the front lines at night on a motorcycle with a darkened headlight.
Fearful of getting lost, he stuck to the main roads, which were littered with the carcasses of dead animals — the Germans relied heavily on horse-drawn artillery — and corpses.
He had some harrowing trips. Once, he had to weave through trees to avoid the strafing run of an airplane. On another night, a ragged and distressed man tried to flag him down, but he was too scared to stop.
The incident still bothered him more almost seven decades later.
“To this day, I would love to know who that fellow was and how he’s making out,” he said in November.
In Holland, a German bomber crashed right in front of him, so close that shrapnel from the plane was embedded in his leg.
On leave in Paris one weekend, he went to a nightclub where he was told he couldn’t sit in a section reserved for whites. Daniels began to protest that he had just helped liberate the country when a British serviceman stepped in and told the nightclub owner, “He’s with me and we’re sitting down.”
Daniels believed the war brought down racial barriers: “There were black people wanting to better themselves and couldn’t. I think the war changed that. People were more receptive after the war.”
After the war, Daniels went to Sir George Williams University in Montreal (now Concordia) and earned a commerce degree.
Fluently bilingual, he spent more than 20 years at the Montreal Standard Publishing Co., then worked as a merchandise analyst with Eatons in Montreal.
He was one of the firm’s first black executives and was responsible for travelling the world to buy merchandise on behalf of the department store chain.
He finished his career as a manager with what was then the federal Department of Manpower and Immigration.
Daniels retired to Ottawa 15 years ago with his wife, Gertrude, with whom he raised four sons: Reginald, James-Stanley, Ted and Wayne.