Wilbert Headley’s mother told him he had to find a job to earn money if he wanted to go on to post-secondary education. He decided the Army might be his best option.
“I was walking down the street one day and I saw this sign at the corner of College and Bathurst Streets that said, ‘Join the Army, See the World’,” said Headley.
The Toronto-born resident answered the call in 1957, doing seven months of basic training at Camp Borden, six years at Camp Ipperwash and a further five years at Fort George at Niagara-on-the-Lake before going overseas to Germany in 1967. He spent 12 years there, rising to the rank of Sergeant before returning home to his 40th Royal Highland Regiment where he retired in 1985 as a Sergeant Major.
Headley was among several African-Canadian veterans honoured at a Ceremony of Remembrance last Thursday at Ryerson University.
“This is a very significant event because I lost friends on the frontlines,” said Headley.
One of them was Corporal Ainsworth Dyer who, along with three other Canadian soldiers, was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan nine years ago when an American F-16 fighter jet dropped a bomb during a live-fire training exercise near Kandahar.
“Dyer used to be in my regiment before joining the Royal Regiment of Canada,” said Headley. “I knew him very well. He was an intelligent, disciplined and friendly kid and we hung out a bit over a few beers. I was very sad when he passed away.”
Jamaican-born Canadian Olympian, Private Mark Graham, was also killed by “friendly fire” in September 2006.
Retired Queen’s York Rangers captain, Brian Patterson, paid tribute to Headley, saying he was a fine soldier who served his country with distinction.
“Wilbert was a force to be reckoned with,” said Patterson who is also the president and general manager of the Ontario Safety League. “He made sure that young officers were not any (more stupid) than they had to be and that they did things correctly and properly. He was simply awesome.”
Patterson said Headley was among several African-Canadians who served with pride and excellence.
“Just last night, we said goodbye to a soldier I met on my first tour,” he said. “He’s legend in the battalion, not because of any outstanding specific event that took place, but Gregory O’Brien served, as of last night, 40 years. He was always Black, but it was never a factor in his being a ranger as he would often say there is no stranger when you are a ranger.
“He was the go-to guy for 40 years when vehicle issues would come up, when good training was needed and when young soldiers needed to be mentored.”
Patterson’s colleagues also included Jamaican-born Delroy Bailey who was the first member of his battalion to perform peacekeeping duties. He served in the Golan Heights in the late 1970s to maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria.
Chief Warrant Officer James Fraser, who was the first Black Canadian to be appointed Central Area Regimental Sergeant Major responsible for all Army units stationed in Ontario, and retired Major Dr. Marguerite (Peggy) Downes, who died two years ago at age 70, were also highly praised by Patterson.
Born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to a deacon-carpenter-railroad worker father and artistic mother, Downes served as a Canadian Armed Forces Reservist for 45 years, rising to the rank of Major, thus becoming the highest ranking Black officer in Canada. She joined the Royal Canadian Army Corps militia in Halifax as a driver in 1955 to provide familial support after her father’s death a year earlier. Before he died, she made a promise to him that she was going to win him a medal by joining the military. She received her first medal in 1968.
Downes transferred to the Toronto Reserves in 1956 and was promoted to Lieutenant of the #2881 Highland Creek Cadet Corps based at West Hill, and then Deputy Commanding Officer where she evaluated and set goals for her unit, enforced standards of discipline and behaviour, interviewed and counseled officers and monitored their personal and career development.
She later served as Unit Custodian and Drug and Alcohol Officer before retiring as Officer-in-Command, Charlie Squadron and proceeding to join the Queen’s York Rangers Army Cadets. She was also a Commissionaire with the Superior Court of Justice and the first African-Canadian to serve as an Aide-de-Camp to an Ontario Lieutenant-Governor. She served as ADC to John Black Aird, Lincoln Alexander, Hal Jackman, Hilary Weston and James Bartleman.
“Peggy was a terrific role model for kids in her community and people in general,” said Patterson.
Peel resident, Dexter Blackwood, paid tribute to his great, great uncle, Cecil Miles, who died on the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 on August 15, 1917. This was a World War 1 localized battle between the Canadian Corps and five German Sixth Army divisions.
Born in Jamaica, Miles came to Canada with his family at age 18 in 1912 and joined the Army four years later.
“He carried the grenades on the battlefield which was a very dangerous job,” said Blackwood. It’s obvious that he was a very brave man and our family is proud of the sacrifice he made for Canada. He believed in freedom and was willing to put his life on the line. For that, we will never forget him.”
James Sadlier was a member of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only All-Black expeditionary force in Canada’s military history. Captain William White, the first Black to graduate from Acadia University, spearheaded the battalion’s formation and became its chaplain and the first Black in the British Empire to hold a commissioned rank. He kept a diary during his military service that became the subject of a film, Honour Before Glory, which was produced by his great nephew, Anthony Sherwood.
Kevin Junor who, two years ago, became the first Black officer from the Toronto Scottish Regiment to receive the Order of Military Merit for meritorious service and devotion to the Army, said he was extremely proud to serve Canada.
The history of Blacks in Canada’s military is long, rich and significant. Blacks fought for Britain in the War of 1812 against the United States, stood firm against the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada and the Fenian raids in 1866 and alongside other Canadians and this country’s allies in Europe in the two world wars and the Korean War.
After holding off the Germans at Vimy Ridge, an injured Private Jeremiah Jones took the surviving prisoners to the Allied Lines and handed them over to his commanding officer. In February 2010, he was posthumously recognized for his bravery with the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service 60 years after his death.
William Hall was the first Canadian sailor and just the third soldier in this country to receive the Victoria Cross – Canada’s highest military decoration – for bravery during combat.
Cpl. Marlene Clyke was one of the first Black women to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces; seaman Raymond Lawrence – who served from 1953-1986 – was the first Black chief petty officer and the first Black naval officer to receive the Order of Military Merit and chief warrant officer Cyril Clayton was the first Black to be appointed regimental sergeant major of a Canadian base.