With announcement of Defence Minister Peter McKay that the prefix “royal” would again be added to Canada’s naval and air forces, I decided it might be appropriate to ask my father, who served in the “Royal” Canadian Navy during the Second World War, his opinion. To my surprise, my father seemed completely unmoved by the announcement.
“I thought about it before,” he said while seated in his wheelchair outside the Deer Lodge Centre, enjoying the sun, “and I came to the opinion that it doesn’t matter what colour a uniform is — green or blue or whatever — it doesn’t stop a bullet.”
What my father was referring to was the decision to unify the Canadian Armed Forces way back in 1968. The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act came into effect on February 1, 1968. The act united all the armed forces under one banner and did away with the distinct uniforms of the formerly separate branches, clothing all those serving in green. There was no longer a Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force nor just the Canadian Army, all were the Canadian Forces (not Canadian Armed Forces as is commonly believed) identified by the rather unflattering terms of Maritime Command, Air Command and Land Force Command, respectively.
According to the National Defence press release announcing the recent changes: “The abolition of the historic identities of the three branches of the CAF WAS Unnecessary (stress placed by the department) in terms of the integration and unification of the Armed Forces. Indeed, the historic restoration of these identities, as Is Now Being (stress again by the department, as is the following), Is In Keeping with the terms of the Canadian Forces Reorganization Act.
Actually, I shouldn’t have been too surprised by my father’s reaction, as he was a mere lad of 17 1/2 years when he joined in 1943, and what does such a youth from the prairies care about so-called naval tradition? As well, he never rose to the officer class, who’s members are apparently more concerned about tradition than “ordinary” seamen.
“It’s all politics,” he added, dismissing the recent announcement’s significance. “It was politics in 1968 and it’s politics now.”
Still, there are many who do care about tradition, and politics, or not, welcomed the announcement.
“This has been a long-standing position of NCVA (National Council of Veterans Associations),” said Brian Forbes, secretary general of the NCVA.
“Traditional veterans fought under these designations during the First World War, the Second World War, Korea and earlier Peacekeeping missions, and this restoration of their military heritage means a great deal to our membership.”
When the plans was first hatched to unify the Canadian military branches, it was a highly-contentious issue. MP Gordon Churchill (PC- Winnipeg South Centre) blasted Defence Minister Paul Hellyer for suggesting the plan, going as far as to charge the minister of using the same misinformation tactics of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to promote unification (Winnipeg Free Press, April 6, 1967). Churchill demanded that Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson rein in the “inexperienced enthusiasm” of Hellyer.
That wasn’t about to happen. The Pearson government supported unification to eliminate triplication of costs associated with three branches of the military.
The Glassco Commission, charged with examining waste and duplication in the public service, claimed the forces cost too much to administer and pointed to many duplications. The White Paper of 1964 promoted unification, and was readily adopted by Hellyer as an expression of his own views.
“Hellyer saw nothing but open competition among the services and constant political manoeuvring,” wrote military historian Jack Granatstein in his book, Who Killed the Canadian Military?, “as each service chief exercised his right of direct access to the minister. It made no rational sense ... and he set out to fix it.”
Editorials across the land either were bullish on unification or decried it as the end of the military in Canada.
A number of high-ranking officers resigned in protest, with opposition most vigorous among senior naval officers.
Actually, the maritime branch of the Canadian military began life in 1910 as the Naval Service of Canada, or simply Canadian Navy. On October 21, 1910, HMCS Niobe, the first war ship of the newly-created Canadian Navy, arrived in Halifax. Minister of Marine L.P. Brodeau in a speech at the Halifax habour called the cruiser’s arrival “an event of historical importance ... (which) speaks of the mighty strides made by our young dominion along the avenue of our future destiny.”
As with many events in Canadian history, not everyone was pleased with the creation of the Canadian Navy. Sir Robert Borden, who would replace Sir Wilfrid Laurier as prime minister in 1911, claimed the creation of an independent Canadian Navy meant abandonment of Britain and the Empire.
On January 30, 1911, the Canadian government requested the designation “royal” for the navy, which King George V granted.
In the same vein, the Royal Canadian Air Force began life after the First World War as the Canadian Air Force. In 1923, its name was changed with the addition of the prefix “royal.”
The only armed service never to have the name “royal” attached was the Canadian Army. In fact, when the army fought overseas during the First World War it was known as the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Until the end of the Second World War, according to Granatstein, the “land forces of Canada” had a variety names, but the force was given the simplest name during a post-war reorganization.
As with the other forces, unification brought an end to the Canadian Army, and the name has only re-emerged with McKay’s announcement.
While many support the separation of branch names, the only arguments to the contrary seem to be using the prefix “royal.” Some argue its a reflection of a bygone colonial era of the British Empire, while others argue for its retention on the basis of historical significance. After all, men and women fought in the Second World War and Korea as members of the RCAF or RCN.
If tradition is the criteria, then the names RCAF, RCN and Canadian Army cannot be argued against. If the changes will bring greater pride to those who do have to fight for our country in the future (remember 157 Canadians have died in Afghanistan in recent years), then it was an easy decision to make.