“Is he still alive?” A friend in the mess said that this morning when I mentioned that Paul Hellyer, Minister of Defence under Prime Minister Trudeau, had weighed in on the government’s announcement that Canada was going back to “Royal Canadian Navy” and “Royal Canadian Air Force”. Paul Hellyer, arguably, still holds the title as most hated man in Canadian military circles. He was the Minister who in 1968 pushed the unification of the Canadian army, navy and air force, and abolished the term “Royal” (Canada’s army alone of the three services has never used “Royal” in its title though many regiments do).
For the record, Hellyer had this to say when speaking to CBC news yesterday: “I’m very disappointed, actually very sad … I think it’s really moving backward,” Hellyer told CBC News, adding that the name changes are returning Canada — and the Forces — to a “semi-colonial status.”
I still hear my seminary principal, George Sumner, saying that its easy to swim downstream, but it’s hard to be a contrarian, so I’ll go out on a limb and say that for me, personally, I’m with Hellyer on this one. I love tradition as much as the next soldier, but I think the term “royal” doesn’t connect with many serving members today, particularly younger ones and especially those who are not of Anglo background. Two years ago I did a military course (OPME) on Canadian society, and wrote a paper on demographic trends facing the CF in the next decades. By 2031, one in four Canadians will have been born outside of Canada. Falling birthrates and an aging population will see the Anglo identity of Canada and of the CF slowly fading. So I’m not sure how the “Royal” appelation connects with the new Canadians whom the CF will have to recruit in the coming decades. Nor do I see how it connects with Franco-Canadians, who have proudly served in Afghanistan alongside theur Anglo comrades.
I’d also point out that the whole trajectory of Canadian military history, as forged at places such as Vimy Ridge, was of Canadian soldiers proving their own worth under their own command. I think that trajectory continues today. Lt. Col. Ian Hope, who commanded Task Force Orion in Afghanistan in 2006, made this observation about the US troops he worked with: “I realized that, at some point in the past decade, we have had a fundamental shift in the culture of the Canadian infantry, making us identify most readily with American, and not British, soldiers.” (Hope, Lt. Col. Ian. “Agility and Endurance: Task Force Orion in Helmand.” Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants. Eds. Kevin Patterson and Jane Warren. Toronto: Random House, 2007, p. 154). I serve on a base with British soldiers, and I love them, they’re great soldiers, but I’m proud to wear a Canadian maple leaf on my shoulder and, occasionally, I feel the need to remind some of the shirtier oners that they are guests in this country and not our masters or betters. Returning to a military heritage of colonial times, I think, takes us backwards rather than forwards. What Hellyer was trying to do was envision a role for Canada in a new world in a new century. I think today we’re losing some of that vision, and I regret it.