“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.

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  1. Well I'm all for it myself. I took an Oath to Queen and Country. We have crowns on our crests and cap badges. Our ships are "HMCS". Our oldest regiments are the ROYAL Cdn Artillery, the ROYAL Cdn Regt and the ROYAL Cdn Dragoons. The 'Van Doos' are the ROYAL 22nd Regt. What's wrong with putting the 'R' back in the RCN and RCAF? We may as well use all the traditional bling we can.

    Besides I identify more with the Queen than our succession of rich lawyer PMs from Quebec. I admit it, I'm not just a Monarchist but an Imperialist (but not your rabid raptly watching the Royal wedding type).

    If we're going to distance ourselves from our British past and traditions than lets do it all. Take out all the 'R's. The RCR can be the 1st Canadian Regiment of Inf. The Patricias can be the 2nd. Call the RCDs the 1st Cdn Armoured Regt. the Stathconas can be the 2nd CAR.

    All or nothing.

  2. If what you say is true, Mike, perhaps there is some sadness that Arnold's invasion and that crazy conflict that started in 1812 ended the way they did. The Canadian identity seems oddly aloof to this North American without some royal connection.

    Alternately, I'm sure history has worked out for the better for the First Nations.

  3. Living here in Victoria and being in contact with men serving at Esquimalt and going to events at the base, there is no one that actively referred to it as Maritime Command Pacific. It is, was, and will always be the navy. The same goes for the other two elements.

    The return to the Royal – that one we could have done without, but there that does mean we should look at again at how we name our army units. We have various "Royal" regiments. We have the PPCLI, the Princess Mary's etc… We also have a lot of Scottish regiments – does any other country name some of its units for a different country?

    The names are something that should be left up the rank and file of the military. It is not up to the politicians or the senior ranks to tell the ones that get their hands dirty what to call things.

  4. All good points and thank you for the feedback. I noticed my follower count went down after this post so obviously I honked a few people off. My point was not that all references to our British, imperial past should be expunged from the CF. Neither was it that "Maritine Command" was a viable alternative to "Navy". I just wonder what, in the 21st century, is wrong with "The Canadian Navy" or "The Canadian Air Force"?
    As Canada faces complex decisions about the future of its military, and about some huge procurements for the navy and air force, I wonder if we are distracting ourselves by looking backwards rather than forwards. The "Royal Canadian Navy" did have a proud heritage in WW2, for sure. However, what is less well known is that it entered the war with a handful of technologically primitive and inadequate ships, that our industrial base was not up to the task of making better ships and ASW weapons, and so as a result losses of Canadian-escorted ships in 1940-42 were higher than any other allied navy, to the point where the British essentially relived us of key convoy routes until we could sort ourselves out, which we only did thanks to British help. The cautionary tale there, I think, is that tradition and heritage are fine, but hardware, equipment and training get the job done, and should be focused on.

  5. Honked Off? You did that with spades Mike, however I enjoy your blog. Let's examine your assertions on the term'Royal'.

    You assert not many serving identify with the word Royal "particularly younger ones and especially those who are not of Anglo background". That is perhaps the way you feel, but it certainly hasn't been my experience in all the years I have been serving and I write as an 8th generation Canadian married to an immigrant from a visible minority. My wife and children are quite happy with the word Royal. So are Officers I have served with from the Royal 22nd, the 'Van Doos'. Not only happy with, but proud of the title.

    The dropping of the prefix 'Royal' at the time of unification was justified on two premises which had little if any merit. Conveniently you repeated them for us. The first was that new Canadians would have trouble identifying with the term 'Royal'. Very strange as they chose to immigrate to a country that is a constitutional monarchy. They had other choices, no one forced them to come here. They came here out of their own free will. The other premise which you assert is that it creates 'difficulty' for French Canadians. The truth is that French Canada sided with the Crown in the wars of 1776 and 1812 and not with the Americans. It was in their interest to do so and we can see how well the French speaking population of Quebec has fared in comparison with their compatriots in Louisiana.

    Some genuinely thought in the 1960's that playing down or eliminating our heritage and traditions would make it easier for newcomers to become Canadians and would put paid to the separatist threat in Quebec. In fact those actions had the opposite result. Newcomers saw no depth of tradition or heritage to adopt and fell back on to the traditions and heritage they had come from in what Reginald Bibby called 'Mosaic Madness'. They didn't feel particularly Canadian. Separatists were interested in promoting their own 'heritage and traditions' not old or new Canadian ones. Canadians who had treasured their heritage and traditions were hurt by the changes and grew resentful. So negativity all around.

    Did you notice that the Australians and New Zealanders, who have large immigrant populations, didn't feel the need to drop the prefix 'Royal? No one thinks of Australia or New Zealand as a colony. Interesting to note too that no major country has embarked on the unification route put forth by Hellyer.

    Unification also got rid of two Regular Regiments with very long histories that predate the formation of Canada: The Black Watch of Canada and the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. Given that we have more Scottish Blood flowing through Canadian veins than they do in Scotland, that was particularly hurtful.

    Canada is constitutional monarch and our titles and symbols should reflect that. Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada (she also has some secondary duties 🙂 )

    What has happened this year is not a move backward, but a restoration to what is right and proper. The Royal Canadian Navy brings to mind the Battle of the North Atlantic and the Convoys. The Royal Canadian Air Force connects to the Battle of Britain, Number 6 Group in Bomber Command, the Golden Jets, and the Avro Arrow. The RCAF and RCN connects with heritage and traditions that were bought with service and sacrifice. It's good for us to remember that and be connected with it. It shows us paying respect for what has gone before and the Canadians that have gone before.

    It take a big man to admit that he was wrong. Hellyer isn't that sort of a man. He never was and never will be.