It’s been suggested that the historic bonds between Canada’s military and the monarchy that were broken by Paul Hellyer’s 1968 unification of the three armed services into the Canadian Forces will be re-established with the reintroduction of the names Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force into our military lexicon. But that link was never completely broken.
On the day that Mr. Hellyer’s unification took effect, our navy still sailed in Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships, air force squadrons retained their historic “400 series” squadron numbers with their battle honours emblazoned on squadron colours still featuring traditional squadron crests under the sovereign’s crown, and army regiments and branches retained their royal designations.
Despite the introduction of green uniforms for all, for those of us serving at the time, cap badges and other emblems such as aircrew “wings” surmounted by the crown demonstrated that there was no doubt that our oath of allegiance taken on enrolling in the Canadian military (similar to today’s oath – “I … do solemnly swear (affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors according to law, forever. So help me God.”) was still in force. If one sees the bond that connects the military to the monarchy as a rope of many strands, the end of the RCN and RCAF may have cut two of them, but many others remained in place.
An important part of our heritage is the strong bond that has existed between the monarchy and our military, and the many events involving the photogenic Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the military on their recent visit to Canada highlighted that historic bond. But the strands that form it must be nurtured and renewed from generation to generation. Prince William’s active military service as a search and rescue helicopter pilot, showcased during the visit, and the combat service of his brother (Prince Harry) in Afghanistan have done much to renew some of those strands with today’s generation of Canadians who also serve in uniform. But not all the strands have been nurtured well in this country.
As someone who served in both the RCAF and the Canadian Forces and is the son of an RCAF bomber pilot and RCAF (Women’s Division) non-commissioned officer who both served overseas in the Second World War, I believe one of the best ways to nurture some of this bond’s strands is to teach the history of those who were and still are part of it. But we have no official history of the last 22 years of the RCAF.
That project was cancelled 15 years ago when funding for it was withdrawn after the directorate of history of the Department of National Defence was downsized. Committing to have that history written and to adequately fund future histories of the military would be a tangible way to honour Canada’s military heritage and preserve our veterans’ legacy.
As a historian, I understand the importance of gestures such as the one made by the government to restore the royal designation to the navy and air force. Gestures also renew strands in the bond with the monarchy. But what will be gained if two strands are renewed while others are severed or left to rot?
Veterans played a key role in restoring the proud names of the RCAF and RCN to the Canadian military – but what value are names if they carry no meaning to future generations? Perhaps they’ll now consider advocating for the resources needed to ensure that our military’s past endures and remains a vibrant part of our heritage.
Allan English teaches Canadian military history at Queen’s University.
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