Defence Minister Peter MacKay champions the restoration of the traditional names of the Canadian navy and air force as a matter of military pride even as the move threatens to create a royal ruckus in some parts of the country.
Quebeckers, historians and anti-monarchists all denounced the Conservative government’s announcement Tuesday that it will rebrand the Maritime Command as the Royal Canadian Navy and the Air Command as the Royal Canadian Air Force, the names they went by until 1968.
It is the word “Royal” that’s the sticking point. Critics complain that it conjures images of colonialism and a time when the forces were the defenders of the British Empire, not just the country of Canada.
Mr. MacKay said the men and women of the armed forces, and especially the veterans who fought for Canada under the old names, have welcomed the change.
The naval forces were activated on Aug. 16, 1911 with the royal designation, he said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Halifax. Royal was officially added to the name of the Canadian Air Force in 1924.
“This is a historical truth,” Mr. MacKay said. “It’s to celebrate our heritage, honour the memories of so many brave Canadians that served under that designation, and continue that historic tie that our country shares with Great Britain.”
But that’s what worries Pierre Anctil, a history professor at the University of Ottawa who lectures on the Canadian identity and Quebec culture.
Prof. Ancil said the names will bring back painful memories of the times when francophones opposed conscription during the two world wars and when the Canadian army was the safeguard of the British Empire.
“It’s true that the Queen is the head of the Canadian state,” he said. “But the reason why the name Royal was erased was to emphasize Canadian nationalism under [former Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau and the willingness to create the national identity and to have these forces serve Canadian needs.”
The Bloc Québécois issued a statement roundly condemning the move. Jean-François Fortin, a Bloc MP, said the Conservative government has made an ideological decision to please its traditional base, which remains loyal to the British monarchy.
And Tom Freda, a spokesman for Citizens for a Canadian republic, also said it was a backward step designed to appeal to conservative traditionalists. “This isn’t the 1950s, nor do we have 1950s values,” said Mr. Freda. “Canada has been accustomed to moving away from colonialist symbols, not toward them.”
But the decision also has its defenders.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is in Russia preparing for a six-month stay on the international space station, served 25 years in the air force when it was called the Air Command and said he is fully in favour of the new names.
“Tradition is really important, especially to people who are being asked to do dangerous or hard things. You have to draw your strength from somewhere,” said Mr. Hadfield, a retired colonel. “So to go to the original names, to go with the names that represent the history of our military whether it’s air force, army or navy, I think is good for the people who are serving right now because it links them directly with the last hundred years of people who have served in the military. And, of course, it’s very respectful of our veterans.”
A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Legion said on Monday, when reports of the name changes began filtering through the media, that the money required to pay for the restoration of the names would be better used to equip Canada’s sailors, soldiers and airmen. On Tuesday, that criticism was tempered.
“Our only concern is that costs associated with this move will not detract from operational and quality-of-life budgets,” said Patricia Varga, the Legion’s Dominion president, “which I have been assured will not be the case.”