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c.p. champion

A wreath is tossed from HMCS Sackville into the waters of Halifax harbour on May 2, 2010, during a ceremony marking the Battle of the Atlantic.ANDREW VAUGHAN

Diehard adherents of the status quo claim that giving Canadian Forces Maritime Command back its rightful title - the Royal Canadian Navy - would be a step backward.

Those who oppose the traditional name venerate armed forces unification as the source of all that is best and "Canadian" about our military. But unification is a child of the 1960s, so who is looking backward?

In fact, Canadianization was happening long before unification. The RCN was christening vessels in honour of Canadian rivers, towns and native peoples in the 1940s. In 1959, several years before unification, the RCN decided to give submarines "Eskimo names which are readily pronounceable."

Almost everyone agrees that Canada's sea, land, and air commands should continue to be integrated. Indeed, most people agreed on that in the 1960s; the Diefenbaker government had already begun integration when the Liberals returned to power. But unification was about something else: merging three proud and historically distinct services (the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force) into what proponents called "one mobile national task force."

Whatever the operational merits, it was a disaster for morale. All personnel were required to wear the same neutral dark-green uniform - which remains, today, the uniform of the Land Force (the official name of the army). Unification was a deliberate attempt to purge the identity of the three services. It was only partially successful, thanks to regimental associations and veterans who stepped up to fund traditional activities from their own pockets.

Unification was a buzzword of the 1960s. It was sold to Parliament as the way to a utopian future. "A single, distinctively Canadian uniform is designed to meet the problems of a modern world - a scientific world which is growing away beyond the barriers of the past at a speed that cannot stand the slow pace of yesterday," said Jean-Victor Allard, the general who became the unified service's first chief of defence staff.

"Unification is on its way because it makes sense to the new generation, in or out of uniform, on the grounds of economy and efficiency in 1966 and the age of science," said the CBC's Ron Collister. John Matheson, a Liberal MP speaking for the government, said unification was among "the recommendations of some of the most prophetic and knowledgeable people in the military field known to our times."

Paul Hellyer, the minister responsible, said in 1966: "We are becoming leaders in defence organization thinking, not just followers. It is something an independent Canada can do which other countries with more powerful vested interests and more powerful lobbies could not do."

But no other country followed Canada's "lead" by abolishing distinct navy and air force identities. They knew better.

Some of Mr. Hellyer's legacy has come unravelled over the years. It took until 1985 to roll back the green uniform, when defence minister Bob Coates partially restored the traditional uniforms. But even that job is only half complete - many proud distinctions continue to be discouraged by an older generation fighting imaginary anti-colonial battles.

This is a generation wedded to 1960s concepts, harbouring a warmed-over anti-imperialism from decades ago. Integration was sound, but integration and unification were apples and oranges.

Lester Pearson's government confused matters from the beginning. "We have had no definition of what the minister means when he uses the terms 'integration' and 'unification,' " NDP House leader H.W. Herridge said in 1966. "I am not interested in semantics," Mr. Matheson snapped. Another government spokesman, John Reid, said: "Unification or integration - call it what you will." Apparently, the difference did not matter because the government had decided to proceed regardless.

Those fights are over. Giving Maritime Command its proper name would undo neither integration nor what's left of unification. As historian Michael Hadley has written, "We have come a long way since then." But clinging to the icons of the 1960s, which represent an adolescent anti-British nationalism, would be silly indeed.

C.P. Champion is the author of The Strange Demise of British Canada , to be published next month.

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