Opinion

The Canadian Armed Forces should drop its citizenship requirement

My father was hailed by a Canadian Air Force recruiter on the streets of London. That's how my family got here. If the world needs more Canada, Canada needs more Canadians. This is a good way to get them.

My father was hailed by a Canadian Air Force recruiter on the streets of London. That's how my family got here

The change will not only provide us with skilled and trained soldiers, but eventually with more solid citizens. (CBC)

The Canadian Armed Forces recently said that in the interest of boosting ranks, it is considering changing its requirement that recruits have Canadian citizenship — a policy that many assumed to be longstanding.

In fact, the longstanding practice in our military has been to enroll non-citizens. It has long been part of our military tradition. If it had not been, I wouldn't be here writing this column.

In the First World War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which fought on the Western Front, was largely made up of British-born men throughout the entire four years of that conflict. They were given priority for recruitment in some cases, and even as late as October of 1917, a survey showed that the CEF was still 55 per cent British. And that was all ranks. If you take out the officers, who were largely Canadian-born, the percentage rises to about 65 per cent.

And that, after more than three years of war.

Canada was awarded 73 Victoria Crosses in that conflict. Only 30 of them went to those born in this country; the rest went to foreigners, almost all of them British.

When the war ended, large numbers of those men did not come home to Canada, but went back to the British Isles. They weren't Canadian, and did not consider themselves to be. Most of them joined because they were unemployed, and wanted to go home to Britain. Three hots and a cot, and a steamship bunk.

After the Second World War, when not only Brits but many Americans served in our uniforms, the Royal Canadian Air Force was being equipped with the Bomarc anti-aircraft missile. The need for increased security prompted the formation of an Air Force Police branch, and recruiters immediately set out, not across Canada but across the Atlantic, seeking to lure the famed British Bobby to come to our shores.

At the time, the the Metropolitan London Police were thought to be the finest police force on earth, and Brit cops were thought to be superior overall.

One of those was my father.

Recruitment on the streets of London

Having served in the Household Cavalry, he was now in the Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch. While riding through the streets of London in 1955, he was hailed by a Canadian air force recruiter:

"Good morning constable! Are you thinking about emigrating? The Royal Canadian Air Force needs policemen."

And that's how I got here.

After living in Alberta for five years, we were posted to France, and then Germany with the 1st Canadian Air Division.

I remember going into the guardhouse at Grostenquin in France to see my father, and hearing nothing but British accents from everyone in there. The entire shift was British.

The author's father, Cpl. Jack Keene, being decorated at RCAF 2 Wing, Grostenquin, France in 1961. (Supplied)

Upon our return to Canada in 1964, we settled at Base Borden in Ontario and at the age of 17, I joined my local militia regiment, the Grey and Simcoe Foresters. Citizenship was never an issue. Three years later, I was commissioned and joined my local newspaper, The Barrie Examiner, and my two careers moved forward in tandem.

We were called "landed immigrants" and for all intents and purposes, we were the same as citizens.  

When my father retired in 1969, we were still not citizens, and this caused a flap when my parents returned to Britain for two years and then tried to come back. They were turned down as "undesirable immigrants" and it took newspaper headlines and a ministerial warrant to allow them back in.

We all became Canadian citizens shortly after that. I remember walking into the citizenship office in uniform, as I was on reserve duty at the time. I was shown into an office where a woman administered the oath, had me sign a piece of paper, and that was it. My certificate arrived in the mail shortly afterwards.

Enrolling non-citizens in the Forces is a Canadian tradition going back to the beginning of our military. This is nothing new, and it will not only provide us with skilled and trained soldiers, but eventually with more solid citizens, especially if we give them a "fast track" way of doing it.

If the world needs more Canada, Canada needs more Canadians. This is another good way to get them.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Tony Keene

Tony Keene was a reservist in the Canadian Armed Forces for 40 years and completed multiple overseas tours of duty. He has worked as a journalist in newspapers and broadcasting.

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