Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Tuesday his government has corrected a historic mistake by restoring the "royal" designation to the air force and navy, a move he says will come at a minimal cost.

At an event in Halifax, MacKay announced the Maritime Command and Air Command will again be known as the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force — names that haven't been used in more than four decades. The army, formally known as the Land Force Command, will be renamed the Canadian Army.

The royal designation was removed from the navy and air force in 1968 when the branches were renamed and brought under one central command named the Canadian Forces.

"Our Conservative government believes that an important element of the Canadian military heritage was lost when these three former services were required to relinquish their historic titles," MacKay said. "Today, I am honoured to announce that the three elements of the Canadian Forces will have their historic names restored."

Veterans, military officials and other invited guests in the audience applauded when MacKay made the announcement. The defence minister said restoring the former names of the army, navy and air force is a way of connecting today's Canadian Forces members with a proud history.

He also explained the government's decision by saying it aligns Canada with other key Commonwealth countries whose militaries use the royal designation.

"This change is long overdue," MacKay said, adding that it's "important to correct historic mistakes" when possible.

Former defence minister Paul Hellyer, however, the man responsible for removing "royal" from the air force and navy titles and introducing the unified command structure in 1968, said that MacKay is the one making a mistake.

"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."

Hellyer, who served in the cabinets of Louis St. Laurent, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, said there is a determined group of veterans who liked the way things were before and pressured the Conservatives to put "royal" back in the air force and navy.

MacKay sounds like "a lot of senior military officers who are always fighting the last war," Hellyer said.

"We're not fighting the First World War over again, we're not fighting the Second World War over again," he said. "Those days are past, they're part of our history. … Today is different, and we have to think ahead … we've got to have an organization which is really in tune with the times, which eliminates a lot of the nonsense that happened back in those days."

The former defence minister said the changes in 1968 saved money, but more importantly, meant the Canadian Forces were more organized and able to respond quickly when needed.

Pre-1968, the army, navy, and air force operated in their own silos and engaged each other in turf wars and battles for resources, according to Hellyer, who said he's worried that will happen once again.

The changes announced by the federal government Tuesday do not affect the unified command structure of the Canadian Forces introduced in 1968, which remains intact.

When MacKay made his remarks Tuesday, he noted that it was exactly 100 years ago, Aug.16, 1911, that King George V established the Royal Canadian Navy. He thanked the veterans groups who spearheaded the campaign to restore the previous names and said there was a groundswell of support from Canadians who felt it was the right thing to do and he embraced that sentiment.

Jerry Sigrist, executive secretary of the Royal Canadian Naval Association, said the navy now has its rightful name back.

"Canadian naval veterans have waited many years for this," he said following MacKay's speech.

The Naval Officers Association of Canada also issued a statement saying there had been "considerable debate" about the impending announcement and that a firm decision by the government is "warmly welcomed."

CBC News contacted Buckingham Palace and was told the Queen is aware of the royal name change.

The Royal Canadian Legion said the name changes are an "emotional issue" for veterans.

"The Royal Canadian Legion is pleased that the government is recognizing long-standing traditions that have served us well during our military history," a statement said. 

The group's president, Patricia Varga, said the legion's only concern is that costs associated with the changes might eat up budgets for operations and services for members of the military. She said she has been assured that won't happen.

Costs to change names 'minimal'

MacKay said the name changes will have "zero impact" on operational capabilities and have "minimal cost implications."

The defence minister said the name changes will be phased in over a period of time. Asked to put a price tag on the decision, MacKay said it was "priceless," and when pushed, he again said the costs will be minimal.

He then said the costs can't be calculated up front because the addition of "royal" to various uniforms, equipment, letterhead, flags and other items won't be done all at once.

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The old flag of the Royal Canadian Air Force is pictured at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. On Tuesday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced the Air Command would once again be called the Royal Canadian Air Force. ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

He also rejected the criticism that the government's decision signals closer ties with the British monarchy and diminishes Canada's sovereignty. MacKay said Canada's ties to the Crown "are very real," particularly when it comes to the Canadian Forces, and that those links have "no impact whatsoever" on operational matters and sovereign decisions.

"I believe that this is consistent, I believe that this is about continuity, it's about respect for our past," he said, "And I believe that this is something that the majority of Canadians will embrace."

MacKay said it doesn't diminish Canada's independence or contributions on the world stage.

He also noted that this summer's visit to Canada by Prince William and his wife Kate helped reinvigorate Canadians' sense of history and connectivity to Britain.

Renaming has its critics

The NDP's defence critic Jack Harris criticized the government's decision to return the "royal" designation to the air force and navy.

"It’s fine to recognize that the Maritime Command is actually the Canadian Navy, or our Air Command is actually the Canadian Air Force — but Conservatives didn’t have to do this in a divisive way. Rebranding should not be a priority for the government and adding 'Royal' will prove divisive among Canadians, which is regrettable," he said on Tuesday.

"The government should be focused on bringing Canadians together — but with these Conservatives, the priority is to divide Canadians and turn back the clock," he added.

The Bloc Québécois also criticized the Conservatives over the name change, saying there wasn't a large public appetite for the decision and that it was instead ideologically motivated and designed to appeal to monarchists in the Conservative base. A statement from the party also questioned the priorities of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.

A Toronto-based group called Citizens for a Canadian Republic also slammed the Conservatives for the name change, calling it "backward," and doubted MacKay's statement that it will mean minimal costs to taxpayers.

"This isn't the 1950s, nor do we have 1950s values," spokesman Tom Freda said. "Canada has been accustomed to moving away from colonialist symbols, not toward them. I can't imagine the mainstream public in 2011 seeing this decision as positive."