Royal military renaming slammed as colonial throwback

Restoring the "royal" designation to Canada's air force and navy has been praised as a nod to Canada's rich military history, but some critics argue the move is regressive and unnecessary and will backfire on the Conservative government.
Retired navy commander Wendall Brown, left, and retired army lieutenant-colonel Russ Comeau salute during the playing of the national anthem at a ceremony in Halifax on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Restoring the "royal" designation to Canada's air force and navy has been praised as a nod to Canada's military history, but some critics argue the move is regressive and unnecessary and will backfire on the Conservative government.

"We've had gradual, incremental changes toward putting our colonialist symbols into the dustbin of history, and this is the first time a government has taken steps to restore it," says Tom Freda, co-founder and director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic.

"I believe they're wrong-headed and they're making a mistake. The public will remember this and see this is as a party of the past. Canadians don't think the monarchy is appropriate for the 21st century."

Historian Jack Granatstein, who headed up the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa from 1998 to 2001, called the move "abject colonialism."

"I find it very odd in the 21st century to be reverting to royal titles for the navy and air force," Granatstein told CBC News.

"It smacks of the days when Canada was an Anglo society, which it is not any more. And when our armed forces followed British models, which they do not do any more. And I just find this very puzzling indeed."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced Tuesday  that the Maritime Command and Air Command will revert to names used more than four decades ago — the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force — while the army, now known as the Land Force Command, will be renamed the Canadian Army.

"The country that forgets its history does so at its own peril," said MacKay in Halifax, making reference to Canada's roles in the two world wars as well as the Korean war.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced the restoration of the royal designation for the navy and air force on Tuesday. ((Canadian Press))

The move is a way of connecting today's Canadian Forces members with a proud history, said MacKay, who made the announcement on the 100th anniversary of King George V establishing the Royal Canadian Navy.

Retired colonel Chris Hadfield, best known as the first Canadian to walk in space, echoed that sentiment in a statement. Hadfield flew on two space shuttle missions, in 1995 and 2001.

"In our military, it is often tradition and a sense of place in history that sustains us, especially when life is under threat," he said. "To reinstate the long-established names of our armed services supports the Canadians serving in harm’s way around the world, is respectful of our veterans, and is good for our nation."

Legion 'incredibly pleased'

The Royal Canadian Legion initially had concerns about the name change for the Forces, but reversed its stance after the organization's president received a call of reassurance from the government Tuesday, said Bob Butt, the legion's director of communications.

"We were originally against it because of budgetary concerns. We did not want to see the money come out of the operational and quality of life budget for our troops and veterans," he said.

"Now, we're incredibly pleased that the Canadian Forces have returned to their roots."

The government won't reveal a price tag for the change, but says it is minimal, will be phased in over time and won't affect military operations.

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Freda, however, said the decision shows the government is out of touch with the majority of Canadians, particularly immigrants who have come here from post-colonial countries.

"They come from countries that were subjugated by Britain. Many of them are in the Commonwealth but have dealt with the monarchy issue and become parliamentary republics, so they've grown up and seen their countries throw off these colonial shackles and become independent," says Freda.

"They immigrate to Canada for a better life and lo and behold, they're surprised to find, there it is again. There is that colonialism they left behind decades ago."

Even Canadians born here, like Freda, who have grown up with the monarchy, will take offence, he said.

"I remember the first oath to the Queen I took was in the boy scouts back in the '60s, and even then I thought it was strange. Here we are in 2011 and we're still trying to deal with these things that the majority of Canadians want to see done away with or couldn't care less about one way or other, which in my opinion is not a very strong endorsement."

Backward step, Paul Hellyer says

Under the PierreTrudeau government in 1968, Defence Minister Paul Hellyer removed the royal designation from the navy and air force and created one central command called the Canadian Forces.

Hellyer said MacKay's decision will create the very divisions the reunification aimed to eliminate.

"We'll be right back where they were when I found them. They would fight for turf to the extent they would really ignore the needs of the other services and the needs of the force as a whole."

Both the NDP and Bloc Québécois were critical of the decision.

"It pleases people who are strong loyalists or monarchists or with a great attachment to the United Kingdom, but it doesn't please people who see themselves as Canadians with a separate country," said Newfoundland NDP MP Jack Harris.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge greet a new Canadian during a citizenship ceremony July 1 in Gatineau, Que. ((Canadian Press))

But MacKay said there is plenty of support to restore the royal link, pointing to an online petition signed by more than 6,000 people, as well as the overwhelming public support for the recent visit of Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton to Canada.

Freda counters that there's a distinction between interest in a couple of attractive celebrities and whether or not Canada deserves to have one of its own citizens as head of state.

An online poll of 1,016 Canadians conducted by Ipsos-Reid between June 20 and 27 suggested that 67 per cent of Quebecers want to get rid of the monarchy while only 42 per cent of Canadians outside the province support such a move.

In the rest of Canada, support for the monarchy was up, according to the poll, with 58 per cent wanting to maintain it once Queen Elizabeth's reign ends, up from 50 per cent in a similar poll in 2010. (The poll is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

While 52 per cent of Canadians polled believed the royal visit did boost the monarchy, the question posed by the survey was misguided and based on "hoopla," according to Freda.

"Instead the poll should have asked, A, are they just celebrities or B, should they be eligible to be Canada's next head of state simply because they were born into a certain exclusive family overseas? When you put it like that, I think Canadians are pretty sensible about it."

Freda questions the timing of the military name change announcement during the "summer doldrums."

"If this had been announced in September you'd see much more reaction from parliamentarians. Right now everyone's on holidays. The only thing they could have done to bury it even further is to release it on 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon."

Nonetheless, such announcements help boost organizations like his, according to Freda, who said the phone has been ringing off the hook with donations pouring in and 100 new members signed up.

"That's more members in one day than we had during the entire royal visit a month ago."

Citizens for a Canadian Republic point to Ireland, India and Iceland as models for moving away from having a colonial monarch as head of state.

With files from Julie Van Dusen