Navy deep-sixed Conservative plan to name naval vessels after War of 1812 battles

The Canadian Navy objected strongly to Harper government's plan to name two supply ships after 19th century land battles, internal government documents show.

Defence insiders say the navy didn't want ships with names that sound like 'wineries'

Celebrating Simcoe Day soldiers fire their muskets in a War of 1812 battle re-enactment in Fenelon Falls, Ontario, Saturday August 4, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

What's in a name? When Shakespeare asked, he was talking about romance and roses. Apparently, the question applies to naval ships as well.

A series of internal briefing notes show the Canadian navy pushed back hard against the former Conservative government's plan to name the long-delayed, yet-to-be-delivered supply ships after War of 1812 battles.

In the fall of 2017, the Liberal government quietly announced that the new joint support ships would be named HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver — a nod, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said at the time, to the recently-retired naval replenishment vessels that had refuelled and resupplied Canadian warships at sea for four decades.

Back in 2013, the government of then-prime minister Stephen Harper announced that the new ships would be named after key battles of the 1812 to 1814 conflict between the United States and Great Britain — specifically, the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of the Chateauguay, both British victories.

Internal documents show those names were dropped not because of political pressure, but due to objections from naval brass.

The navy was very upset that they would start naming warships after army victories- Naval historian Marc Milner

"Although themes drawn from the War of 1812 were deemed viable, the naming of warships after historically significant land battles has not proven to resonate well with Canadians and is not consistent with Royal Canadian Navy practice," the country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, told Sajjan on Aug. 26, 2016.

Vance may have been putting it diplomatically. Naval historian Marc Milner said he heard the criticism from within the military almost immediately after the new ship names were announced.

"The navy was very upset that they would start naming warships after army victories," said the University of New Brunswick academic, wondering aloud whether the army would start naming its bases after famous admirals.

The problem was simple. The Conservatives wanted to honour the legacy of the War of 1812, a key moment in Canada's evolution from a collection of colonies to a modern nation. But very few of the naval battles between 1812 and 1814 directly involved combatants from the colonies that would someday become Canada.

Harper's government poured a lot of time and money into celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, spending roughly $28 million on public celebrations, statues and commemorations.

"At the time, it was felt that a 'battles' theme would facilitate this broader linkage" to the country's military history, said one internal memo.

'An affront'

But the names chosen for the ships — HMCS Queenston and HMCS Chateauguay — were not popular with the navy, according to multiple defence insiders who noted few combat sailors wanted replenishment ships with names that sound like "wineries."

"There's all kinds of good reasons for naming them after naval battles that we were involved in," said Milner. "But to name them after early 19th century land victories in Upper and Lower Canada was just, I think, an affront to the Navy's sense of who they were and who they wanted to be."

Capt. James Salt, the director of major naval Crown projects at the Department of National Defence, said a lot of lessons were learned during the naming exercise — something that doesn't happen all that often.

In the past, Canada has named warships — such as the new Halifax-class frigates — after rivers and major cities.

It rarely names ships after battles or individuals. The exceptions, Salt said, are the upcoming Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, which will be known collectively as the Harry DeWolf-class after a famous Second World War commander, who was later promoted to admiral.

The navy has been very careful to choose names that resonate with the public, he added.

In the 1990s, as the frigates were launched out of the country's shipyard, the idea of naming them after major cities was seen as a way to connect ordinary Canadians with the work of the navy.

And in case anyone thinks this is a debate solely for sailors, academic and history geeks, Salt said Sajjan's office is already being hit with notes from the general public suggesting names for replacement frigates — which have yet to be designed and are not due to hit the water until the mid-2020s at the earliest.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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