Time, observed a wise man, can sometimes run back. Tuesday at 9:00 AM Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced at CFB Halifax that once again we shall have a Royal Canadian Navy and a Royal Canadian Air Force. Land Force Command will again be known as the Canadian Army. The change is purely symbolic and has little impact on the administration of the Canadian military. The services' uniforms may have to be changed, but all in good time.
Let me express my delighted shock over this news. For Canadian traditionalists this is a glorious day. The National Post's editorial board rightly points out this is merely a small symbolic change, the military is still woefully underfunded. We are some way off from the glory days of the RCAF and RCN. It is unlikely that even so relatively pro-military a government as this one would countenance the commissioning of a new aircraft carrier. Our submarine fleet is still a mess. Nor is it likely that Hollywood will be making films about the RCN and RCAF any time soon.
The choir invisible of post-Pearson Canada is not happy about this change. The distinguished military historian Jack Granatstein has decried the change as "abject colonialism." It's alright professor, I don't think Minister Mackay will be declaring that the Statue of Westminster has been rescinded as well. Just the ill-conceived symbolic unification of the forces is being tossed in the ashcan.
Douglas Bland, head wonk at Queen's Defence Management program, is also not amused, fearing a revival of inter-service rivalry. Because of course that sort of thing doesn't exist now. Large bureaucracies, even necessary ones like the armed services, are prone to fighting over scarce resources, regardless of the ceremonial nomenclature. Professor Bland describes the change as "absolutely nostalgia" by veterans.
There is certainly an element of nostalgia. Most of the younger officers and servicemen and women have no memory of the pre-unified forces and likely little emotional attachment to the honour. Yet this misses the point of restoration. It is not about restoring what was so much as about preserving the future of Canada's military.
To the generation that came to the fore in the 1960s, like Bland and Granatstein, Canada was a country striving to distance itself from the imperial past. Professor Granatstein even cites incidents during the Suez Crisis in which Canadian peacekeepers were criticized for flying Union Jacks and having regimental names like Queen's Own Rifles. There is no doubt today that Canada is an free and independent country. This is not about returning to the past. Restoring the honour allows this generation of Canadians, for whom both Suez, Juno and Vimy are only names in a textbook, to reconnect with their past.
Through out history loyalty and identification with a military unit has been essential to espirit de corps. Many an old soldier, who never speaks of himself, will regale you with stories of regimental battle honours. They fought then and there. Nearly two decades after its disbanding, there is a movement to restore the old Airborne Regiment. The regiment's last commanding officer said that "they tore the heart out of me" when the unit was stood down. These symbols matter to those who served and serve now. To know that you are not alone but part of a tradition that stretch both backward and forward in time.
That is what this restored honour will give to those who serve Queen and Country today. They may claim in a small way a part of that tradition which stretches to the birth of Canada and before. Those who wear the uniform now march in the same symbolic lines as those of Vimy, Juno, the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of Britain.
A very royal honour indeed.