Retired vice-admiral Robert George was still a young officer in 1968 when the Royal Canadian Navy saw the ‘royal’ stripped from its name.
Fast forward 43 years later to CFB Esquimalt on Tuesday where George sat surprised and pleased to learn Canada’s navy – which he commanded before his retirement in 1995 – and air force will have the ‘royal’ reinstated to their names.
The army, which has several ‘royal’ units but has never been called the Royal Canadian Army, will return to its historic name, the Canadian Army.
“I never dreamt that in my wildest dreams we would come back in the last year the way we have, both with the insignia on navy uniforms and to see the ‘royal’ instituted into the navy,” said George, an Oak Bay resident.
The return to the historic names was done to connect currently serving personnel with past military contributions in the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War and early peacekeeping missions.
“The proud legacy of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Army will once again serve as a timeless link between our veterans and serving solders, sailors and airmen and women,” Julian Fantino, associate minister of National Defence, said during Tuesday’s press conference at the base.
His announcement coincided with the 100th anniversary of a letter written by England’s King George V approving the request for the royal designation for Canada’s navy.
It was a painful blow to sailors and naval officers when that was taken away.
“We went through the turmoil of integration and unification, the stripping away uniforms, the stripping away names,” George recalled.
Reaction to the changes in 1968 was swift, and George watched as several senior colleagues – some who were Second World War veterans – left their careers behind.
“They just couldn’t stomach what was going on,” George said, adding that he suspects the changes – which included the adoption of the same uniform for all three elements – were done for political reasons, but under the guise that the changes would save money.
Since then, generations of sailors have spent their careers never knowing what it meant to serve under the royal banner.
“It’s nice going back to our traditions, but it doesn’t matter to me either way,” said Ordinary Seaman Dan Hannah, who has been in the navy for nine months, three of them spent at CFB Esquimalt. “It’s the same job for me.”
This time the name change doesn’t coincide with organizational restructuring, as it did on Feb. 1, 1968 when the federal government of the day replaced the names of the sea, land and air branches with Maritime Command, Land Force Command and Air Command, and unified them as the Canadian Armed Forces, and later as the Canadian Forces.
As for the cost of the name changes, a price can’t be put on the value of the symbolic gesture, said Fantino, adding that whether the changes will result in updated flag, uniform or insignia designs is not known.
“I think for the most part it’s negligible,” Fantino said of the cost.
“There wasn’t much soul-searching to be done. It’s the right thing to do,” he explained. “It’s for the greater good and it will serve us well as we go forward.”
Did you know?
• On Jan. 30, 1911, the Canadian government, under former prime minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, asked the United Kingdom to bestow the Canadian navy with a royal designation.
• England’s King George V approved the request in a letter dated Aug. 16, 1911, which arrived in the hands of Canada’s former governor-general Albert Grey on Aug. 29, 1911.
• The royal designation of Canada’s air force became official in 1924.
• The Canadian Army, which has many royally designated units, was formally given this name in 1940.
• Canada joins eight Commonwealth nations whose militaries use the royal designation, as well as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Royal Canadian Mint and the Royal Canadian Legion.