Canada and the New Colonialism

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The Queen inspects the Guard of Honour mounted by the Ceremonial Guard on Parliament Hill, July 1, 2010. [This is a copy of an official work that is published by the Government of Canada. The reproduction has not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada.]

The Queen inspects the Guard of Honour mounted by the Ceremonial Guard on Parliament Hill, July 1, 2010. ***

By Jon Weier


The Canadian government announced this past week that Canadian forces members will no longer wear the Maple Leaf as a symbol of rank.  The Maple Leaf is to be replaced on the shoulder boards and collar tabs of Canadian soldiers’ uniforms with the crown or pip that had been used to indicate rank in the Canadian Forces before unification in 1968.  Further, the most junior Canadian enlisted personnel will be referred to by new rank designations.  These new rank designations, and the re-introduced pip and crown, mirror rank and rank indicators that are used in the British armed services, and represent a return, in the words of former Defence Minister Peter McKay, “to the insignia that was so much a part of what the Canadian Army accomplished in Canada’s name.”

This new policy comes two years after the three component arms of the Canadian Forces were renamed.  Rather than being Land Command, Maritime Command and Air Command, their names since unification, they became the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, again mirroring the Canadian Forces’ British counterparts.  This change was, in the words of Peter McKay, about fixing a “mistake,” suggesting that somehow a move away from British symbols and names was taking the Canadian Forces away from their true identity.  These changes met with widespread criticism and were characterized by military historian Jack Granatstein as “abject colonialism.”

These are the latest in a series of initiatives within the Canadian Forces, and the Canadian government more broadly, that have sought to align Canada with and remind Canadians of our ties to the United Kingdom and the Monarchy.  These initiatives have included hanging pictures of the Queen in all Canadian embassies and offices overseas, an increase in royal visits, and, just last year, a proposal to share consular resources with the United Kingdom.  They have also been reflected in the themes and narratives used in the commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, and will likely be apparent in the upcoming anniversary celebrations of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 and of Confederation in 2017.

In an article published in the Globe and Mail on Canada Day, Université Laval historian Jocelyn Létourneau suggested that this emphasis on royal symbolism and on promoting Canada’s ties to the Commonwealth and, historically, to the British Empire, has been part of a concerted campaign by the Conservative government to find a replacement for multiculturalism.

In this article, published under the title “Multiculturalism Died, and Harper replaced it with ‘Royalization’”, Létourneau suggests that multiculturalism has been largely unsuccessful in accomplishing one of its primary goals; undermining the power of Québecois nationalism and replacing it with a shared Canadian identity.  As such, Létourneau argues that the current government has seen the writing on the wall and has sought to bolster four distinct Canadian identities that together make up an idea of Canada.  This strategy has involved recognition of Québec’s distinctness, progress in transforming the relationship between First Nations and the federal government, the continuing need to maintain Canadian sovereignty and independence in the face of American hegemony, and, in the case of English Canada, the renewed emphasis on traditional markers of an English Canadian identity.  Létourneau concludes that this is all centred on a shared sense of Canada as an immigrant nation with common values.

Létourneau generally avoids judging the value of this new exercise, simply suggesting that this is the direction in which the current government is moving as it seeks to transform ideas of Canadian identity.  And he seems to be right, though he describes this new direction more eloquently and more explicitly than anyone in government has.

What then are the implications of this transformation?  Does this return to a Loyalist/Imperialist idea of Canadian identity reflect the shared reality that is Canada in the first decades of the 21st Century?  I would argue that this attempt to return to an antiquated English Canadian identity is quite problematic in that it essentially seeks to ignore the evolution of Canadian identity over the last forty years.

On a very basic level, what do these changes mean for the Canadian military?  Though it is true that Canadian soldiers fought in the First and Second World Wars in close cooperation with, and often under the command of, the British military, the post-war period was characterized by a process in which the Canadian Forces became more closely aligned with the United States’ military, and in which Canadian defence and foreign policy were freed from Imperial and then Commonwealth considerations.  While we may be returning to imagery that means something to an older generation of veterans of the Second World War, what do these colonial symbols mean for generations who have fought and kept the peace under the auspices of NATO and the UN in Afghanistan, in Korea or in the Sinai Peninsula?

This symbolic return also plays into ideas of the First and Second World Wars as nationalist stepping stones that reflect a shared and uncontroversial progression to the Canada we know today.  They ignore all of the conflicts and difficulties that have actually accompanied Canada’s history of war.  This new English Canadian identity seeks to ignore the conflict in Québec over conscription and the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians during the First World, as well as the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

What are new Canadians supposed to make of this new emphasis, especially those who have made Canada their home in the decades since the Canadian government started emphasizing our shared multicultural future?  How are generations of Canadians who have embraced an increasingly multicultural and republican idea of Canadian identity supposed to react when the government presents us with an identity that values the colonial trappings many have worked so hard to shed?  Why do we focus on only one aspect of our heritage when Canada has always been the destination for immigrants from many different, non-Commonwealth, countries.  Finally, how do we react to these new changes as historians, and what is our responsibility in the face of this new/old idea of who we are?

Jon Weier is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Western University.  His thesis is a transnational history of the First World War work of the YMCA.  He regularly posts on twitter as @jonweier.

*** [This photograph is a copy of an official work that is published by the Government of Canada. The reproduction has not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada.]

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8 thoughts on “Canada and the New Colonialism

  1. richardjohnbr

    The problem of national identity evident in Canada has parallels in Britain where multiculturalism had failed to deliver social stability, recognition of common values or effective social integration. What does being ‘British’ actually mean? In many respects, absolutely nothing. People who live in Britain, much as in Canada, have multiple identities. In my case, I come from the Fens (not East Anglia as the geography would suggest). I’m English but I’m also white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. As we’re part of the EU, I’m European as well. So am I British as well and what does that actually mean?

    The difficulty with national identities is that they are largely political constructs and that they can be changed with prevailing political climates. In Britain, what British means is decided in London while in Canada it’s in Ottawa: it’s a top-down process imposed on the people by their political masters. A bottom-up process would be better but then you’d probably never get any agreement. National identities are also defined in relation to ‘others’: in Britain, attitudes to the EU help define the distinctiveness of being British, while in Canada, the brooding presence of the USA has long been a partial way of defining what it means to be Canadian.

    The decision to reintroduce ‘royal’ terminology into the armed forces is a case of ‘back to the future’ and does little to help define Canadian identity. What Canadians need to recognise, and much the same applies to people in Britain, is that their identities have different origins, aspirations and futures and that any attempt to impose a ‘one size fits all’ solution is heading for failure. Ultimately it’s people who decide and define their identities not governments.

  2. Jennifer Polk

    Thanks for this, Jon! It’s so important to have smart writing on this issue.
    This white (British)-washing of the past is so maddening and damaging in the here and now.
    British command was often a HUGE problem for Canadian soldiers and higher ups. What disasters it caused. The supposed British/commonwealth/imperial identity of our troops is more fiction than fact.
    Gah! Rage!
    When I turn on my analytical brain, I find this Harper agenda totally fascinating. I have so many questions!

  3. Alejandro Freeland

    I came to Canada in 1990, through the independent system, applying in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1988 and getting the visa as a full immigrant by the end of 1989. I had six months to arrive to come to Canada and I did it by April 1990. So I didn’t jump any queue. When I arrived to Toronto I found the Canadian Multiculturalism fascinating. Toronto was like the United Nations, where you can find all the flavours and the musics of the World and the fact that all these 100 communities live in peace with each other, when sometimes some countries that have only 2 different communities are a living hell (we have European, African and Asian countries that are perfect examples of what I say). Personally I don’t like the idea that Multiculturalism has failed. In my opinion it’s vibrant as it was when arrived here. All the restaurants, music and dance Festivals in the city show that it is well alive. Go to Harbourfront in the weekends during the Summer , enjoy the different foods. You will feel what Canada is about. And in the future all the mix of the different cultures will bring a completely new one and unique. It was like this that Tango showed up in Argentina as a combination of European, local and African cultures. And its evolution ending up as the electronic Tango shows that it continues to fusion with other styles like the Hip Hop. Canada will create its new style in due time. Just wait for that.

  4. SomeYoungVet

    The chosen symbols are interesting in this attempt to shape the Canadian self-image. We are told it is about reconnecting with the heritage and great sacrifices of Canadians in the World Wars and Korea.

    So why is it that the rank style chosen is the British style of the Second World War and Korea as opposed to the distinctly Canadian placement of the First World War? It has been said that Canada was forged in the First World War on the slopes of Vimy and through to the final hundred days. More than 68,000 Canadians had their lives taken in the First World War – this number far exceeds the combined total from the Boer War, the Second World War and the Korean War.

    In the First World War, the Canadian Army wore its rank differently from the British with Canadian rank being on the sleeve with stripes (like are being done away with now) and the stars and crowns. Who decided that the more British style of wearing the rank on the shoulders during the Second World War was more representative of Canadian heritage? Who decided that sleeve stripes were un-Canadian despite their use by the Army through the First World War and in the 45 years since unification?

    Another interesting bit of symbolism is the decision to again use the Star of the Order of the Bath as the Canadian pip. This star represents a British order which Canadians are not eligible for promotion in, and none are members of. The symbol of senior Canadian Army rank will be an organization where Canadians are constrained to the most subordinate level? Why? We already had (have) a distinct Canadian pip – it is the maple leave used on general and admiral officer ranks. At the very least, the decision could have been to go with the Star of the Order of Canada or some stylized star based on the Canadian Order of Military Merit.

    The Canadian Army was more than happy to continue on using the current rank indefinitely (it even formally decided so). The government decided it was going to roll back the clock for heritage purposes. But if the move was about Canadian identity, why was the more British of symbolism chosen in both of the cases where a distinct Canadian identity could have been reflected?

  5. dude

    Canada has been an equal member in the commonwealth since 1931 and I think membership in the commonwealth is what the government is trying to express. For too long successive governments have removed many symbols of our Loyalist heritage in order the forge a ‘new’ Canadian identity. I say ‘new’ because prior to the Pearson/Trudeau years we had a distinct Canadian identity based on our loyalist, French, aboriginal, and immigrant history. Understandably our a British identity was a little too strong in some parts of the country and the liberal governments wanted to snuff it out to appease Quebec separatism. Unfortunately I and many other believe the government went a little too far until now we’ve come to the point where most of our citizens genuinely believe Canada is either “owned by the queen of England” or that we left the commonwealth after the 2nd world war which is simply not true.

    As a new member of the armed forces I welcome the return of the commonwealth rank system. Unification in 1968 was a disaster and you can ask anyone in the Canadian forces who served through it and they will tell you what a mess it was. Also bear in mind our commonwealth cousins in Australia and New Zealand share the same ranks and maintain the royal prefix to their navies and air forces as well. We also share consulates with the Aussies in some countries.

    Now I’m not advocating we start flying the union jack over parliament hill again but I do believe the government are correcting historic wrongs by emphasizing our commonwealth membership and our British heritage. Our British heritage should be promoted as a pillar of our identity along with our aboriginal, French, and immigrant heritage.

  6. SomeYoungVet

    Very few of the Commonwealth armies wear British Army rank without having at least nationalized the symbols. Why do we want to be the first to drop our own national system and crawl back into the British shadow?

    The military is full of symbolism to show our commonwealth connection. From the Army’s regimental system through to Her Majesty’s Candian Ships and on to the crowns that have always been in many badges and which make-up the insignia for Warrant Officer ranks.

    Unification was not the complete disaster that many make it out to be, and I am thankful for it when working next to our US allies and seeing some of the foolishness that comes from their four service empires.

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