Harper stirs controversy with military name change

AP News
Posted: Aug 21, 2011 12:29 PM
Harper stirs controversy with military name change

Canadians were thrilled when Prince William and Kate traveled across the country on their first official trip as a married couple. They barely noticed when their pro-monarchy Conservative prime minister appointed Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II's husband, an honorary admiral on his 90th birthday.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to restore the royal name to the Canadian armed forces and other recent moves to embrace the monarchy have raised hackles in this former British colony that has largely been indifferent to the fact that the queen remains the titular head of state.

It's reflective of Harper's broader agenda to shift the country's ideological bearings from center-left to center-right _ a project that lays greater stress on such traditional symbols as the monarchy, military, ice hockey and Arctic sovereignty. And there has been resistance to such moves in a traditionally liberal and increasingly diverse country.

Last week's decision by Harper to restore the word "Royal" to Canada's air force and navy angered Canadian nationalists who say Harper is out of touch with modern-day Canada even though he received a stronger mandate by gaining a coveted parliamentary majority in May's elections.

Former Defense Minister Paul Hellyer, who removed the royal labels from the armed forces in 1968 when he served in Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson's government, accused Harper of trying to turn back the clock to a day that doesn't exist anymore.

"I'm incredulous," Hellyer said. "Canada should be for Canadians at this stage of our development and we should emphasize our achievements whether they be in the field of art or in the field of armed forces and no longer just try to be a pale imitation of somebody else."

Hellyer, 88, said if they were still alive Pearson would be appalled and former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would "probably say something that wouldn't be printable."

But the current defense minister, Peter MacKay, defended restoring the royal connection as correcting a 43-year-old mistake. He said veterans' groups actively lobbied Harper's government to restore the former navy and air force names.

"It's a recognition of historic ties to England that simply exist. It's a historic fact," MacKay said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Angus Watt, a former chief of the air force, said the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy were once special names under which men and women fought and died during World War II and the Korean War. He said Harper's name restoration is simply a matter of recognizing the great pride the military took in those names.

"It's just a nice thing to do that really doesn't cost very much. It doesn't change any command relationships, it doesn't alter the operational complexion of the Canadian Forces," Watt said.

"It gives men and women in uniform and those who are retired a little bit of a pat on the back that we not only treasure their service but those that went before them."

Decades have passed since Canadians abandoned the British Union Jack for the Maple Leaf flag and replaced "God Save the Queen" with "O Canada" as the national anthem. But Harper's Conservatives represent the most pro-monarchy Canadian government since the 1950s, and the prime minister's ambition is to foster a national identity that is more conservative and more aware of its historical roots.

Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at a conservative think tank, said the prime minister's long-term goal is to kill the widely entrenched notion that the Liberal Party is the natural party of government in Canada. The Liberals made Canadian independence and autonomy from Britain a key message since World War II _ particularly Trudeau's government in the 1970s which fostered pride in Canadian nationalism.

"He's trying to roll back the Trudeau revolution," Nicholls said. "Trudeau did a lot of things that upset traditional minded Canadians, introducing more socialism, making government bigger and going after traditions like the military and the monarchy."

Pearson's Liberals removed the royal label from the military in 1968 when Hellyer controversially melded the navy, army and air force under a single command called the Canadian Forces. The Royal Canadian Navy became Maritime Command, the Royal Canadian Air Force became Air Command and the Canadian Army became Land Force Command. The changes led to resignations and caused a severe blow to morale. Military personnel from all three branches were forced to wear the same green uniform.

"Paul Hellyer completely stomped on the history and heritage," Watt said. "Everybody hated those green uniforms. The air force and the navy in particularly absolutely hated it. Hellyer went too far. He put green uniforms on the navy."

Former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reversed the single uniform in the 1980s but the traditional names of the navy, air force and army were not reinstated until this week.

MacKay said the old names will be restored to the three military branches, resulting in some changes to uniforms, such as the addition of the letter "R" to navy and air force shoulder patches. He said new letterheads and other symbols will be phased in.

In Britain, Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine, said there has hardly been any coverage of Canada's military name changes in the U.K., but noted that the Daily Telegraph attributed the move to a renewed interest in the monarchy in Canada following William and Kate's wedding and their highly successful tour last month.

Hugo Vickers, a royal historian in London, thinks it's great that Canada wants to be more closely linked with the monarchy.

"The one thing that Canada really has over the United States is the queen, and if you didn't have the queen or the monarchy there would be a possibility that Canada would almost be a sub-state of America, that it would lose its identity," Vickers said.

But the military name changes have not gone over well with Canadian nationalists, French-speaking Quebeckers with long-standing resentment of the British crown, and new citizens of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Military historian Jack Granatstein, who supports Harper on most issues but believes Canada should have its own distinctive identity, called the move regressive. "Canada is not British anymore," he said.

In Quebec, Yves-Francois Blanchet, a separatist Parti Quebecois member in the provincial assembly, said it shows that Harper's Conservative government doesn't care about Quebec.

"They believe they don't need us," Blanchet said. "It's a lack of consideration, a lack of respect. They simply don't care about how we feel. Maybe they are just more honest than others."

Ameya Pendse, 18, of Toronto, a member of the anti-monarchy group Citizens for a Canadian Republic, said many new Canadians taking the oath of citizenship wonder why they are pledging allegiance to the British queen rather than to Canada.

Pendse, who was born in the U.S. to Indian parents and is now a Canadian citizen, said Harper is pushing his luck with the recent changes.

"It's totally gone too far now. Canadians are noticing. They are overdoing it," he said.