The ‘Royal’ name change: significant or merely symbolic?

A quick internal polling of the CFPS fellowship on the question posed in this article’s title resulted in a general consensus that the navy’s name change is appropriate but not especially significant.  The Canadian naval connection to the crown was not removed by dropping the ‘RCN’ name for the navy and its naval air service at unification in 1968.  Canada is, after all, a constitutional monarchy.  All naval ships are titled as “Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship” and the crown motif is rampant throughout the naval environment adorning crests, badges, uniforms and flags.  Officers’ commissioning scrolls start with a citation of Her Majesty’s name and titles, and go on to empower them with “especial Trust and Confidence in your Loyalty, Courage and Integrity” … “to be an Officer in our Canadian Forces.”  First, naval ranks were restored, then nautical uniforms and now the name.  So, the resumption of the name RCN simply ‘resurfaces’ an identity that has been ‘submerged’ but was not ‘sunk forever into the depths and consigned to history’.  While none of those polled wanted a discussion of constitutional issues, I think there is a lot more to the issue of names, uniforms, customs and culture than most respondents to our poll acknowledged.
Jack Granatstein has said very forcefully that he thinks the move “is appalling … it’s abject colonialism,” … “I’m a historian, I think history matters, but we don’t have to be slavish in following it and restoring it.”  In the same Globe and Mail article, Doug Bland also viewed the name change negatively: “It’s absolutely nostalgia by members of retired naval and air force establishments who pine for this kind of environment in which they lived. … I don’t think it’s something that deeply excites young soldiers and sailors.”  Bland is probably correct that most young service members will simply shrug this off because the hiatus has been long enough that they have little connection with the naval history of the past.  But, whose fault is that?

Granatstien is right that history matters.  It is a major component of the culture of an organization; how we have done things in the past, both competently and ineptly, shapes who we are and how we look at issues.  Vice-Admiral (ret.) Glenn Davidson’s comment in a 2007 speech given at a RUSI event on “Canada’s Navy Post-1945” summed it up best: “It has been said before that a nation (or a navy) that does not know its history has no soul.”  To have a good feeling for history means spending at least some time on learning it, but even more time analysing it so that lessons can be internalised into the concepts that shape institutional doctrine.  This can be done, but it requires study, expert analysis and the creation of a truly Canadian naval doctrine that will be relevant for the 21st Century.  None of this has been done, so, not surprisingly, the doctrine does not exist.  Rather than sending our officers to the U.K. (formerly at the Imperial War College or the Royal Navy Staff Course) for their advanced education and ‘slavishly’ adopting Royal Navy doctrine as the RCN did in the past, the navy should be pushing hard for its own ‘home grown’ naval professional education and its proper conceptual manual.   The (now) RCN has no place in Canada where professional education beyond the entry-level is taught.  What passes for doctrine is a synthetic product of distilled NATO and 'four-eyes' procedural manuals.  That kind of mechanistic behaviour is (or should be) beneath us.

Senator Kenny has levelled the most serious criticism of all.  His short article in the Toronto Star is strident but purposeful. In his view, all of this is just a distraction to make it appear that Prime Minister Harper supports the navy, all the while cutting away via the Strategic and Operating Review currently ongoing.  He makes specific mention of the critical lack of four destroyers (I would have instead called them ‘major warships’) to serve as command, control and area defence platforms, and four replenishment ships to ensure that operational mobility and persistence are characteristics of all future Canadian naval operations.  A public debate is needed about what the characteristics of future naval capabilities should be, what the coastal balance should be, and what tasks the navy should be able to undertake in the military, constabulary and diplomatic roles.  We definitely should not automatically follow a pattern set by the Royal Navy out of some outdated sense of cultural loyalty.

So, the ‘danger’ here is that the navy reverts back to old bad practices, instead of forging its own identity and understanding its origins, warts and all.  Even if a successful republican movement springs up because of this re-branding exercise, which I doubt, the navy will still needs its own advanced educational system, a relevant and useful doctrinal guide to the concepts of all types of maritime operations, and an effective and useful force structure to ensure the security of the state and uphold our international commitments.  At the moment, they have none of these things, and the reversion to a ‘Royal’ status must not be allowed to distract anyone from these critical requirements.