The last salute: Canadian military begins changing oaths and honours in wake of Queen's death

·5 min read
Queen Elizabeth meets with Canadian soldiers on duty in London. (Steve Parsons/Press Association/Royal Reigment of Canadian Artillery - image credit)
Queen Elizabeth meets with Canadian soldiers on duty in London. (Steve Parsons/Press Association/Royal Reigment of Canadian Artillery - image credit)

It's fair to say that, no matter where you turn in the Canadian Armed Forces, you inevitably bump into Queen Elizabeth.

She was (and in some cases will continue to be, for the foreseeable future) almost everywhere within the military.

From portraits, prefixes and designations to oaths and honours, the military footprint of the Commonwealth's longest-reigning monarch will not fade away quickly. Amending those royal honours for a post-Elizabeth military requires a whole series of changes.

Some of those changes will be easy and automatic, while others will be more complicated and may take years to work out, said Lt.-Col. Carl Gauthier. He leads the Directorate of Honours and Recognition at the Department of National Defence.

As most Canadians wonder when the face of King Charles will adorn the $20 bill, the military is mourning the loss of the personal interest the late monarch took in individual units and soldiers — the quiet, behind-the-scenes gestures and words of encouragement she offered over the years.

The Queen was colonel-in-chief — the ceremonial head — of 16 different military units in this country. That's an extraordinary number given the relatively small size of Canada's armed forces.

Members of those regiments make up the Canadian military contingent — 95 soldiers, sailors and aircrew — that will be present at her funeral in London on Monday.

'She represents who we are'

"We always toast to the Queen," said Cpl. Raquel Bitton, a member of the Montreal-based Canadian Grenadier Guards and part of the contingent attending the funeral.

"We have her picture in our regiment as we walk into our mess. You know, it's all about the Queen. So I mean, she represents who we are. It's part of our identity and something we're very proud of."

Bitton said the Queen's passing is "a great loss" because of what was accomplished during her reign. She said it's " truly an honour" to be present at her funeral.

Gauthier said the Queen has been patron of some Canadian regiments for over 70 years, beginning when she was still a princess.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

She was, he said, quite active behind the scenes.

"The Queen used to basically meet with the command team of each regiment," Gauthier said.

"Even if she didn't visit Canada, they could go and have an audience at Buckingham Palace or elsewhere."

Such visits, he said, tended to be short and focused.

"The Queen would want to know what's going on with the unit," he said. "Are they deploying people to operations? Have there been casualties? Are the significant changes happening with the units?"

Whenever the Queen was in Canada, tour organizers always set aside time for her to spend with members of the military. During the Afghan war, she met privately with some families of the fallen.

All of those gestures deeply touched members of the tight-knit military community, said Gauthier.

Now, each unit will have to decide who among the Royal Family they want to have representing them.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

King Charles III holds a handful of ceremonial posts within the Canadian military. Gauthier, who was an aide to the then-Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada in 2009, said the new monarch also displayed a personal touch.

At a meeting in Montreal with the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan who was a reservist from the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (the Black Watch), the mother of the fallen soldier — touched by Charles's words — asked if she could hug him.

Without hesitation, Charles abandoned the protocol — which says he must not be touched — and embraced the grieving woman, said Gauthier, who was present for the private meeting.

On one other occasion, Gauthier said, Charles sent a bottle of Scotch to a wounded soldier.

'They don't just want to be a name on the letterhead'

"I know the [former] Prince of Wales was asking me when I was [aide] to make sure that the [commanding officers] write to him," he said. "He wanted to know. They don't want to be just a name on the letterhead ... they want to be involved, they want to be informed."

The Queen was patron of a number of regiments across the Commonwealth and finding new ones among the Royal Family will be a years-long process, Gauthier said.

Similarly, the Queen's image, or insignia, adorns many of Canada's military medals, including those for heroism. They will have to be changed as well.

"It will take some time for the King to approve any effigy and new cipher, so we can modify the designs and manufacture metals," said Gauthier. "In the meantime, we will continue to issue medals with Her Majesty's effigy, until such a time a new insignia is available."

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Other aspects of the Queen's presence in military life are more easily changed. The designation of His Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS), as opposed to Her Majesty's Canadian Ship, was pretty much automatic. So was changing the oath of allegiance that members of the military swear upon enrolment.

Veteran diplomat and foreign affairs commentator Colin Robertson said the outpouring of sadness over the Queen's passing is an interesting moment. He pointed to how Canadian governments in the 1960s and 70s tried to put an more independent stamp on the military, distancing Canada from its British colonial roots with the amalgamation of the branches into the Canadian Forces (later the Canadian Armed Forces).

"I think there was a sense that the Queen represented the British connection, in the sense of empire and colonialism ... certain governments felt that that was not, that was not where Canada was," Robertson said.

The feeling at the time, he said, was that "Canada was an independent nation and that our constitutional monarchy was a system of government, but the emphasis was the Constitution and less on the monarchy."

Both the air force and the navy lost their "Royal" designations during this period — only to have them restored under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.