Listen, do you hear that creaking sound? That’s the members of Canada’s military straightening up a 43-year-old curvature of the spine.
Yes, as Defence Minister Peter McKay boasted this week, thousands of men and women in the Canadian forces can “stand a little taller, a little prouder” this week, since the designation “royal” has returned to their regimental letterheads.
Actually, the army isn’t standing any taller, they don’t get to be royal. Even in England they haven’t let armies call themselves royal since 1648. It seems kings and queens had been jumping to the conclusion that royal armies were theirs to do with as they pleased. The king got to keep the navy, it being of less use in rounding up political adversaries and consigning them to the Tower. The air force simply slipped through the cracks, as air forces were wont to do in the 17th century.
And so it was in Great Britain and her colonies until 1968, when that insidious nationalist, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, reorganized Canada’s military, and dropped the royal tag. It was a sad and a sorry sight as, en masse, Canada’s sailors and airmen drooped and sagged into the shamefaced slouch of the no-longer-royal.
It became all but impossible to tell the navy and the air force from the army because, not only were they in the same-coloured uniforms, but now they carried themselves with the same despondent posture as de-royalized British and colonial foot soldiers have worn for more than 400 years.
Wonderful as it is to see at least some members of our armed forces walking upright again, a few cynical and unpatriotic observers have raised questions about the timing and the true purpose of the announcement. There is speculation on Parliament Hill that, on learning that Stephen Harper is now rated Canada’s second-best prime minister after Trudeau, the Conservatives set out to dismantle some of the latter’s accomplishments, and this was the most doable one to start with. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is going to take a bit more work.
Others suggest that as a tall man himself, the prime minister needs the members of the military standing up as straight as possible when he goes to hide behind them. Whenever the opposition demands to know what happened to all the blacked-out cabinet documents on the detainee-transfer affair, Harper and McKay stand firmly behind their troops, and they were getting sick of scrunching down behind a bunch of slouchers.
Then there are those – probably separatists who desire to see the breakup of Canada – who claim that the Conservatives’ ad agency recommended the switch in order to associate their brand with the new and highly marketable Royal/Middleton product line. Now every time the House of Windsor expands to include another bimbo on the mega-dole the Royal Canadian Conservative Party gets a boost in sales.
But the predominant thinking among pundits and politicos alike is that the new royal designation was a fiscally prudent measure, designed to get the most mileage out of a couple of measly millions in insignia and letterhead purchases (outsourced to China, of course, it wouldn’t be fair to the taxpayer to expect them to cover Canadian wages).
Think how much more it would cost to placate troops and veterans if we had to give them decent health care and pensions.
Canada is the only western democracy that doesn’t track what becomes of the members of our military after they depart their country’s service. We know that a great many old soldiers, as well as old royal sailors and old royal airmen, end up on the streets. Unlike Britain, France, Germany, and the US, to name a few, we don’t know how many, but hey, who cares? At least now they can stand tall.
Veterans may be homeless, they may be shell-shocked, PTSD-suffering divorced alcoholics with little or no pensions, down and out and living in dank hovels in Canada’s worst neighbourhoods, coping with mysterious ailments and terrifying nightmares, but, by damn, they are royal, and that’s something you never lose. You never lose it because you can’t take it to the bank.
If you’re passing through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, North-Central Regina, or the Whitehorse Waterfront in the next few days, take a look around you. You will observe a few select members of the poorest of the poor standing straight and tall, and you will know by this that they are former members of the once-again royal branches of the armed forces. They served their country in Korea, Cyprus, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. They saw things that would break any human being, and they came back damaged and desperate, and Canada gave them two bits and a shrug. The two bits is spent and the shrug is all they have left. But today, damn it, it’s a royal shrug.
And there’s nothing like a royal shrug to straighten your spine.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.