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When the Canadian Forces Used to Recruit Minorities

08/27/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 10/27/2013 05:12 EDT

There was a time when our Canadian Forces fought under the British Flag -- before Canada had its own flag, its own constitution, and its own uniquely-defined identity.

The Canadian Forces were mainly unilingual extensions of the British forces. They were even named as such: "Royal Canadian Navy" and "Royal Canadian Air Force" were clear references to one of the "two founding races".

There was a demographic forming 28 per cent of the Canadian population, which was said not to fit into the traditional military mould. They were seen as too "different", too "rebellious", too contrary to ever enter the fold of the military elite.

They were French-Canadians.

1914: WORLD WAR ONE

At the time of World War I, when French-Canadians where targeted by repressive laws, when their culture was denigrated, when their language was greeted like the plague, they were systematically kept out of all but a few lower ranking military units in the Land Forces.

The continuing colonial chokehold aggravated the cultural rift.

French-Canadians had every reason to distrust the British-lead Canadian Forces. Few French-Canadians had rallied to the British imperialism that had caused the South African War. For Henri Bourassa, a Quebec leader and defender, the "Great War" was no different from the Boer War: the British Government's motives were just as imperialistic, and no one could deny that the Brits treated Canada as a mere colony.

Then-Defence Minister Hughes wanted to make the rebellious French Canadians, who insisted on being different from other people, come to their senses. They had to become "plain Canadians" or become extinct. PM Robert Borden was more tactful: he appealed to their sense of duty through the intermediary of the Catholic Church.

Through this successful recruitment tactic, the legendary 22nd Battalion (the "Royal Van-Dooze") was formed in 1914, thus embracing the diversity that brought the Quebecers. French-Canadians raised 14 additional infantry battalions from 1915 to 1916, attracting Eastern-Ontarians, Acadians, French-speaking Western Canadians and Quebecers. French-speaking brigades consisted of Francophone units, but English was the language of command and administration... and the language of higher ranks. Of the 126 generals who served Canada during WWI, only four of them were French-Canadian.

1939: WORLD WAR TWO

For World War II, the cultural imbalance in Canadian troops barely budged. There was no structure or will to welcome Francophone recruits and train them, in French, into artillerymen, sailors or airmen. Post war, a series of studies on the treatment the three branches accorded to Francophones were commissioned. The findings were news to exactly no one. Anyone who spoke only French could envision no serious career in the Forces.

It wasn't until 1958 that J. Mackay Hitsman of the Army's Directorate of History wrote a study on the "problem" of French-Canadian representation in the Canadian Army. Hitsman addressed Francophone representation, the committee to Study "bilingual problems," the formation of new French-speaking units, the translation of battle honours, among other common claims. He cited General Guy Simonds' words: "We have gone as far as it is practicable to go in meeting the desires of French-speaking Canadians."

In the 1950s, feeble efforts were made to improve conditions for Francophones in the land army. The changes implemented were short-sighted, made without conviction, and amounted to very little.

1960: CONFLICT IN THE CONGO

When trouble broke out in the Belgian Congo, the Congolese asked the United Nations for help. The Government of Canada agreed to lend a hand. Canada was given an opportunity to shine on the global stage because our troops spoke the local language -- French. The collective consciousness of the Canadian public was raised: bilingualism wasn't a burden -- it was a boon. The military's unilingual policy no longer corresponded with the international outlook of a nation striving to come out from under the shadow of colonial Britain.

1964: INTEGRATION EFFORTS

From the mid-sixties onward, the Forces took a serious look at the place Francophones could occupy in the Canadian Forces. Successive Defence Ministers from 1964 to 1970 sought to improve the lot of Francophones, making it a priority issue. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jean Allard, advanced on all fronts: setting ambitious objectives, creating more French-language units. The colonial "royal" designation was removed from the mostly-unilingual branches. The new names, Canadian "Maritime Command" and "Air Command", were a strong signal for inclusiveness of all Canadians.

THE NEXT PHASE OF INTEGRATION

Today, Francophone Canadians have made strides in accessing all military branches and rising among the military ranks. The significant changes implemented in the 1970s bore fruit: one of which is the international reputation Canada garnered through the end of the 20th century. As new challenges emerge in this millennium, the Canadian Forces must also adapt and prepare. The battles of yesteryear are vastly different than the forthcoming conflicts. By giving up on visible minority recruitment targets, the Canadian Forces are missing a golden opportunity to leverage the unique skills and assets which these troops would lend to future international missions. In the past, dual language skills made our troops stand out. In the future, both language skills and cultural awareness will be invaluable assets in winning the hearts and minds of new allies overseas. The Canadian military successfully integrated what was considered a "different race and culture", French-Canadians, into the fold. And we are all better for it. It behoves a forward-thinking world-class military to rise again to this challenge.

* Read about the detailed history of Francophones in the Canadian military: French Canadians and Bilingualism in the Canadian Forces, Volume I, 1763-1969.