The armed forces are the land, naval and air forces commanded by the federal government for the purpose of defending Canada's security, protecting its citizens, and promoting its strategic interests at home or abroad. The armed forces have evolved since colonial times from small, local militia units to the modern professional military forces of today.
17th–18th Century: Early Colonial Militia
The first Canadian militias were local groups of part-time soldiers drawn from the adult male population. These were organized in New France in the 17th century to confront threats from enemy Indigenous peoples or from American colonial militias in New England. In 1669, King Louis XIV directed that the traditional French militia system should be adopted throughout the colony. Governor Frontenac appointed a capitaine de milice or capitaine de la côte in each parish, and required all males aged 16–60 to train for one or two months a year.
The honorary capitaines de milice were generally respected by the habitants and served in both military and civil leadership roles. The militia also provided corvée labour to build roads, bridges and fortifications. Younger members adopted the skills of allied Indigenous tribes and specialized in swift movement through the forests and surprise attacks on New England settlements. New France was also protected by the Troupes de la Marine — regular-colonial troops raised by France's minister of the navy and colonies. This changed in the Seven Year's War, however, when large numbers of professional regiments arrived from both England and France.
When British General James Wolfe landed near Québec in 1759, the militia of New France was called out. Several thousand militiamen were incorporated into the regular army that French General Louis Montcalm had brought from France. After the French surrendered Montréal in 1760, the British disarmed the miliciens of New France, but they used the militia captains to help administer the country.
In the Maritimes, French colonial authorities in Acadia (what would become Nova Scotia) appointed capitaines de la milice as early as 1710. In 1713, the colony was officially turned over to the British, who created a militia in Halifax in 1749. As in New France, all British colonies in North America had some type of universal compulsory militia system, which required the service of all adult males, usually between the ages of 16 and 60. However, these men rarely saw military action, and were later referred to as “sedentary” militia. During the American Revolution (1775–83), the chief source of support for the British regular forces in the Maritimes was not the sedentary militia, but semi-professional, full-time regiments called "fencibles." Fencible regiments were raised and paid for service in their colony of origin. They were intended for defence and could not be sent for overseas service.
After the American Revolution, entire American Loyalist regiments migrated to what would become Upper Canada and New Brunswick. Many of these men would provide leadership for the local militias. However, the value of fencible regiments continued into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, given the continued possibility of invasion from the newly formed United States. In 1791, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe raised a corps of veterans, the Queen's Rangers, for military defence and public works in Upper Canada. The corps was disbanded in 1802 and replaced in 1811 by a fencible battalion. In 1793, the government of Lower Canada also raised fencible regiments in Montreal and Quebec.
Early 19th Century: War of 1812 to Confederation
During the War of 1812, as in the Seven Years' War, the militia were primarily assigned to transport and labour duties. Some also served alongside British professional regulars and fencible regiments. Well-trained regulars played the decisive role in saving Upper Canada from American invasion. However, local boosterism exaggerated the role of Canadian militia in repelling the invaders (see Voltigeurs of the War of 1812). Volunteers also helped suppress the 1837 rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada.
Concerns about desertion and rebellion led to the establishment of a separate garrison force in the colonies. With the unification of the two Canadas in 1841, the British government raised the Royal Canadian Rifles from pensioned veterans of the regular forces to serve in frontier posts. Veterans had less temptation to desert to the United States than did either newly enlisted men or conscripted militiamen, many of whom were originally from the US.
In 1855, the Province of Canada adopted the Militia Acts. The Acts kept the principle of compulsory enrolment in the militia, but also introduced a volunteer force that would be armed and uniformed even in peacetime, and would receive annual (paid) training. The voluntary principle proved popular in Canada West (although not in Canada East) and the creation of many historic militia units dates from this period. Although compulsory militia enrolment survived in theory for two more decades, it effectively became a thing of the past after 1855.
When the American Civil War raised fears of another American attack on Canada, the government tried to introduce compulsory training. The attempt failed — this was a shock to the British, who were struggling to reinforce their endangered colonies. By 1863, the British Parliament provided funds for the training and payment of 10,000 volunteer Canadian militiamen, and the training — but not payment — of 35,000 more. In 1866, more than 13,000 Canadian volunteers faced Fenian raiders . Among them were two militia battalions that were defeated at the Battle of Ridgeway on 2 June 1863.
Late 19th Century: North-West Rebellion and South Africa
After Confederation, a Militia Act in 1868 established the Department of Militia and Defence. It also authorized the recruitment (on paper) of 40,000 volunteers, for cavalry, infantry, rifle and artillery units. These units would train for eight to 16 days a year at a cost of $1 million annually.
In 1870, two militia battalions from Ontario and Québec were sent with British regular soldiers to suppress the Red River Rebellion. The following year, as the last British garrisons left Canada, the government established two full-time artillery batteries to replace the British forces at Kingston, Ontario, and Québec City, and to train gunners and infantry. A British General Officer Commanding (GOC) was appointed to lead the Militia of Canada (comprising full and part time members) in 1874. The Military College was opened in 1876 at Kingston.
In 1883, the Militia Act was amended. The legislation authorized the creation of a small permanent force, including one cavalry troop, three artillery batteries and three infantry regiments. The same year, a third artillery school was opened at Esquimalt, British Columbia. A cavalry school was also opened at Quebec, along with infantry schools at Fredericton, St-Jean, Quebec, Toronto, and London, Ontario. These, plus a mounted-infantry school at Winnipeg, were the beginnings of a permanent force of 850–1,000 members. (This permanent force was known as the Permanent Active Militia, while the part-time militia was known as the Non-Permanent Active Militia).
In 1885, permanent force units under the command of British Major-General Frederick Middleton, were sent along with 6,000 volunteers on the Canadian Pacific Railway to suppress the Northwest Rebellion. Despite losing 26 men in battle, Middleton's success added to the militia's prestige and silenced critics of its training, equipment and organization. In 1890, Major-General Ivor Herbert replaced Middleton as Permanent Force commander. Herbert reformed the military by expanding headquarters staff, sending officers to England for training and seeking to enhance the military's popularity in Québec.
In 1898, the government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier dispatched 200 volunteers of the permanent force as a Yukon Field Force. This force helped police and customs officers maintain order during the Klondike Gold Rush.
The following year, the Laurier government sent a first contingent of 1,000 men to assist Britain in the South African War (1899–1902). These volunteers formed a special service battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter. A second contingent included two battalions of Canadian Mounted Rifles, with its members recruited from the West. Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, provided funds to raise another regiment. Lord Strathcona's Horse, a regiment of about 600 mounted riflemen, came mainly from western Canada. Altogether, more than 8,000 Canadians served in South Africa, and more than 220 died there, either in battle or from disease. The South African War marked the first time Canadians fought on foreign soil in the uniforms of Canadian forces.
Early 20th Century: Reform, Expansion
Compared to its British model, the Canadian military was riddled with political patronage. All but one of its British commanders had their Canadian careers curtailed by quarrels with the minister of militia. Sir Frederick Borden, Laurier's minister of militia and defence from 1896 to 1911 was no exception, but he was anxious for reform. In 1904, he replaced the British commander with a Militia council, and the way was cleared for a Canadian chief of the general staff. The first was William Otter in 1908. During the same period auxiliary corps were added including medical, ordnance, engineers, signals, Army Service Corps, and a Canadian Corps of Guides, since Canada lacked any systematic maps for its border regions. The military was also equipped with the Canadian-made Ross rifle.
In 1909, Canada and the British Empire's other dominions agreed at an imperial defence conference to standardize army organization, regulations and equipment on British models, and to accept imperial general staff officers. By 1914, Canada's permanent force numbered about 3,000, and there were more than 70,000 partially trained militia. All provinces except Saskatchewan enforced cadet training for boys and sometimes girls in high schools.
The Army in the First World War
At the outbreak of the First World War, Militia Minister Sir Sam Hughes recruited a 30,000 member Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) by appealing for volunteers. The resulting flow of recruits allowed Canada to contribute two infantry divisions on the Western Front by 1915 and two more the following year. The corps eventually boasted a strength of 70,000 men. By mid-1917, the Canadian Corps was commanded by a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie. While professional British staff officers provided valuable experience and service, the Corps was also staffed by Canadians in numerous key positions.
The capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 gave the Corps a proud achievement. Casualties were heavy, though, and in the Second Battle of Ypres, the Somme, and the Battle of Passchendaele. This forced the government of Prime Minister Robert Borden to conscript soldiers for overseas service. After winning a brutally divisive election on the conscription issue in December 1917, Borden's Union government found an additional 100,000 soldiers under the Military Service Act (MSA).
A series of Allied victories in 1918, spearheaded by the Canadian Corps fighting at Cambrai, Amiens and Mons, helped bring the First World War to an end on 11 November that year. More than 619,000 men and women served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force; 66,000 were killed and another 173,000 wounded.
After the war, the government increased the permanent force establishment (the total number of permanent troops allowed) to 10,000. However, actual strength remained around 4,000 troops in the following units: the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), the Royal 22e Régiment, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD), and Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Ottawa saw no need to purchase tanks or other modern weapons, and part-time militia units were largely self-financed and self-equipped by generous officers. The exhaustion of the First World War, followed by the social and financial hardship of the Great Depression, took a toll on militia participation. At the Depression's height, only about 2,000 men went to militia training camps.
The Army in the Second World War
As Germany bullied its neighbours and ramped up for another conflict, Canada reorganized and refocused its militia in preparation for the possible recruitment of volunteers for war. In the Second World War, Canada fielded a combat force led by Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton. The force consisted of three infantry and two armoured divisions, as well as two independent armoured brigades. More than 730,000 men and women served in what was collectively called the First Canadian Army. Nearly 23,000 were killed and more than 53,000 wounded in operations that included the raid on Dieppe in 1942, the Italian campaign in 1943, the Battle of Normandy in 1944, and the subsequent campaigns in northwest Europe that helped bring the final defeat of Nazi Germany (see also Liberation of the Netherlands, Battle of the Rhineland). Canadian soldiers also fought in more distant theatres of the war, including the Battle of Hong Kong.
In June 1940, the National Resources Mobilization Act had authorized the government to conscript Canadians for home defence. By November 1944, after heavy casualties in Europe, the Act was amended to permit conscription for overseas service. Ultimately, only about 2,500 conscripts actually served in operational units during the last months of the war in Europe.
1946–70: Cold War and Birth of Peacekeeping
In 1946, the Canadian Army permanent force was fixed at 25,000 members. In 1951, Canada authorized the formation of an infantry brigade to join United Nations (UN) forces in the Korean War. Nearly 22,000 Canadians served in the war. Canadian troops distinguished themselves in combat against Chinese forces, notably at the Battle of Kapyong. Canadian casualties in Korea between 1951 and 1953 totalled 312 men killed and more than 1,200 wounded, the vast majority of them army casualties.
During the 1950s, army numbers swelled to 52,000. This was necessary to meet Canada's new commitment to NATO of a brigade stationed in western Europe, to confront the threat presented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the militia's six divisions were renamed the reserve force, which was assigned at the end of the 1950s to domestic security duties and civil defence. This assignment, along with the disbandment of some long-established militia regiments, weakened morale among reservists.
In 1956, Canada's army found a new role. American condemnation of the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis threatened to rip NATO apart, at a time when the Soviet Union had threatened London and Paris with a nuclear attack. To enforce a rapid armistice and terminate the conflict, Canadian foreign minister Lester Pearson proposed an international peacekeeping force to separate the opponents with minimum loss of face for either side. Ottawa contributed 1,000 signals and logistics troops to support the enterprise. Canadian Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns also took command of the entire United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). Soon, Canadians would also provide troops to help control violence in Congo, to separate Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and to support UN peacekeeping wherever it seemed possible, and often when it was not.
Peacekeeping was popular with most Canadians. It was service with sufficient purpose and danger to sustain army morale without exhausting its strength. Meanwhile, the continuing NATO commitment in Europe allowed a brigade of soldiers to train and be equipped for the most technologically advanced forms of land warfare. During this time, the Canadian Army adopted American-pattern weapons, equipment and communications technology, replacing British patterns that had been the model since before Confederation.
The Army at Home: October and Oka Crises
After decades of deploying overseas in foreign conflicts, the Canadian Army responded in 1970 to a domestic security threat. The October Crisis that year prompted the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act and deploy more than 10,000 battle-ready troops in Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa. The forces withdrew in November without suffering or inflicting any casualties. In the summer of 1990, the army responded again to domestic civil unrest, when most of the 5th Mechanized Brigade from Valcartier, Quebec, was dispatched to support Quebec police against Mohawk "warriors" and protestors during the Oka Crisis.
During the 1990s the army was also called on to help with civilian emergencies at home. In 1997, 8,600 troops were deployed to Manitoba to protect homes and farms from the flooding Red River. The following year, almost 20,000 regulars and reservists provided emergency support after an ice storm toppled power lines and left millions of people in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes without heat or light. In 2003, approximately 2,200 troops were sent to help fight forest fires in British Columbia.
The Army in Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda
The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s was followed by the eruption of ethnic civil war in the splintering republics of Yugoslavia. In 1992, Ottawa sent two battalions of 1,200 troops from its brigade in Germany as part of an international UN force to intervene between the warring sides. In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, Canadian Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, the force's deputy commander, tried to limit the slaughter between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. There was also no peace to keep in the neighboring republic of Croatia, where at the Medak Pocket, members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry fought the first firefight experienced by Canadians since the Korean War.
At the end of 1992, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government brought Canada's 30-year peacekeeping commitment in Cyprus to an end. However, another mission in Somalia promptly took its place. The government sent Canada's Airborne battalion to Somalia as part of an American-led peacemaking operation. The subsequent torture and murder of a young Somali intruder by Airborne troops in 1993 grew into a national scandal, exposing serious problems with leadership, discipline and morale in the army. The Somalia affair, and its subsequent cover-ups at military headquarters in Ottawa, besmirched the once-benign peacekeeping image of the Canadian Forces, cost two chiefs-of-defence-staff their jobs, and resulted in the disbanding of the Airborne regiment in 1995.
In 1994, Canadian Major-General Roméo Dallaire, commander of a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, was caught in the midst of an unfolding genocide that killed more than half-a-million people and also took the lives of 10 Belgian paratroopers under Dallaire's command. Canadian troops later participated in a UN mission to help Rwanda recover in the wake of the genocide. However, Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda exposed the shortcomings and deadly risks of peacekeeping or peacemaking in foreign conflicts and diminished Canadian enthusiasm for such missions.
The Al Qaeda terror attacks of 11 September 2001 prompted the invasion of Afghanistan by a US-led international coalition that included Canada. The first Canadian land units to take part were the special forces unit Joint Task Force 2, and a battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry to help guard the airfield at the city of Kandahar.
In 2005, with counter-insurgency operations continuing in Afghanistan against Taliban forces, the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin committed to sustaining a reinforced battalion of about 2,000 troops in Kandahar province for several years. By the close of 2011, when the Kandahar mission came to an end, 158 Canadians had been killed in the most serious fighting experienced by the Canadian Army since Korea. Many soldiers who returned suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a consequence of their experience at war.
Early 20th century: Fledgling Navy
From early colonial times until the late 19th century, various local or provincial naval flotillas served on Canada's Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and on the Great Lakes. After Confederation, Canada had no formal navy until after the turn of the 20th century, when a growing British-German high seas rivalry led to British requests for naval contributions from Canada and the British Empire's other dominions. This led to the decision to place Canada's small fleet of fisheries-protection vessels under a separate organization. On 29 March 1909, Parliament approved the creation of a Canadian naval service, and on 4 May 1910 the Naval Service Act brought the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) into being. Two ageing British cruisers were purchased for training purposes, one for each coast. A naval training college was also established in Halifax.
The navy and its financial costs were a major political issue, and it suffered severe setbacks under the Conservative regime of Prime Minister Robert Borden between 1911 and 1914. Divided between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Esquimalt, British Columbia, the navy was directed from a distant headquarters in Ottawa, where naval staff sometimes failed to appreciate the fleet's needs and often could not explain them to government.
The navy did not play a significant role in the First World War. The two second-hand cruisers performed some patrol duties at sea along with dozens of smaller coastal vessels — manned by a total of more than 9,000 sailors — but none engaged the powerful German navy or its U-boats on the North Atlantic.
After the war, Ottawa starved the navy of funding. Commodore Walter Hose, director of the naval service from 1921 to 1928 and chief of the naval staff from 1928 to 1934, had to resist efforts by the militia to subordinate and even disband the navy. Forced to close the Royal Naval College of Canada in 1922, Hose established the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1923. With rising international tensions in the late 1930s, Rear-Admiral Percy Nelles finally succeeded in waking up Ottawa to the need for an effective navy.
The Navy in the Second World War
In the Second World War, the navy was the first Canadian force into action — escorting merchant convoys across the Atlantic by 1940 and helping evacuate British soldiers from the European continent. In 1941, the worsening U-boat threat and the need to defend home waters, provided the impetus for Canada to build a major oceanic fleet through a massive program of naval shipbuilding and recruiting. Additional commitments in the Pacific compounded the need in 1943. Canada acquired cruisers and modern Tribal-class destroyers and built dozens of anti-submarine corvettes and other escorts. The Royal Canadian Navy grew from 13 warships and about 3,000 sailors in 1939, to 365 warships and 100,000 personnel (including 6,500 women) in 1945. At first, rapid expansion diluted efficiency, hampering the navy's main function of convoy escort duties, but such growing pains were eventually resolved.
Through the Battle of the Atlantic, Canada's navy provided skillful, shore-based control of shipping and radio-intercept and intelligence operations. It also provided half of all the naval escorts on the North Atlantic convoy routes. As a result, the Allies established a new theatre of operations called Canadian Northwest Atlantic. In May 1943, Rear-Admiral Leonard Murray became the theatre's commander in chief — the only Canadian to command an entire theatre during the war.
In addition, Canadian warships escorted convoys on the Murmansk Run to Russia. They also participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and in other amphibious assaults on the Aleutian Islands, Sicily and Italy, and southern France. During the war, the RCN sank more than 70 enemy ships and submarines, while losing 31 of its own ships and also the lives of 1,990 Canadian sailors. By war's end, the RCN was the fourth-largest navy in the world.
1946–89: Postwar Change and the Cold War
Despite the navy's extraordinary contribution to the war effort, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had always suspected that the RCN was a mere instrument of the British Admiralty. Nevertheless, his government approved a small permanent navy of two aircraft carriers, two cruisers and 12 destroyers in 1945. Tens of thousands of sailors departed the navy after their wartime service. Among the fewer than 6,500 who remained, relations between officers and men soured under the pressures of adjusting to peacetime and struggling with shrinking budgets. After three protests by ships' crews in 1949, Rear-Admiral E. Rollo Mainguy presided over a commission that urged the navy to modernize its customs as a way of improving relations between non-commissioned sailors and officers.
The RCN maintained a force of three destroyers in Korean waters during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. After Korea, the growing tensions of the Cold War gave the navy renewed purpose, along with a rise in the defence budget. By the late 1950s, much of the RCN was dedicated to a growing anti-submarine role as part of Canada's contribution to NATO and to continental defence. New ships such as the St. Laurent class anti-submarine destroyer escorts were introduced at this time. The wartime aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent was replaced by the more modern carrier HMCS Bonaventure in 1957. By 1964, the naval fleet also included 22 Canadian-designed-and-built destroyers, 17 ocean escorts of Second World War vintage, 10 coastal mine sweepers and 21,500 personnel. (Bonaventure would be scrapped in 1970 due to defence budget cuts.) In the early 1960s, the RCN also introduced the use of destroyer-based Sea King helicopters.
The navy had a limited role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Defence Minister Douglas Harkness, without approval from Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, ordered RCN destroyers to relieve and support coastal U.S. warships in the blockade of Cuba.
As the 1970s arrived, the navy continued its role in anti-submarine warfare, though it dwindled in size and was compromised by increasing maintenance and fuel costs for the aging fleet. On its golden anniversary in 1960, the RCN had boasted a fleet of some 50 warships crewed by 21,500 sailors. By the 1970s, other than the aging St. Laurents, the navy had only one operational support ship and three Oberon-class training submarines acquired in the mid-1960s, plus the expectation of four new gas-turbine-powered, helicopter-carrying destroyers (the Iroquois class) and two more operational support ships (the Protecteur class) for fewer than 10,000 sailors. These reduced forces constituted the fleet for the last two decades of the Cold War.
As both Soviet and American incursions into Arctic waters provoked concern about Canadian sovereignty, the navy proposed to create a nuclear powered submarine fleet to enhance its ability to assert power in the North. Public outcry dashed these plans in the 1980s.
1990s: New Ships and Persian Gulf
The end of the Cold War in 1989 coincided with a fleet renewal that included 12 Canadian-made, Halifax-class frigates in various stages of building, a mid-life upgrade for the four Iroquois-class destroyers, and 12 new maritime coastal-defence vessels planned to revive a mine-clearing capability for the naval reserve.
The end of Cold War tensions shifted the navy's focus from antisubmarine operations to other domestic and international tasks. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In response, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent three warships to the region as part of a US-led move to force Iraq out of Kuwait (see also Persian Gulf War). The ships and their crew of 1,000 were hurriedly prepared for the first serious naval engagement since 1953.
During this period, the navy also embarked on two domestic enforcement missions. From 1995 to 1997 it conducted enforcement patrols against Spanish ships accused of over-fishing in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. And in July 2000, the American cargo vessel GTS Katie had been hired to ship Canadian military personnel and cargo back from the Balkans in the wake of the NATO victory against Serbia's invasion of the largely Albanian province of Kosovo in the spring of 1999 (Operation Allied Force). When the Katie sailed off its agreed course, the navy conducted Operation Megaphone, a boarding mission to secure Canadian interests.
The navy also took part in humanitarian relief efforts in East Timor, in escort missions for aid deliveries to Somalia, in peace enforcement operations in Haiti, and in UN sanction-enforcement missions against Iraq and Serbia.
2001–16: Anti-Terror and International Aid
The terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 triggered new missions for the navy on the world stage. From October 2001 to December 2003, nearly 4,000 sailors on various warships served in the Arabian Gulf region and elsewhere as part of Operation Apollo — boarding and inspecting vessels and providing logistics, support and reconnaissance for the unfolding war in Afghanistan. At its peak, the Canadian Naval Task Force contribution to Operation Apollo was 1,500 personnel and six warships. By the end of the operation, 18 of Canada's 20 ships had been deployed, and Canadian naval boarding party personnel had conducted more than 260 boardings — nearly 60 per cent of the entire coalition fleet's boardings.
In 2008, Canada also increased its naval role in NATO's anti-piracy effort off Somalia and the Horn of Africa. The navy also continued to help in relief efforts — to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and to post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti in 2010.
Aviation in the First World War
Before 1914, military aviation in Canada did not exist. Military and naval aviation underwent extraordinary development after the First World War began, but the reluctance of the Canadian government to develop a distinct air force persisted until late in the war. About 25,000 Canadians served as pilots, observers and ground support staff in the British Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service, and after 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF).
The publicity given to Canadian participation in the air war — especially to the exploits of such outstanding fighter pilots as William "Billy" Bishop, William "Billy" Barker, Raymond Collishaw and Donald MacLaren, helped build pressure for the establishment of a distinctly Canadian service. So did the fact that German long-range submarines were a threat to shipping on Canada's East Coast. The government of Prime Minister Robert Borden accordingly authorized the creation of two small forces: the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service (RCNAS) for coastal defence, and the Canadian Air Force (CAF), which was intended to work with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Both organizations were short-lived. The RCNAS was disbanded in December 1918 and the CAF in mid-1919.
1920–39: RCAF Founded
Before the fledgling CAF was dissolved, steps had already been taken to create a national aviation policy. An Air Board was appointed in June 1919 and given the task of advising government on future aviation policy. This board laid the foundation for the development and regulation of civil aviation and, on the assumption that military aviation strength depended upon a strong commercial sector, envisaged the formation of only a small, temporary air force. The new Canadian Air Force was thus established in April 1920, but it was soon clear that something more permanent was required.
Under the National Defence Act of 1922 the Air Board was absorbed by the new Department of National Defence. Its civil and military air arms were united under the director of the CAF, who reported to the chief of the general staff. The CAF was now a permanent force. In 1923 the CAF was designated "Royal," and on 1 April 1924, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) came into effect, adopting the RAF ensign, motto, uniforms and rank structure.
Despite these colonial trappings, the RCAF was a Canadian service. Until the early 1930s about half the RCAF's manpower performed civil air operations. The bulk of its duties included forest spraying and fire patrol, fisheries and customs surveillance on both coasts, air ambulance flights and aerial photography (which contributed greatly to the mapping and geological survey of remote areas). Aircraft such as the Canadian Vickers Vedette flying boat were designed for such missions.
Only in 1928 did the force purchase a few Siskin fighters and Atlas army co-operation aircraft from Britain to replace its long-retired military aircraft. No further important purchases were made during the Great Depression. For the first half of the interwar period, therefore, Canada had a military flying service in name only, although connections with the RAF through exchanges, a liaison staff and the posting of Canadian officers to British staff schools, ensured a degree of professionalism and some acquaintance with air doctrine.
The RCAF in the Second World War
When the Second World War began in 1939, the RCAF had no first-class aircraft or other equipment, with the exception of some Hawker Hurricane fighters. Western and Eastern Air Commands were responsible for coastal air defence, and Training Command was centred at Trenton, Ontario. Eight permanent active air force squadrons and 12 auxiliary active air force squadrons had been organized.
The key to wartime expansion was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). The program graduated 131,000 aircrew in Canada, of whom almost 73,000 were Canadian. Despite the Canadian government's commitment to training Commonwealth aircrew, the program did not accord the RCAF an independent status equal to that of the Canadian Army during the war. Although the BCATP Agreement contained a British undertaking that Commonwealth aircrew "shall ... be identified with their respective Dominions," the Canadian government failed to provide financially for the ground crew needed to support Canadian aircrew overseas, or for full financing of Canadian aircrew serving abroad, or even for the support of Canadian air units overseas. As a result, Canadian pilots, navigators, air gunners and other aircrew found themselves dispersed throughout the RAF, rather than being concentrated in RCAF groupings.
Of the 250,000 men and women in the wartime RCAF, 94,000 served overseas. Most Canadian airmen flew with the RAF, but 48 separate Canadian squadrons also took part in operations around the globe, from No. 1 (later 401) Squadron's participation in the Battle of Britain to 435 and 436 (Transport) Squadrons' missions in India and Burma during the final days of the conflict with Japan. 417 Squadron and 331 Wing fought in North Africa, and the former continued into Italy. Canadian squadrons played a part in all RAF operational home commands. Airmen such as Clifford "Black Mike" McEwen, G.E. Brookes, and George "Buzz" Beurling, carried on the tradition of Bishop, Barker, Collishaw and MacLaren.
The RCAF was deeply involved in the Battle of the Atlantic, with squadrons from East Coast bases carrying out convoy duties and antisubmarine patrols. RCAF squadrons also participated with American forces in the defence of Alaska against Japanese incursions and flew on antisubmarine duties in the Far East.
Bomber Command was the largest RAF operational command. Thousands of Canadian BCATP graduates took part in the massive area-bombing campaign. Wing Commander J.E. Fauquier was the leading Canadian bomber pilot. Casualties were heavy; of the more than 16,000 fatalities suffered by the RCAF during the war, nearly 10,000 were sustained in Bomber Command.
1946–60: RCAF Golden Age
At the end of the Second World War, the RCAF was the fourth-largest Allied air force, with more than 215,000 personnel in uniform. By late 1946, numbers had dwindled to 13,000. The permanent force resumed such duties as transport, search and rescue, and survey patrols. Jet flight did not enter the service until 1948, when some British Vampire aircraft were purchased. In the Korean War, Canada's official air contribution was limited to the transport duties of 426 Squadron, although some RCAF fighter pilots flew with the US Air Force.
The Cold War threat reversed the downsizing trend for the RCAF. In 1951 the Canadian government committed an air division of 12 front-line fighter squadrons to Europe as part of its NATO involvement. In 1958, Canada and the US joined in the formation of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), with a Canadian as deputy commander. Under NORAD, the RCAF established numerous interceptor squadrons and operated early warning radar sites across Canada. Fleets of Canadian-built F-86 Sabre and CF-100 Canuck fighters symbolized the "Golden Age" of the RCAF in the 1950s.
1960–2000: Lean Times, New Commitments
In the early 1960s the air force adopted US-controlled nuclear weapons, arming CF-104 Starfighter squadrons based in Europe as well as CF-101 Voodoo squadrons and two Bomarc missile sites in Canada. The nuclear capability was controversial, and the weapons were retired from the air force in 1983.
The 1960s were also the beginning of several decades of financial restraint for the air force. Canadian aircraft programs such as the Avro Arrow were cancelled, and for the next several decades numerous Canadian air bases at home and in Europe were closed. In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and the perceived "peace dividend" reduced budgets further. Over the course of that decade the number of regular air force personnel shrank from more than 20,000 to fewer than 14,000.
Despite the reductions, the air force faced new demands overseas throughout the 1990s. Canadian fighter crews were in combat for the first time since the Korean War, as part of the Allied coalition fighting the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91, and later, in support of NATO operations over Kosovo in 1999. The air force also continued to assist with transport missions for the UN in Africa and Asia, and with domestic relief work during floods and storms, and with ongoing search-and-rescue duties across Canada.
The RCAF and Anti-Terrorism in the 21st Century
The 9/11 terrorist attacks put the air force's CF-18s into action over North America, patrolling domestic skies as Canadian airports offered emergency refuge to diverted passenger airliners. By 2002, the air force's Maritime patrol and transport aircraft were supporting counter-terrorism operations in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. From 2008 to 2011 the RCAF operated helicopters and fixed-wing transports out of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in support of the international military mission there.
In 2011, the RCAF (which regained its "Royal" designation that year, after losing it in 1968) supported NATO operations in Libya, and in 2014 began flying combat missions alongside the international coalition fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq. It continued to conduct offshore fisheries and security patrols in Canada, as well as provide search-and-rescue services throughout the country, including the far North.
Unification and Reorganization
In February 1968, the Canadian Army, RCN and RCAF were abolished and reorganized into a single service, the Canadian Armed Forces, with regular and reserve components. The experiment of unification was unique to Canada and was not imitated by other countries.
Integration had been a recurring policy since the establishment of a single National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) in 1922. Under Brooke Claxton, Minister of National Defence from 1946 to 1954, Canada's military colleges and systems of military law had been unified, as had other aspects of military administration. During Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's Conservative government from 1957 to 1963, medical, legal and chaplains' services were also integrated.
The Armed Forces expected major changes when the Liberals returned to power in 1963. The Glassco Royal Commission earlier that year had been highly critical of inefficiency and triplication of military administration. Toronto businessman Paul Hellyer had been defence critic in Opposition, and as the new Liberal minister of defence he undertook a promised policy review. Unification had not been Hellyer's policy initially, but the idea grew on him as he tried to deal with three service chiefs, each struggling for his own service.
On 7 June 1965, the navy, army and air force commands were replaced by six functional commands, most of them with regional responsibilities. Maritime Command took over the RCN's ships and the RCAF's anti-submarine squadrons on both coasts. Mobile Command at St-Hubert, Quebec, was to control the army's brigade groups and militia and the RCAF's ground-support squadrons. Training Command and Material Command integrated tri-service functions, while Air Defence and Air Transport commands passed unaltered from the RCAF. Communications Command was added later. Canada's ground and air forces in Europe reported directly to Ottawa. On 1 May 1966, all military camps, stations and the navy's land-based "ships" became 39 Canadian Forces Bases.
When senior officers protested, Hellyer regarded their opposition as verging on a challenge to civil supremacy over the military. Politicians, editors and cartoonists often ridiculed the officers' objections. The public was reminded that several who resigned in protest enjoyed generous pensions. By appointing General Jean-Victor Allard as chief of defence staff, Hellyer secured an enthusiast for unification and for eliminating many British features of the forces, including ranks and uniform insignia. Within a year, members of the Canadian Forces began to appear in new green uniforms modelled on those of the US Air Force, with rank badges recognizable to American as well as Canadian personnel.
Unification wasn’t popular with most members of the military, however. In 1984, the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney revived three separate service uniforms (army, navy and air force) — although with common badges and rank insignia. A decade later, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien restored separate navy, army and air force headquarters and brought them back to Ottawa. And starting in 2011, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper restored the "Royal" designations to the navy and air force, and returned traditional, British-style ranks and insignia to the navy and army. By 2014, many of the changes carried out under unification had been undone.