Lagassé: Does the 'royal' rebranding of the Canadian Forces have a wider meaning?

By: /
August 22, 2011

Whatever the motive behind the decision, the return of the ‘royal’ designation involves more than a reflection of the Conservative Party’s desire to appeal to their political base and veterans. We should also appreciate how these names inform Canadians and members of the armed forces about how the military is governed and controlled in Canada.

As per section 15 of the Constitution Act 1867 , the command of the armed forces is vested in the Crown, the formal executive. This means that Cabinet’s constitutional authority to control the military ultimately flows from the Canadian Crown, not Parliament. As well, it means that the armed forces serve and are loyal to the Crown, rather than the House of Commons, a fact that Parliament acknowledged in section 14 of the National Defence Act. While the military are answerable to parliamentarians, they obey, and account to, ministers of the Crown (the political executive), those who are accountable for Canada’s national defence under our system of responsible government.

This constitutional reality has been blurred of late, with prominent commentators and high ranking officers implying that the military serves and are loyal to Parliament. While this notion draw on Canada’s tradition of parliamentary democracy, it is constitutionally flawed and detrimental to civil-military relations in Canada. Military officers should never be asked to choose between the dictates of a parliamentary motion and a Cabinet directive, for instance. Yet the idea that the military serves Parliament instead of the Crown could potentially lead to such a situation, particularly under minority governments and when the House is asked to pass motions on military deployments.

Of equal importance, highlighting the military’s service to the Crown reminds the government of the day that the armed forces do not belong to them or their party. They serve the institution that symbolizes the Canadian state and that is duty bound to attend to the welfare of the Canadian people. This link to the Crown thereby protects the apolitical, nonpartisan nature of the military, and provides the constitutional link between the armed forces and the Canadian people.

The ‘royal’ monikers, then, remind us of an underappreciated system of constitutional monarchical civil-military relations that operates according to the democratic principles of responsible government.