Canadian military's return to pips sparks war of words

Ottawa’s order that the highest ranking Canadian Army officers abandon maple leaf badges for British stars and crowns last used in 1968 has sparked a war of words about whether marching toward the past is a good idea.

The changes, which would put an end to gold braid bands on officers’ tunic cuffs in favour of shoulder crowns and stars — or pips — were signalled by Defence Minister Peter McKay this week.

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Some privates in the Royal Canadian Infantry Corps will retain that name, but those in the armoured corps will be called troopers, those in artillery will be called gunners and those in the engineering corps will be called sappers — as they were during the two world wars and the Korean War.

Ottawa also intends to rename army divisions as they were a century ago: The Land Force Western Area, including B.C., will soon be called 3rd Canadian Division.

The changes align with a Conservative push to emphasize the Britishness in Canada’s history — the “royal” designation was restored to the navy and air force in 2011— and countermand edicts from the Trudeau Liberals that forced unification of the Canadian army, navy and air force 45 years ago.

Replacing the maple leaf on the uniforms of highest-ranking officers is “just beyond belief,” said David Zimmerman, a military historian at the University of Victoria.

He called the changes “bizarre,” especially as Canadians fighting in the First and Second World Wars helped forge a national identity.

He also questioned the cost involved in the changes, given that the army is facing cutbacks.

“I think if you had had gone up to someone in the army and said, ‘What are your top 10 issues you want addressed,’ I don’t think that would have been in their top 10. I don’t even know if it would be in the top 50.”

Ted Leaker, president of the Gorge Road branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, expects the changes will restore some of the pride lost when the unified Canadian Armed Forces were created in 1968.

“A lot of the army traditions were thrown out the window,” said Leaker, who started as a private and retired as a lieutenant-colonel. “I can tell you that if you are in a rifle regiment, you would be quite happy to be called a rifleman again instead of a private.”

Alex Morrison, former head of the Royal Roads School of Humanitarian Studies (formerly the School of Peace and Conflict), agreed, calling the changes “absolutely wonderful” and predicting that a majority of those in the military would welcome the return of historical insignia, badges and titles.

“The army is tired of wearing essentially naval-rank insignia,” said Morrison, a retired lieutenant-colonel, adding that for a long time, serving members could not even use the word army. “It’s good for morale.”

But one non-commissioned member on duty at Ashton Amouries in Saanich asked: “What’s a pip?”

A serving officer noted: “In 1968, when the members used to their system felt they were losing their identity, is the same thing not true of the reversion for the new generation?”

Herb Pitts, a retired major-general, points out there are two generations of military personnel who have known only the current system.

“I don’t know who is advising who in this regard and what gave rise to this change, but from my point of view, it’s cosmetic, and that’s about the best I can say,” Pitts said.

Unification was “traumatic for most of us but … we lived through it and we’ve had a good army since.”

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