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On 1 February 1968, Bill C-243, The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act became law and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) were combined into one service - the Canadian Forces. This process was accomplished by "integration" of the three services, and then Unification into a homogenous organization.

Early Attempts

While some serious study had been given to unifying the three services (navy, army, and air force) as early as the 1930s, it was under Minister of National Defence Brooke Claxton in the 1950s that Canada began to earnestly consider the possibility of unification (also known as "integration").

Claxton, who served as MND from 1946 to 1954, ran the three services under a single ministry, and created the position of Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1951, in order to coordinate the efforts of the three services and allow the Minister to receive advice from the military with respect to fulfilling a singular defence policy rather than three separate policies.

The structure worked. RMC became a tri-service institution; the military's padres, legal services, and dental and medical services were coordinated; and one service or another operated various functions for the other two. The process continued under George Pearkes, Diefenbaker's first Defence Minister, as procurement of food and postal services became tri-service. To go beyond this point in the face of entrenched habits and traditions required a minister with rare determination. (Paul) Hellyer proved to be that man.1

Paul Hellyer had served in the RCAF in the Second World War, and was remustered to the Army in 1944 during the Conscription Crisis, where he was required to take a basic training course again. Hellyer's impressions of duplications in the services were carried with him when he became a Member of Parliament for Toronto and Minister of National Defence in the Lester Pearson government. "The Prime Minister, some believed, also remembered the Suez difficulties over the Queen's Own Rifles and supported Hellyer's plans."2

These plans included reshaping defence policy to focus on the three national priorities as Hellyer saw them: collective security under the UN, collective security through NATO, and the defence of North America. Hellyer's determination was that Canada would decide for itself how to organize itself to meet these commitments and Hellyer proposed eliminating costly duplications of services by integration. Recruiting, basic training, and the military colleges would all be done on a "tri-services" basis.

Phase One - Integration 1964-1966

The March 1964 White Paper on Defence outlined a major restructuring of the separate services, describing a new organization that would integrate operations, logistics support, personnel and administration of the separate services under a single unified command system.

The process actually began in 1964, when Bill C-90 "An Act to Amend the National Defence Act" was passed by Parliament on 7 July 1964 and took effect 1 August of that year.

The three service chiefs were replaced by a single Chief of the Defence Staff and the separate headquarters were integrated into a single Canadian Forces Headquarters. Other offices that disappeared were that of Vice Chief of the General Staff, Adjutant General, Quartermaster General, and Master General of the Ordnance.

In June 1965, the services themselves were reorganized into an integrated field structure, reducing 11 existing commands in Canada to just six:

  • Maritime Command

  • Mobile Command

  • Air Defence Command

  • Air Transport Command

  • Materiel Command

  • Training Command

Phase 2 - Unification 1966-1968

This second phase was dependent on Parliamentary approval of Bill C-243 "The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act", which was introduced into the House of Commons in November 1966 and passed in April 1967.

The major effect of this legislation was to abolish the historic titles Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force, and create a single service called the Canadian Armed Forces (later just Canadian Forces).

With approval of this bill into law, the armed forces underwent reorganization of command and base structures across the country, with streamlined organizations designed to reduce costs and duplications and provide a functionally organized military that was highly mobile and not bound by service traditions.

As well, one single uniform and rank structure was introduced into the Canadian Forces, a move that was unpopular and never fully implemented (personnel of Maritime Command, for example, maintained their naval rank designations). These latter implementations of policy are generally referred to as "unification".

According to Canadian Forces publication B-GG-005-004/AF-000 "CANADIAN FORCES OPERATIONS":

While Unification was ostensibly undertaken for cost savings, it has also been suggested that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Defence Minister Paul Hellyer did not care for the traditions behind each service and that the new Canadian Forces (in Canada's post-war modernist fashion) was easily translated to French. Some further contend that a deliberate move away from monarchist references (use of the word "Royal" in many corps titles, for example) was intended, though the use of the Crown in official insignia including official badges and crests of units and bases would seem to dispute that.

...The Honorable Paul Hellyer, the Minister of National Defence throughout the period of the reorganization, viewed this last phase in the reorganization as the end of a logical, continuous process to create a unified force. In the House of Commons during the 27th Parliament he stated:

Unification is the end objective of a logical and evolutionary progression. Although integration and unification are sometimes regarded as alternatives, and inherently different, they are, in fact, merely different stages in the same process. Integration was actually the term applied to the first stages of the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The celebrations of Canada's centennial in 1967 slowed the pace of change, but only momentarily.

Debate in the House of Commons was bitter; discussion before the Commons defence committee was hotter still. Some argued that since navies, armies and air forces had distinct and separate primary roles and functions "best understood in each service," it was a mistake to force them together. "To do so," one commentator noted, "would degrade their capability." Others, particularly sailors but also including (General) Guy Simonds, could not accept the disappearance of the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force - and the history and traditions that had served them so well - on both practical and emotional grounds. What pride could anyone have, they asked, in the nondescript green uniform chosen for the new single service? The (Chief of the Defence Staff), (Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff), Chief of Personnel, and Comptroller General all retired early, protesting the speed at which unification was proceeding, and Admiral Landymore was dismissed. But the unification bill passed in April 1967, to come into effect on 1 February 1968. Thus, when the last sailors, soldiers, and airmen of the Centennial Tattoo marched out of the stadium, spectators knew they were witnessing the end of an era. Within a few months, all that had just been celebrated and glorified would be no more.3

The Canadian Forces remained a single service into the 21st Century, but beginning in the 1980s, each member would come to belong to one of three "environments": sea, land or air, usually determined by the member's trade. Environmentally non-specific trades (referred to as "purple" trades such as medical technician or military police, an environment may have been assigned at random.)4

The newly unified "Canadian Armed Forces" went to a single set of uniforms for the three services. Work Dress, as worn by the personnel at left, resembled a bus driver's clothing, with short jacket and lack of unit insignia. The airman in the centre, wearing the "Linden Green" shirt, is identified as a member of Air Command only by the badge on his cap. The officer at right is identified by the gold braid on his cuffs. Epaulettes were not included on the "CF Greens", the shoulder strap apparently being an element of military dress too closely associated with land forces and thus considered inappropriate for a uniform that was to be worn by a tri-service organization. These personnel - they could be a mix of soldiers, sailors or airmen judging only by the uniforms - are receiving refugees from Uganda at Longues Pointes in October 1972. Library and Archives Canada photo

Impact and Legacy

The impact of Unification is still felt in the Canadian military, and its effectiveness still judged by historians. Jack Granatstein placed it on a list of "12 Military Events That Shaped Canada":

Paul Hellyer became defence minister in 1963, determined to rationalize the Canadian military (whose) three services...had an unwieldy structure and no war plans in common. The ambitious minister's first stage was integration, the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff to manage new functional commands that operated across service lines and reduced triplication. There were difficulties aplenty, but integration was a much needed forward step. Emboldened, Hellyer pressed ahead, in November 1966 introducing a measure to unify the services by doing away with the Army, the RCN, and the RCAF and replacing them with the Canadian Forces...The uproar was intense, senior officers resigning in wholesale. Hellyer persisted, his bill becoming law on Feb. 1, 1968, but his hope of becoming prime minister disappeared in the clamour. Many of Hellyer's changes were gradually accepted, but the CF soon began a slow process back towards the status quo ante.5

The gradual process has included such things as the Distinctive Environment Uniform (DEU), adopted in the mid to late 1980s, returning the sea, land and air elements of the CF to distinctive coloured uniforms (the Army briefly adopting a tan uniform for summer, while the sea and air elements returned to familiar blue uniforms). The process has continued into the 21st Century with official, historic, designations such as "Canadian Army" being restored.

Other changes have remained more permanent. The army's rank of staff sergeant (flight sergeant in the air force) was replaced by that of warrant officer. The status of the rank of corporal was downgraded, and a new appointment - Master Corporal - had to be introduced.

The pre-unification system of rank (Private, Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Warrant Officer II Class and Warrant Officer I Class) and appointment (Lance Corporal and Lance Sergeant) were a development that evolved through the British system for centuries. It was tried, tested and true for the Army's system of organization and addressed the whole concept of command and control efficiently. It attached a degree of prestige and status to the various levels of supervision/leadership. For example not everyone was automatically promoted to a higher rank simply for being a good soldier or doing one's job well. The individual had to be outstanding amongst his peers, and prove that he was, through tough training and leadership courses which had to be passed to certain standard to qualify. Of course battlefield promotions were another matter where the outstanding qualities observed alone qualified the individual for obvious reasons. This older proven system was advantageous for another but less important reason. Internationally, our ranks and their levels of responsibility were understood by most other nations. A foreign soldier - perhaps a belligerent in a UN setting - knew when he was dealing with a Canadian Corporal that this NCO was a leader of men, schooled in the art of war and no one to fool around with. I can remember tours in Egypt and Cyprus where senior officers would negotiate with Canadian Jnr NCOs almost on an on-par basis, there was (that much) respect. The post-unification system has destroyed the status and respect that several ranks had at one time.

Paul Hellyer's basic concept - integration - was a good one. It had meant an integration of logistics and support services - why have three different logistical organizations cutting contacts, keeping files, and awarding three different contracts for the same materiel? The government, however, further likened the need for National Defence in Canada to a US Marine Corps model. This showed no understanding of what made the three arms (navy, army and air force) tick in Canada. Tradition to the military is the food on which they are nourished and provide for a sense of organization, family and probably most important, ideals to be used as benchmarks for excellence and ability to prevail on the battlefield.

One might compare the situation to a case where a politician or non-elected human rights commissioner descended on the world renowned Ottawa Heart Institute reorganizing the administration and operation of the unit. One need only imagine them telling the heart doctors how they were going to perform surgical operations, to the point of advising them on which instruments they could have, to realize how ridiculous it would be.

At the time of Unification, servicemen were given a raise in pay to keep them enrolled. Signing bonuses of $200.00 were given for each year to a maximum of five that they re-enlisted for. $1000.00 in 1967 was a life changing amount, possibly worth about ten times as much in 1999 dollars. Rank was given away next; anyone who had ever had a Junior NCO course was automatically promoted to Corporal. Everyone who had 4 years of service automatically went on a new Junior Leaders Course to get him promoted to Corporal. Corporal was now a giveaway, it meant nothing as far as status was concerned, it was a shoe-in for everyone.

The problem was that at that time, Corporals were then section commanders. The actual commander now was leading a whole section of his rank peers. There was actual fighting in the ranks and discipline was poor. So another level was instituted - Senior Corporal. But that was not enough, they then introduced the "B" Corporal (indicating he had qualified Part B of the Junior NCO Course). They changed the chevrons to have a little crown sewed on over the hooks.

Historian Stephen J. Harris wrote that "soldiering in Canada had changed forever." The centralization of personnel policies took authority from unit commanders, where influence had traditionally resided.

At times, unified Base units seemed more interested in keeping their files in order and their stores tidy then in providing real service to field units. And, with the creation of new, unified, 'green' logistics and administration branches, among others, it was felt that the institutional closeness that had existed between the various Corps of the old Army had been seriously undermined.7

The goal of unifying strategic planning for the armed services does not seem to have been realized by Unification either:

Unfortunately, the establishment in 1968 of a single unified service in Canada, even when bolstered by the creation of a single national defence headquarters four years later, did not eliminate the conflicting loyalties. It did not achieve the effect Hellyer sought with his restructuring, and it has not prevented the traditional “strong-service idea,” focused on the preservation of the army, navy and air force as separate institutions, to continue to exert strong dissenting pressure on the institution. The absence of political and military leadership, and the lack of policy direction in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the continuation of service- oriented alliance commitments and participation to United Nations peacekeeping operations, only further reinforced service planning and force development, and perpetuated the conditions for the three services to continue to think and operate independently and to compete over roles and missions.

Without a coherent national policy framework and a single strategy, the ideals of unification were left to flounder over the years, with the strong-service idea fostering “...a bias against planning from a national perspective.” To make matters worse, as Bland noted in 1995, defence policy in Canada over those years seldom originated from a strategic idea – a notion Hellyer had attempted to introduce in 1964 – but, rather, it evolved from the dynamics of the annual federal budget. Deep and consecutive budgetary reductions in the 1990s, along with pressure from powerful interest groups to steer the armed forces away from combat capabilities, also triggered strong institutional reflexes for service survival.


  1. Granatstein, Jack Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, 2002) ISBN 0802046916 p.352

  2. Ibid, p.352

  3. Harris, Stephen J. "Chapter 14: The Post-Unification Land Force" We Stand on Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army (Ovale Publications, 1992) ISBN 2-89429-043-8 p.416

  4. The new system of environmental classifications was accompanied by a return to different coloured uniforms. The term "purple trades" comes from the notion that mixing army tan, army green, white, air force blue and navy blue together will yield a purple shade.

  5. Granatstein, J.L. "12 Military Events That Shaped Canada" Legion Magazine (November/December 2012)

  6. Commentary by David Willard. For the entire discussion, see the article on the rank of Corporal, here.

  7. Harris, Ibid, p.416

  8. Gosselin, Major-General Daniel "Hellyer's Ghosts: Unification of the Canadian Forces is 40 Years Old" Canadian Military Journal (Volume 9, Number 2) accessed online at

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