Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921

Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921

James Wood

Reviewed by Patrick Dunae

The Canadian Scottish (Princess Mary’s) regiment recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Popularly known as the Can Scots, it is the only militia unit on Vancouver Island. The regiment had previously been honoured with the freedom of the City of Victoria, and so it marched through the provincial capital with bayonets fixed, drums beating, and banners flying. During the anniversary parade, the marchers wore the ceremonial uniforms of Scottish Highland regiments and were attired in kilts, tunics and busbies, with spats, sporrans, and sgian-dubhs. The parade carried emblems of the regiment’s historical connection to British Columbia. Regimental drummers wore cougar skin capes, with a growling head of cougar hanging from the back of the cape. The regiment’s predecessor, the 88th Victoria Fusiliers, used the image of a growling cougar on its badge when it was organized in 1912. A fierce-looking cougar features on the badge of 39 Canadian Brigade Group today. This formation comprises eleven army reserve units, including the Canadian Scottish regiment, based in British Columbia. The brigade group badge incorporates a familiar motto, Splendor Sine Occasu.

The Canadian army militia has played a prominent part in the history of British Columbia. Defence was a major concern in the colonial era and militia outfits like the Seymour Artillery Company helped to allay jitters caused by Fenians and other potential threats. Military matters were priorities when British Columbia entered Confederation. A provision for the militia appears in Article 5 of the Terms of Union, well ahead of the better-known Article 11, which relates to the construction of a railway. During protracted and potentially violent disputes in Nanaimo, Rossland, and Steveston, the militia was called upon to provide an aid to civil power. (Labour historians who vilify the militia for intervening in these disputes overlook the fact that rank and file militiamen were themselves ordinary workers when they were not in uniform). The militia was the foundation for many BC battalions in the Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War.

This well-written study derives from the author’s PhD thesis and relies rather heavily on material published in the Canadian Military Gazette. That journal, as other reviewers have remarked, expressed opinions of the military establishment in the Dominion and not the views of ordinary Canadians. However, the author has consulted many other sources, as fifteen pages of endnotes attest; and he has identified historical themes that helped shape public attitudes and opinions regarding military service across the country. A major theme concerns the public’s preference for part-time volunteer militiamen and a prevailing view that, in times of war, those men would provide an adequate core for larger combat units. The book argues that, “the ways in which Canadians responded to the call to arms in 1914 were largely determined by the values and beliefs of a pre-war military culture that employed the citizen soldier as its foremost symbol. This symbol became a powerful myth, and in 1914-18 it helped raise an army” (272).

Some readers of this journal may be disappointed that the book does not devote more attention to British Columbia. Storied militia regiments based in the Interior of our province, such as the Rocky Mountain Rangers (1908), are not mentioned; militia units in Victoria are scarcely acknowledged; the militia presence in Vancouver, as represented by distinguished regiments like the Seaforth Highlanders (1910), are mentioned only in passing. But the author is an expert on the militia’s role in this province, as he demonstrated in a recent essay on the BC militia before the First World War (BC Studies, No. 173) and the larger, national concerns that he discusses in this book were pertinent to British Columbia.

Military historians will be drawn to this book, but educational historians should look at it, too, because it provides a good overview of a program endowed by Lord Strathcona for promoting physical training in the public schools of Canada. British Columbia was the second province (after Nova Scotia) to accept the terms of the Strathcona Trust (1909) and engage militia personnel as physical training (PT) instructors. The author does not identify instructors by name, but had he done so, Sergeant Major A.C. Bundy, who was in charge of PT in Vancouver public schools, would likely be in the first rank. He was a tall, barrel-chested man who sported a large, waxed moustache. (A photograph of Bundy in his dress uniform appears in The First Fifty Years: Vancouver High Schools, 1890-1940 [n. d.], 138.) Young female schoolteachers would sometimes swoon when he suddenly appeared in the doorway of their classroom, with his swagger stick tucked under his arm. In a booming voice, he would order pupils to “fall in” and follow him outside to the school playground/parade square, where he would conduct a physical training drill according to the Syllabus of the Strathcona Trust.

Sergeant-Major Bundy was a member of the Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles, which is now part of the British Columbia Regiment. The oldest military unit in Vancouver, the BC Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own), aka the Dukes, is based in the splendid Beatty Street Drill Hall (1901), a national historic site. The Bay Street Armoury (1913) in Victoria, home of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, is also listed on the national heritage register. This new book by James Wood should of course be in every armoury reference library. But the book will have a wider appeal, because it helps to explain the historical significance of militia armouries in British Columbia and the character of primary reserve units like the Can Scots and the Dukes who have trained within their crenelated walls.

Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921
By James Wood
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 308 pp, $32.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)