the devaluation of a once proud oath
By Michel W. Drapeau and Joshua M. Juneau
A Canadian Forces Commissioning Scroll, which bears the name of our Monarch, is a formal document appointing a person as an Officer of the Canadian Armed Forces. Featuring the Royal Arms of Canada and bearing at the head the signature of the Governor General, who is the Canada’s Commander-in-Chief, the commission scroll also carries the signature of the Minister of National Defence at the foot.
Pursuant to section 20(1) of the National Defence Act, “a commission is granted to officers by Her Majesty during pleasure”. Upon receipt of such a commission, an officer places himself or herself at the disposal of the Crown. Two English court cases: Vertue v. Lord Clive (1769), 4 Burr 2472 by Lord Mansfield and R. V. Cuming (1887) 19 .Q.B.D. 13) make it clear also that an officer cannot resign his commission without leave. He is, however, liable to be discharged at pleasure.
Using expressions that date back at least 200 years, plain reading of the Scroll itself conveys its gravitas, potesta and dignitas connoting a certain substance and prestige to its holder. The scroll is a covenant to the Crown, in recognition of the “especial Trust and Confidence in [the holder’s] Loyalty, Courage and good conduct.” Strong and inspiring words laden with ideals, virtues, standards and obligations expected of a commissioned officer, to wit:
“You are therefore carefully and diligently to discharge your Duty as such in the rank of [second-lieutenant, lieutenant or captain, as appropriate] or in such other rank as We may promote or appoint you from time to time hereafter …”
“We do hereby Command [inferior Officers and Men] to obey you as their superior Officer.”
Traditionally, only Her Majesty (or her representative) could revoke that which had been given by her. If a Commissioned Officer in the military no longer wished to serve as such, the only option available to that person was to seek release from the Canadian Forces. This makes sense because, as discussed above, once a commissioned officer, always a commissioned officer. In fact, the word “decommission” doesn’t even appear in the National Defence Act, suggesting that it was not even in legislative psyche when the law was originally drafted.
Since 2010, however, a new (silent but rather frequent) trend has evolved, at least in the Canadian Forces. If an officer wishes, or is otherwise persuaded by his seniors (particularly during the basic training phases) to consider decommission, they may do so ‘voluntarily’ so as to assume a non-commissioned rank and transfer to a given trade. Moreover, under certain circumstances, a commissioned officer may also be forced to decommission through a Compulsory Occupational Reassignment (COR).
What is unexpected, if not alarming, is the current frequency of these decommissioning procedures. According to records obtained from National Defence Headquarters under the access to information legislation, in 2011-2012, there were 421 COR’s. Of these 143 were done on request of the commissioner member, leaving an astounding 278 that were perhaps imposed by the chain of command.
Is decommissioning iniquitous?
The foundational qualities of any person selected to be a commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces is that of inherent leadership ability and character. Leadership is embodied in four primary individual values: candour, courage, competence and commitment. There are entire training courses designed to turn civilians into effective military leaders worthy and capable of assuming these duties —these courses are offered exclusively to Officers.
Of course, the interests of maintenance of a strong, loyal, reliable and dependable officer corps must be balanced with the need to keep up strength, intellectual and physical vigor, as well as moral fortitude and loyalty. As outlined in the regulations, “Conservation of personnel remains a strategic objective in all phases of personnel production and so training establishments must continue to make all reasonable efforts to enable trainee success.”
Balancing these two interests, in our opinion, does not and should not lead one to believe that stripping someone of the Queen’s commission will solve what may be a training selection or other sort of military human resource shortfalls. If nothing else, this quite drastic — if not humiliating — procedure cheapens quite considerably the value, exclusivity and permanency of a commission
Basic Training List
To our knowledge, most of the decommissioning occurs when an Officer has been sitting idle (sometimes for months or more) on the basic training list (BTL) in particular after suffering from a training failure. In specific and time sensitive situations, a training failure then may paradoxically result in a member being given a Morton fork: A choice between two equally unpleasant, undesirable and unfavorable alternatives. Either accept decommissioning, or be released from the Canadian Forces on an “expedited” basis.
In our practice we have come to meet quite a number of such individuals who were once proud members of the CAF officer’s corps and who had to trade their “shoulder pips” for the rank of soldier. Plain reading of the records obtained from DND seems to indicate that this once rare and exceptional procedure system is now being used with some regularity
One needs not be a serving or former soldier to understand the impact of this decommissioning procedure is having on the officer concerned as well as his future comrades-in-arms already serving in his chosen NCM occupation or trade. Decommissioning cannot be seen as a positive career move for anyone. It is at best an affront to the expected leadership potential of the person who once held a Queen’s commission. At worst, it is a loss of dignity, self-pride, commitment and respect for the institution as a whole, the officer corps, and the individual concerned and his loved ones.
We dare say that such a retrograde and demeaning procedure can only be allowed to exist within an organization devoid of any real oversight by society or real opposition by say, a professional association, whose aims are to protect the interests of individuals engaged in the profession of arms and the public interest.