H4860 General (Retired) John de Chastelain – on RMC Traditions

H4860 General (Retired) John de Chastelain (RMC 1960) (on RMC Traditions)

Tradition. Many of you will have seen the 1971 movie Fiddler on the Roof in which the Israeli actor Topol plays the role of the Ukrainian milkman Tevye, and in the opening sequence he sings a song about Tradition in which he states that the important things in life are all based on traditions. I put to you that he is right and that the important things in all our lives, that make us the people we are and that mould the society in which we live, are guided by the traditions that we grew up with. Among the most significant of these traditions, for all of us here, must surely be the traditions of the Royal Military College, traditions which made such an impact on us at such a crucial time in our lives – when we were moving from adolescence into adulthood – and which still have an impact on us today.

Alors que j’avais à peine dix-huit ans, ma famille a déménagé du Royaume Uni au Canada et j’ai joint le RMC au lieu de compléter mes deux années de service dans les Forces armées britanniques, service qui était obligatoire à l’époque. J’ai depuis parlé avec mes compagnons de classe qui ont fait leur service national avant d’entreprendre leur carrière civile; tous m’ont dit qu’ils regardent cette période comme un point tournant de leur vie. Certains sont partis immédiatement en opération impliquant des conflits suivant la fin de l’ère des colonies britanniques, à Chypre, en Malaisie et au Kenya. D’autres, on servit en mer, dans les airs, dans des bureaux ou dans une multitude de tâches que l’armée, la marine et la force aérienne accomplissent habituellement et dans certaines tâches moins habituelles étant donné que la Guerre froide venait tout juste de débuter quelques années auparavant. Mais ils ont tous dit que ce qu’ ils avaient appris et les amis qu’ils s’étaient fait à tous les niveaux du spectre social britannique ont eu un impact positif et indélébile sur leur vie, et ils se rappellent cette expérience avec appréciation et gratitude.

That surely is the case for you and me with regards to RMC or whichever of the Canadian Military Colleges we attended. Friends from other RMC Classes have told me that some of the most faithful and enthusiastic members of their Class attending annual reunions and regular Branch gatherings, are those who left the Service after their compulsory engagement, or who were in the Reserve Entry program, or who did not complete their full time at the Colleges but who nonetheless recognised the impact it made on them and on what they had done since. And all of the foregoing is without mentioning what an enormous benefit the output of the Military Colleges has been to our country over the past one hundred and thirty years – a benefit that has come from those who are serving or who have served within the armed forces, and equally from those who have gone on into every other area of Canadian life where leadership, clear-headed thinking, an understanding of obligation to country an d the courage of conviction are at a premium. In other words, from those who understand and exercise the principles and traditions that lie at the heart of our motto Truth, Duty and Valour.

So what’s my point here? It’s that if the Military College tradition is important to us as graduates and to Canada as a nation, then it follows that the tradition of RMC is worth preserving for as long as is possible and, dare I say, at all costs. Each of us here has benefited from it. We should allow – in fact we should insist – that future generations of Canadians – and Canada itself – be allowed to benefit from it too.

One word about tradition is obvious but perhaps worth re-stating: There are elements of tradition that are vital and there are elements of tradition that have an importance at a given time but are not fundamental to the overall value of an institution. It’s human nature for us to come back here and tell our confreres that life seems much easier today than it was for us, or that changes have been made that shouldn’t. A recent case in point regards a change in uniform and the putting away of the blue battledress that so many of us wore over the years. Some felt the decision was inappropriate and that the battle dress was an important part of RMC’s tradition. It was – for a time. So was riding horses. But times change and if we look at how the College has developed over the years (in my case over the past half century) and if we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that RMC has never been in better shape and the cadets going through here have never been better trained or educated.

Une des dernières choses que j’ai fait comme Commandant, avant de partir à l’été de 1980, a été de participer à la sélection de la première classe d’élèves-officiers féminins à joindre le Collège. Cela fait déjà plus d’un quart de siècle! L’été dernier en Afghanistan, une femme ancienne élève-officier est décédée alors qu’elle menait ses troupes, en tant qu’officier d’observation avancé. Morte dans des conditions aussi tragiques qu’il soit, – bien que ce soit une conséquence inévitable du service militaire – elle se conduisait selon les meilleures traditions de leadership et des normes professionnelles de générations de gradués des CMR, témoignant ainsi de la pertinence de la décision d’accepter les femmes au Collège.

A final word on tradition. In the recent years of deficit reduction and attempts by all levels of government to balance budgets and fund only those issues deemed vital to running the country, or the provinces or the municipalities, some of the things we may have felt were important in the past have fallen off the fiscal agenda. I have numerous relatives in the teaching profession and they tell me of cases where parents’ groups in some communities hold fundraising events to provide library books or other important items no longer provided in their schools, and where sporting and recreational activities have been curtailed or cancelled entirely. The same is true with a number of the RMC activities we took for granted when we were here, but that can no longer be fitted into a constrained DND budget. Here I’m talking about sporting and other activities that put RMC into competition with other universities and colleges and which give cadets the opportunity to see and be seen in national and international competitions where they more than hold their own. I’m also talking about the continuing need to provide additions to the College building and grounds programs, to keep alive the atmosphere and appearance that is so important in maintaining the character and tradition of RMC.

Notes for an Address at The RMC Legacy Dinner 28 September 2006