Flashback | Rétrospective

Number VII in our series on former Military Colleges Commandants.

Recently E3161 Victoria Edwards (RMC ’03) had the opportunity to speak with S123 Colonel (Ret’d) Howard (Howie) J Marsh, OMM, CD who served as acting commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada 1996-97.

The particular time-frame was a turbulent one in the history of RMC with unprecedented  cutbacks being the norm; Forces Reduction Program at its peak; and indeed the future of RMC and the Canadian Forces much in doubt.  Col Marsh is forthright and frank in his replies to Victoria.

marsh.jpegS123 Colonel (Ret’d) Howard (Howie) J Marsh, OMM, CD is a well-known commentator on technology and army issues. He holds a BSc from Queen’s University. His service includes tours with 12e Régiment Blindé du Canada, the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (UK), the Armour School (UK), the Royal Armour Centre (UK) and as Director Royal Canadian Armour Corps. Other appointments include Base Commander, CFB Suffield; Project Director, Director Land Requirements and Director Land Force Development. He was seconded to the Joint Parliamentary and Senate Committee on Defence. He served as Head of the Department of Applied Military Science at the Royal Military College of Canada. He also served as acting commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada 1996-97.

He served as the Land Force Command Inspector. He was Senior Policy Advisor to MND O’Connor in the Harper government. He was President of the Board of Inquiry looking into the possible exposure of Canadian soldiers to toxins in Croatia between 1993 and 1995. He was a Senior Defence Analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations and contributor to the 2003 report Canada Without Armed Forces? He spends his spare time considering various disciplines on future outcomes and his grandchildren

E-Veritas: Was your experience at RMC what you thought it would be?

Col. Marsh: No. Since I had been posted to RMC as the department head of Applied Military Science, I expected the position to involve supporting 30-40 regular force military officers who were working on their graduate degrees. I was well prepared for my role in Applied Military Science. Although I don’t hold a doctorate degree, I had 5-7 years of postgraduate equivalent studies and I understood European and North American engineering standards, practices in project management, military engineering, mathematics and science and defence procurement. Like many senior military officers, teaching comes relatively easily to me. A successful military career requires educating and motivating others to do unpleasant tasks.
The position at RMC was supposed to provide me an opportunity to recover from a significant medical intervention (brain tumour) and to get back in shape. By 1997, the medical review board found that I had recovered sufficiently to continue with my military service. While I was posted to RMC, however, it seemed just as likely that the medical review board would force me into early retirement.
BGen Charles Émond, who was the Commandant of RMC, announced in fall 2006 that he was leaving to take up a civilian position as Vice President of Administration of Concordia University. 8241 LGen (Ret’d) Michael V Caines (CMR RMC ’70) of CFRETS, who was my boss and friend asked me to sit in as interim commandant on a temporary basis. I served as commandant from November 1996- July 1997 in a string of 3 month increments. I was surprised and disappointed to discover that as Commandant, I lacked the authority to release or recourse officer cadets in a timely manner in response to deficiencies, even those that were blindingly obvious. I had more authority to release or recourse officers as a Major in the Armour School!

E-Veritas: Was it challenging to secure the support of RMC staff and alumni?

Col. Marsh: It is difficult as a leader with a tenure measured in 3 month increments to secure support of RMC staff and alumni. In securing the support of RMC staff, it helped being a department head and professor with graduate-level studies and experience in applied military science. The staff were not happy with the uncertainty of the Canadian Forces ongoing force and financial reductions or the interim nature of my 90 day assignments – as though the sword of Demacles was hanging over my head. His direction can be ignored; he may not be here next month!
Securing the support of RMC alumni was challenging since I wasn’t an old boy/former cadet. I had joined the Canadian Forces through the regular officer training program and I had studied at a civilian university in the 1960s. In response to force reduction targets, General Baril downgraded many Brigadier General Positions to Colonel rank in the 1996 posting season. The RMC Club felt strongly that the Commandant of RMC should be of General Officer status. The spectre of the Commandant position shrinking to Colonel was affirmed in the minds of some by my appointment. Although the resistance wasn’t personal, my appointment was seen by some alumni as further erosion of the importance of military colleges.

E-Veritas: Did the force reduction program hit the military colleges harder than other units?

Col. Marsh: The Canadian Forces were hurting. As part of the overall downsizing efforts, the Force Reduction Program contributed towards a dramatic reduction in the total strength of the CF. Successive reduction targets announced by government were met within required timeframes. The target personnel strength for 1999 represented an effective decrease of 25,,000 persons from that in 1989. In 1997 the Canadian Forces were releasing approximately 100 service persons a week. No one knew when, or by how much their military occupation group would be reduced. I and many others had received letters from ADM(Per), informing that we could be released on 15-days notice. The reality of near instant dismissal and the ongoing lost of talent cast a long shadow over all military personnel in 1997.
Officers at RMC who were in their 30s sought academic upgrading at RMC to prepare themselves for jobs in the civilian workforce and/or for military leadership positions. Several Squadron and Division officers were more likely to be found at their studies rather than supervising cadets. The cadets suffered from absent leadership.
The distance education program and graduate programs, in particular, grew during this period. There were 1100 students in the distance education program in contrast to only 900 in the residential program. The emphasis at the college was shifting from the production and supervision of cadets to individual academic achievement and research. This wasn’t all bad news. . H3948 Dr John Plant (RMC ’57), the principal, wisely saw that the future of RMC was more assured if it offered more products to the Canadian Forces, hence research, and distance education grew rapidly.

The decision was made in late 1991, and repeated in subsequent years to offer a compensation package to entice members to take early release or retirement from the CF. Members meeting specific criteria in military occupation codes projected to be overmanned, such as logistics or aeronautical engineering were offered the opportunity to volunteer for early release or retirement in return for the Force Reduction Program compensation package which included a special leave package of between 90 and 270 days. The force reduction also caused tension and morale problems among the military personnel and civilian staff who feared/hoped a particular MOC would be released on the next list. Over time, eligibility criteria for Public Service and military departure incentive packages were tightened and more clearly communicated to members and a policy was issued on re-engaging/hiring of FRP recipients.
The force reduction caused tension in the cadet body and with their parents who bemoaned the downsizing as inherently unfair. Some cadets were able to complete their education and were offered cash incentives to leave the Canadian Forces, others were free to leave but they were not eligible for the cash incentives. Still others who wanted to leave could not get out from their contractual agreements.
The voluntary nature of the Program created situations whereby certain targeted military occupations became under-manned. Members in military occupation codes projected to have shortages, such as pilots, navigators and in major operational MOCs, were not offered the opportunity to volunteer for early release. Cadets and their parents complained that recruiters had not advised the cadets about the force reductions when they initially joined the CF and selected their MOCs. This complaint was valid to some extent since the recruitment was clearly complicated by continually increasing reduction targets and the corresponding difficulty in defining and end-state structure for the CF. The original reduction of 8000 CF members could have been achieved through natural attrition and reduced recruiting. This approach would not have been viable once further reductions of 17,000 were announced. It was difficult for military personnel to respond quickly to the many requests by cadets to change MOCs or elements mid stream.

E-Veritas: Please comment on residence accommodations at RMC.

Col. Marsh: My wife Diane and I lived on Lundy’s Lane at CFB Kingston near Old Fort Henry. Since I acted as Commandant for three months at a time, it didn’t make sense for my wife and I to move to the Commandant’s residence.
Since the College was fully residential, the cadets (other than University Training Program Non Commissioned Members) lived together in a military environment. In the First Year, officer cadets were placed in doubled rooms. All residences were co-educational. On-campus dining was provided. Full recreational facilities, including an indoor swimming pool, were available in close proximity to the residences. Cadets of the UTPNCM program did not live in residence. Cadets who were married or had common law status could be authorized by their chain of command to live out. The first and second year cadets struggled to fill the leadership vacuum left by third and fourth year cadets who lived in married quarters on the base rather than in residence.
Significant reductions had to be made in personnel, operating and maintenance costs to meet the shrinking budget reference levels. The RMC heritage buildings cost $500 per square meter of maintenance in contrast to $50 per square meter average. Since maintenance on the heritage buildings had been deferred, the conditions were not always up to military standards. There were cases of water leaks, for example, through the eaves and wet mattresses in the dorms, but the lack of insulation turned accommodation into a winter survival course for some.

E-Veritas: What skylarks (practical jokes) do you recall?

Col. Marsh: I don’t recall any skylarks during my tenure. It was a serious time at RMC. Cadets may not have felt that they had the security and certainty to engage in skylarks. The political situation may have been too threatening for practical jokes.

E-Veritas: What do you recall driving cadets crazy on campus?

Col. Marsh: The uncertainty of the future of the Canadian Forces bothered cadets and staff. Cadets wondered why they had joined during a period when 25,000 were released from the Canadian Forces. The future was uncertain and the downsizing and budget reduction were discouraging. The Canadian Forces personnel, equipment and operations and maintenance accounts were in a depleted state. The CF personnel were in the 6th or 7th year of frozen salaries.
A small minority of cadets – 5% who did not want to be at RMC tended to grind down the morale, standards and discipline of cadets.

E-Veritas: Do you have any ghost stories?

Col. Marsh: No. I had too many real concerns to worry about ghosts. I had the spectre of a Federal Court intervention filed against me by the parents and lawyers of two French Canadian cadets who were Absent Without Leave.

E-Veritas: Were you a fan of any RMC sport teams?

Col. Marsh: I was a fan of the lady cadet’s taekwondo team. It was of a very high, national calibre and continuously demonstrated that women can be formidable. Since there wasn’t sufficient money for necessary maintenance let alone discretionary items like sport teams, the RMC band, and clubs were asked to do much with little, or no financial compensation. For value, I appreciated the mixed curling team, which provided the most victories for the least cost. The curling team displayed the finest leadership, and worked together well. The cadets were not only good at winning but they also possessed excellent team spirit. They were willing to sacrifice in order to travel and compete extensively. There wasn’t sufficient funds for travel. With rationed Temporary Duty (TD), the team would buy groceries and eat sandwiches and billet in various places without complaint. The same could not be said of high-profile sports teams.

E-Veritas: What was your favourite special event?

Col. Marsh: I enjoyed the wine and cheese party organized by the francophone professors from the mathematics department. Several of the former professors who taught at CMR purchased delicacies from the cheese farms and wineries in Quebec for the event.

E-Veritas: Please comment on the referendum of October 30, 1995 in Quebec on RMC.

Col. Marsh: During my tenure, the referendum that took place in Quebec on October 30, 1995, and the motion to decide whether Quebec should secede from Canada continued to shape attitudes at RMC. The closure of Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean (CMR) in 1995 and loss of many traditions and history was a bitter event for many cadets and alumni. While the linguistic duality is a central element of the core values at RMC, the ability of the military and civilian personnel to coherently and consistently provide bilingual leadership, instruction and services, when and where required by the Official Languages Act was limited.
Voters in the Canadian province of Quebec were asked for the second time whether Quebec should secede from Canada and become an independent state: “Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”. The referendum was defeated by a thin margin: 50.58% “No” to 49.42% “Yes”. The francophone cadets who lived the disbandment of CMR and those at RMC who had packed their bags to join Quebec in 1995 were approaching graduation. Some Anglophone cadets questioned the wisdom of allowing cadets of uncertain loyalties to be commissioned in the Canadian Forces.

E-Veritas: Please comment on the Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System on RMC.

Col. Marsh: With the downsizing, the three military colleges were no longer stand alone organizations. The colleges were smashed together and brought under command of Canadian Forces Education Training System (CFRETS). In 1995, Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System (CFRETS) was moved from Trenton to Borden to centralize headquarter staff functions. In 1997, the Commander Training Schools was formed consolidating the Deputy Chief of Staff Occupational Training staff and the Canadian Forces Base Borden Staff. In 1999, the Commander Training Schools reorganized and became the Canadian Forces Support Training Group (CFSTG). In 2002, Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System was disbanded. Today, CFSTG is a Level 3 formation reporting directly to the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario.
The amalgamation of the military colleges, the enforcement of Canadian Forces training methods on the college, the flux in headquarter organization compounded with the loss of thousands of years of training staff experience created unforeseen policy conflicts and difficulties.
The Canadian Forces training culture of completing Enabling Objectives before being assessed by Performance Objectives appears logical until it was applied to RMC physical fitness standards. As physical fitness was an Enabling Objective to the Performance Objective of Military Leadership a candidate could not be failed if they did not meet the Physical Fitness standard until they were assessed as Military Leader’s. And this occurred in the fourth year. Consequently some enterprising cadets saw that they could get four years of academic qualifications, fail Military Leadership by failing physical fitness, thinking they would be released without financial or time obligations. I spent hours on the phone talking to parents who just wanted me to grant their child the academic portion of a university degree and who would never accept that the RMC degree comprised four pillars.

E-Veritas: Please comment on the concept of all officers possessing a degree.

Col. Marsh: The Royal Military College of Canada was empowered to confer degrees in Arts, Science, and Engineering with the passage of The Royal Military College of Canada Degrees Act in 1959 by the Ontario Legislature. In 1997, following the inquiry into the Somalia scandal, the Minister of National Defence, Douglas Young prepared a Report to the Prime Minister on the Leadership and Management of the Canadian Forces that recommended that officers would have a university degree. Minister Young went outside the department and obtained the advice of several respected academics, including 4393 Doctor Desmond Morton (CMR RMC ’59) and 5105 Doctor JL Granatstein (CMR RMC ’61) who recognised the value of all officers possessing a degree. With strong ministerial support, the CF included degree granting programmes into officer training and renewed emphasis on post secondary education. The report affectively assured the college of a better future with enhanced participation in officer development.

E-Veritas: Please comment on UTPNCMs and NCMs at RMC.

Col. Marsh: During my tenure, officer cadets often lacked military experience and had little interaction with non commissioned members or civilian personnel of the Department of National Defence. Occasionally, the cadets’ assumptions about the intelligence or education of NCMs or civilian personnel or military life were false – based on television or movie stereotypes. Although Chief Warrant Officer Beaune, the regimental sergeant major at RMC was a devoted father figure to the cadets and very supportive and helpful in resolving problems among staff, faculty and cadets, there was not enough of him. The college needed more high-calibre NCMs. With the help of supportive senior officers, augmenting officer cadet oversight with more NCMs was probably my best contribution to the college.

The UTPNCMs were frequently 40 year old men with ribbons and serious practical military experience of operations. While their presence is an asset the challenges of studies and family life limits their interaction with cadets.

E-Veritas: Do you have any practical tips to share.

Col. Marsh: Throughout life I have found the tank commander’s appreciation a helpful reminder for life’s challenges: Where am I; where am I going; what is the best route; what do I do if fired upon?

E-Veritas: Please comment on lady cadets at RMC.

Col. Marsh: By the late ’90s, the lady cadets were accepted and the integration of lady cadets was, from my perspective, no longer an issue. There were many outstanding lady cadets who were terrific academically, militarily and athletically at RMC. You couldn’t ask for better leadership than the lady cadets on the Taekwondo and gymnastic teams. The lady cadets were up to the rigours involved on the Sandhurst military skills competition held at the United-States Military Academy (USMA) in West Point, New York.

Col (Retd) Howie Marsh on the Capabilities and Limitations of the Canadian Forces of CDA 2004 Institute