THE HISTORY OF THE
ROYAL CANADIAN ARMY CADETS
Compiled and written by Ron Candy, former Director/Curator
Greater Vernon Museum & Archives
CANADA’S EARLY MILITIA UNITS
Under the Lower Canada Militia Act of 1803 and the Upper Canada Militia Act of 1808, Canada’s militia (volunteer soldiers as opposed to professional soldiers) was made up of able-bodied men between 18 and 60 years of age. Both Acts allowed exemption for those whose religious convictions forbade military service. A muster or assembly of the militia was held each year, at which attendance was compulsory. Canada’s militia units were very active in the War of 1812 and fought alongside British troops against American invaders.
While Canada’s earlier militia units were relatively untrained and ill equipped, the Militia Act of 1855 provided for the formation of an active militia whose members were paid while being trained. As well, they were provided with firearms and other equipment. Members supplied their own uniforms. Initially, the Act authorized a contingent of 5,000 members but this quickly grew to 10,000 within a year or two.
While a militia unit of 10,000 or more seemed adequate, it was only a short time later that actions in the United States would deem this number quite insufficient.
On April 12th, 1861, the American Civil War was officially underway with the attack on Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina, by Confederate soldiers. Ranks from both sides numbered well over 3.5 million men.
The outbreak of war in the United States left many living in Canada wary as to whether or not the fighting would cross the border. Previous conflict with the United States (the War of 1812) was still within living memory. As well, tension was quickly growing between Britain and the two million Irish immigrants living in the U.S. Ireland wanted independence from Britain and, in order to force the issue, the Irish in the U.S. were threatening to invade Canada (the Fenian raids of 1866 were the result).
With the current threats looming south of the border, many believed that if Canada was to effectively defend itself, a system of training the country’s youth for active service in the military was desperately needed.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CADET MOVEMENT IN CANADA
On June 3, 1861, less than two months after the outbreak of civil war in the U.S., a Militia General Order was given that authorized the formation of the “Trinity College Volunteer Rifle Company;” the first volunteer militia rifle company in a Canadian school. Many references claim the school to have been Trinity College in Port Hope, Ontario. However, the college at Port Hope was initially established in Weston, Ontario in 1865 and didn’t move to Port Hope until 1868. Consequently, the first school to have an authorized volunteer militia rifle company in Canada was most likely Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It was founded in 1851.
Public support for the cadet movement heightened during the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 and the North-West Rebellion of 1885 led by Louis Riel. During this period, the government increased the allotment of uniforms, equipment, and weapons to the schools that provided military training to youth.
On November 28th, 1879, Militia General Order Number 18 authorized the formation of "Associations for Drill in Educational Institutions." These Drill Associations were organized for young men over 14 years of age still enrolled in studies at school. It is this date that is recognized as the official founding of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets (RCAC).
It is believed the term "Cadet Corps" first appeared in 1898 under an agreement with the Province of Ontario. The agreement also provided that a member of each school’s teaching staff would become a permanent instructor for the cadet corps in residence rather than bring in temporary instructors from local militia units.
CADET BEGINNINGS IN VERNON
After 1902, the strength and efficiency of Canada’s militia system improved somewhat with the return of veterans from the war in South Africa. Then, a few years later, in April 1908, an independent squadron known as the Canadian Mounted Rifles (unofficially dubbed the Okanagan Mounted Rifles) was authorized for Vernon. Later, in December 1911, the unit was granted authority to change its name from the Canadian Mounted Rifles to the 1st Regiment, B.C. Horse; the roots of the present day British Columbia Dragoons. In 1912, the B.C. Horse became the 30th Regiment, B.C. Horse.
In 1912, the same year the 30th B.C. Horse came into being, a permanent annual district summer training camp for cavalry and infantry militia units was established in Vernon. The camp was located on Mission Hill; the same area used today for cadet training.
Talk of forming a local cadet corps was mentioned as early as 1908. At that time, the commanding officer of the Okanagan Mounted Rifles, Major H.A. Perry, gave lessons in drill to a few public school students. Then, in 1912, a cadet corps was established and authorized for Vernon. About 40 boys were enrolled in the corps that was officially known as No. 368, The 30th British Columbia Horse Cadets. Their uniform was not unlike that of the regiment itself.
THE STRATHCONA TRUST
An early supporter of the cadet movement in schools was James L. Hughes. In 1874, Hughes was made inspector of schools in Toronto. He later became Chief Inspector for Ontario. In 1905, Hughes, addressing the Empire Club in Toronto, remarked: “In our own city we have had for thirty years one institution which I think is of vital interest and of great consequence in the development of the Empire, in the establishment of the true relation between the young men of the Empire and the Empire as a whole. I refer to our cadet work in the schools.”
Others, like Hughes, credited the success of the cadet movement with military drill and structured physical exercise. The endorsement of drill and exercise was made in 1909 by Lord Strathcona (Donald Alexander Smith) Canada’s High Commissioner to Great Britain at the time, with the establishment of a trust to promote physical training and encourage the formation of military cadet corps within public schools. The trust came in the amount of $500,000 from Lord Strathcona’s own funds and was administered by local committees established by provincial education departments. British Columbia accepted the terms of the trust in 1910.
The trust supported three levels of regimen in the schools with fifty percent allocated to physical education, thirty-five percent to cadet training, and fifteen percent to rifle shooting (marksmanship).
By the 1920’s, the militaristic approach to physical fitness in the schools came under heavy public criticism and by the 1930’s most schools adopted programs that were dubbed “athletic programs” instead of physical drills. In British Columbia, after 1953, Strathcona Trust funds were used to provide scholarships for students enrolled in the Physical Education program at the University of British Columbia.
Lord Strathcona died on January 21st, 1914. He has since been remembered through the cadet movement with the Lord Strathcona Medal. The medal represents the highest award that can be bestowed on a cadet and is presented in recognition of exemplary performance in physical and military training.
WORLD WAR I
In the early years of the 20th century, many Canadians viewed military service an essential part of citizenship. This attitude was particularly prevalent between the end of the South African War (Boer War) in 1902 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. In fact, this period of time has been referred to as the “moment of Canadian militarism.”
In 1911, newly elected Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, appointed Member of Parliament and former South African War veteran, Sam Hughes, as Minister of Militia and Defence with instructions to create a distinct Canadian Army within the British Empire.
With the appointment of Hughes, the “military orientation of the cadet movement intensified.” In a speech to educators in Ontario Hughes said, “If every school had a cadet corps, perpetual peace would surely result.”
Enrollment in the cadet corps soared during the years leading up to World War I. It is estimated more than 40,000 former cadets enlisted to serve in the War. Of the 66 Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians during World War I, 25 were bestowed upon former cadets. By war’s end in 1918, there were more than 64,000 cadets in training.
WORLD WAR II
There was an enormous expansion in the cadet movement during World War II and 115,000 boys enrolled as cadets. A standard pattern uniform was established and, in 1942, His Majesty King George VI conferred the title "Royal" to the army cadets. Thus, the Royal Canadian Army Cadets become the official designation – a name that is still in use today. His Majesty also accepted the appointment of Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets. HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, holds this appointment today.
Trades training was introduced to the RCAC in 1948. This was training in addition to local training as it was conducted during the summer period rather than during the school year. Thus, the beginnings of our present day summer camps. A trial camp was set up at Camp Ipperwash, Ontario. Courses common to all arms of the service were selected, such as driver mechanics and signaler. Another camp was established during the summer of 1948 and that was the National Cadet Camp located in Banff, Alberta; it was to be a special award camp offered to those cadets who had demonstrated excellent proficiency in army cadet skills by reaching a Master Cadet rating. The course was three weeks in duration. The Vernon Camp was established in the summer of 1949.
CADET SUMMER TRAINING CAMPS
Prior to World War II, most cadet summer training camps across Canada were usually 10 days in length and provided opportunities for training in signaling, marksmanship, drill, and sports. However, during the war, there was a fundamental shift in training with the formation of the formation of the Canadian Technical Training Corps in 1941. The corps opened the Canadian Army Trades School in various regions across Canada with the intent to train soldier-tradesmen within the forces. The school enrolled young men at 16 years of age for training as electricians, machinists, draftsmen, surveyors, clerks, and auto mechanics with the notion that these same young men could complete their training by age 19 and ready to enroll directly into the Canadian Army. The program proved successful and was quickly adopted by the cadet summer training camps as a model for training.
After World War II, the cadet summer training camps continued to add trades training to their programs including trades that had been identified as important during wartime including basic infantry training, the handling of fire control equipment and special engineering equipment. During the 1950’s, training evolved again with Cadet Leader and Cadet Leader Instructor courses replacing much of the trades training with more emphasis on adventure training, canoeing, mountain climbing, and hiking.
To reflect changes in training, cadet summer training camps also underwent a number name changes. During the 1940’s through the 1950’s camps were referred to as Trades Training Camps. In the late 1950’s through to the 1990’s the term Army Cadet Camps was used. Since 1996, Army Cadet Summer Training Centres has been the moniker.
THE VERNON CAMP
Vernon opened as an Army Cadet Camp in July of 1949 only two years after the camp had been decommissioned as a World War II, Canadian Army Basic Infantry Training Centre and support camp for the Coldstream Ranch Battle Drill School.
In the summer of 1949, an estimated 1,000 cadets from British Columbia and Alberta took part in 10 days of training. Two hundred and forty stayed behind and took an additional 6 weeks of trades training.
Throughout the 1960’s, the training camp accommodated an average of 1,300 to 1,400 young men each summer. On July 30th, 1975, Bill C16 was given Royal Assent. This Bill amended the National Defense Act, thus allowing girls to join the cadet movement. The enrolment age for a cadet was reduced to 12 years old in 1987.
In 1994, the camp hosted the first ever reunion for an army cadet camp. Some 1,800 former cadets and staff returned for the 4-day reunion. A second reunion took place in 1999 (the 50th anniversary of the camp) that included an extensive exhibit at the Vernon Museum.
The Vernon Army Cadet Summer Training Centre is now the oldest continuous serving Army Cadet Training Centre in Canada. Interestingly, most of the camp has retained much of its wartime appearance. Only a few of the once ubiquitous wartime H-huts remain in Canada with some of the best examples still being used at the Vernon camp. Annual summer enrolment at the camp has now increased to an average of 1,700 male and female cadets.