John G. Diefenbaker, 1962
NAC (PA-130070). Photo by Paul Horsdal.

John G. Diefenbaker, 1962

Diefenbaker's government cut funding to militia units in when it first came to power in 1957. Military planners estimated that an atomic attack on North America would result in catastrophic civilian losses, as opposed to the losses incurred by military personnel in a "traditional" conflict. The new role envisioned for military units was helping the survivors of a nuclear attack rather than being on the front lines in a battle.

The partial submergence of its identity was one factor in the recruiting difficulties the LER faced in the mid-1950s. Total strength dropped to around 200, and only 55 soldiers showed up for the annual July camp in 1954. (21) The problems of recruiting part-time soldiers were partly due to competition for manpower from the Alberta economy, which has heated up with the oil boom, and partly due to the primary task of the Militia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The most likely military scenario at that time was a nuclear war with a relatively small number (by later standards) of weapons dropped by Soviet bombers on Canadian targets. Military planners in the late 1950s estimated that two days after an atomic attack on North America, Canada would have suffered 1.1 million dead and 800,000 injured, with 2.7 million exposed to radiation strong enough that half would eventually die of the effects. (22) Civil Defence, with fallout shelters, warning sirens, and evacuation plans, was one part of the response to this deadly possibility. The specifically military role went under the name of National Survival Duties. It envisaged Militia units trying to save as many of the panic-stricken survivors of an atomic attack as possible, organizing food and medical supplies as best they could, and trying to minimize radiation casualties. In the circumstance of the time, this was an important task but a more depressing prospect would be hard to imagine. As part of the new role and to save money, the new government of John Diefenbaker cut funding for summer Militia camps entirely in 1957. (23)

When Colonel R.A. Bradburn took over from Colonel Rowlatt as commanding officer on 1 March 1954, it was clear that the LER was at a low ebb. Bradburn's first parade drew 33 officers, 31 NCOs, 32 bandsmen, and only 3 privates. (24) After trying a number of traditional schemes for attracting recruits without much success, Colonel Bradburn in 1956 hit upon the idea of focussing on high school students. Enlistment would offer them training, pocket money during the school year, and guaranteed summer employment. Sympathetic high school principals spread the word, and the scheme was an immediate success. It was so successful, in fact, that Colonel Bradburn was obliged to raise money privately from friends of the regiment to cover payments to participants in the Young Soldier program until the government came through. It was almost reminiscent of the 1920s when officers had used their own funds to buy equipment for the regiment. The Young Soldier program within a year or two was attracting the maximum number of 150 yearly, many of them from the outlying communities. Most remained with the LER after completing their training, and several went directly from it to Royal Roads Military College. (25) By the time Colonel Bradburn left to take over 23 Militia Group in April of 1958 and handed over command to Lieutenant-Colonel G.J. Armstrong, the Young Soldiers scheme had been widely copied by other Militia units throughout the country and was taken over on a national basis in 1962.

The LER thus entered the decade of the 1960s in surprisingly good shape, in spite of the confusion and contradiction in Canada's defence policies that led to the resignation of two defence ministers and the downfall of the Diefenbaker government. The year 1960 was hailed as one of the best post-war years for the regiment. (26) When Lieutenant-Colonel E.L. Boyd took over command in the fall of 1961, total strength was over 500. (27) Most of Canada's military personnel expected that the return of a Liberal government would restore a measure of rationality and stability to Canada's defence policies. (28) Change was certainly coming, but not the kind that anyone had anticipated. The new Minister of Defence in the cabinet of Prime Minister L.B. Pearson, Toronto businessman Paul Hellyer, was an admirer of the American Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and his efforts to use modern management techniques to make the military more efficient.

In the most radical military restructuring undertaken by any NATO country, Hellyer, between 1964 and 1968, attempted to abolish the army, navy, and air force altogether as separate services. Instead there would be functional commands to meet the country's defence needs. All service personnel would now wear the same green uniform. The new Mobile Command largely assumed the army's former role, although air elements were supposed to be integrated. Militia units like the LER were to be part of Mobile Command. Unification of the armed forces created tremendous disruption and achieved little. Critics argued that Hellyer was throwing away the traditions that sustained the military in return for the illusion of efficiency. They were right, but neither their words nor the resignations of two generals, seven admirals, and an air chief marshall in protest deflected the plan. The promised savings were found instead by cutting strength and either buying cheap and inadequate equipment or not replacing worn out items at all. Sadly this was to set the pattern for the rest of the 20th century.

The LER, not surprisingly, found recruiting difficult in the late 1960s. In addition to the confusion generated in Ottawa, the war in Vietnam was generating a public reaction that extended to Canada against all things military. In 1965, the regiment, now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernie Stanton, celebrated its 50th anniversary in uncertain circumstances. Prince of Wales Armoury, the home of the LER for half a century, was in need of extensive repairs. The government was unwilling to find the money in a time of cutbacks, so in 1965 it was announced that the regiment would be moving into the former HMCS Nonsuch building in the river valley. (29) The building, renamed Ortona Armouries, would house the LER for a dozen years. On a definitely brighter note for this period, on 27 May 1967, Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra presented new colours to the regiment in a ceremony at Griesbach.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, 1967.
NAC (PA-117107). Photo by Duncan Cameron.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, 1967.

The close presence of a massive American nuclear deterrent in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant that Canadian prime ministers Pearson and Trudeau could cut military spending without any apparent risk to Canadian national security.

Those who were concerned about the future of Canada's armed forces were relieved in 1968 when Paul Hellyer's bid for the leadership of the Liberal party failed. The relief turned out to be misplaced. The new Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had no connection with or interest in the military. In this respect he was entirely typical of Canadian leaders in the 20th century. Only Diefenbaker and Pearson had served in the army, and both their military careers had been unhappy ones. The circumstances of the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, made large cuts in military spending popular and, from a certain perspective, rational. The only serious threat to Canadian security seemed to be the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack. We were under the umbrella of American nuclear deterrence whether we, or they, liked it or not. Why not take the opportunity to save some money on defence? Trudeau prided himself on his rational approach to government. The former service heads of branches in Ottawa were replaced by assistant deputy ministers in order to bring the 'science' of management to the military. Canada's NATO contingent was cut in half, the aircraft carrier Bonaventure was scrapped, and five regular regiments disappeared. Bases were shut down, and authorized Militia strength decreased from 23,000 to 19,000.

Twin Otter aircraft of 418 Squadron, n.d.
Department of National Defence

Twin Otter aircraft of 418 Squadron, n.d.

As militia units became part of the Canadian Armed Forces in 1968, the LER was re-designated as 4th Battalion PPCLI and began training with 418 Squadron, Air Command.

The LER, now under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Ross, was cut to two companies. (30) Not all changes in the 1970s were negative, however. While numbers were smaller, the severe cuts in the regular forces meant a closer integration of Militia units into the structure of Mobile Command. For the LER, now designated as 4th Battalion PPCLI, this meant more intensive training in conjunction with 418 Squadron, Air Command. For the first time since the 1950s, several members of the regiment went to Europe to participate in NATO exercises. (31) As usual, when Militia units from across western Canada gathered for summer training at Wainwright, the LER had the highest turnout.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ed Piasta led the regiment into the 1970s, and, under his successor, Lieutenant-Colonel Denis Johnson, the LER became the first reserve unit in the country to undertake parachute training. In 1971 forty-three members of the regiment took the jump course with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 1975, the year Lieutenant-Colonel L.E.A. Ahlstrom became commanding officer, the regiment participated in no fewer than ten exercises, including jumps and mountain training with the Airborne. The regiment moved to better quarters at Hamilton Gault Barracks in 1977. Still, recruits were hard to come by and just as hard to retain because pay was sporadic at best. (32) In 1978, the regiment provided flag parties for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. In truth, the LER could not have mustered a much larger group at that point in its history. In 1979, the regiment's actual strength was eight officers and sixty-five other ranks. Two years later it had dropped to an all-time low of fifty-six all ranks, perilously close to the point at which it would be unable to sustain and renew itself. (33)

 

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