Changing of the Guard (well, at least the C.O.)

Regiment taking the parade grounds
Regiment taking the parade grounds

I was in the Queen’s Ave Armories the other day talking with Captain Vernon, an officer in the Royal Westminster Regiment. We had Farmer’s Market business to discuss as the armories are neighbours of the market and I was gauging their interest in joining the RCFM on a project. Captain Vernon was very gracious with his time and during our discussion he reminded me that the public was invited to a ceremony that Sunday, September 13th, in the Queen’s Park Arena for the Change of Command Ceremony.

Wow, that was an event I could not turn down. My father and grandfather were both in the regiment. My Dad was a Lieutenant, specializing in french horn and my grand-dad was Staff Sergeant. Near the end of his career he kept the books. The upcoming event reminded me that the position of the Regiment in the city. Annual soirees like the Officer’s Ball or the NCO’s ball were marquee events in the city’s social calendar and anyone (who was anyone) would be there. The rest of us would be left to clean up. I heard of one less formal gathering in the armories in the mid 1960’s that featured in an indoor car race, the object of which was to see who could stop their sports car closest to the 6th street wall of the armories (from the inside) with out touching it. The race ended with one car passing through the 6th st gate and down onto the street. The driver, no doubt, felt no pain until morning.

But for better or for worse, that was then and this is now. The army is a much less public institution than it used to be and the armories is no longer the kind of building the average citizen sees the inside of. While our regiment is tied to our city in a way few regiments are, it is now a world apart and the number of people who would know the name of the Commanding Officer are few.  His name is Lieutenant Colonel Doug M. Poitras, Canadian Dragoons. He is an able speaker, looks pretty snappy, is a veteran of Afghanistan and many other postings. He has a Psychology Degree and he was raised in the lower mainland. He is around 51 years old but he doesn’t look it.

The transfer of command ceremony consisted primarily of two uniformed guard elements and one cadet element marching to The Maple Leaf Forever and Colonel Bogey’s March.

Commanding Officer Returns Regimental Colours to Honour Guard.
Commanding Officer Returns Regimental Colours to Honour Guard.

Within one of the regimental guards was a group of 12 or so soldiers in desert fatigues. These men were destined to serve in Afghanistan. The regiment has sent 40 members there already (since the conflict began) and another 30ish troops are due to depart.

The pomp and ceremony was fascinating, like a window into some lost time. Many of the rituals and traditions seem to be almost sacraments, such as the transfer of the possession of the Regimental Colours. The departing commander marches the colours from the Honour Guard to an Honorary Officer with all of the deference you would expect. The incoming commander then takes possession of the colours and returns it to the Honour Guard. As the colours are the single most important regimental artifact, with all of the battle honors displayed on the flag, the affair is as solemn as the blood of fallen comrades demands.  When two officers salute on the parade grounds, both with swords drawn, the inferior officer makes an elaborate swoop down of his weapon in deference to he ranking officer. The Commanding Officer barely whispers the marching orders to the junior officer, the officer then calls for the Regimental Sergeant Major and quietly explains the orders again. After all of the officers depart, the Regimental Sergeant Major then assembles the sergeants of each guard and belts out the orders to the assembled troopers.  It is a visible and visceral display of the chain of command at work.

For the time being I have this collection of photographs from the event. I plan to post some video somewhere in short order.

One of the afternoon’s speeches that I will remember was a reference by Colonel G.W.J. Richmond (I think) to the Regiment’s relationship with the city.

I want to remind the community how fine a regiment this is…one of the few in Canada to have its regimental colours fly at City Hall. Most regiments never get that opportunity but this is your regiment…(and that is)a great testament to the connection this regiment has with your community.

Photo slideshow from the Change of Command Ceremony on September 13, 2009

4 Replies to “Changing of the Guard (well, at least the C.O.)”

  1. Hi Will

    Thanks for covering this – I really wanted to see the ceremony but couldn't make it. I served for a brief time in the Canadian Scottish Regiment in Nanaimo, and put many years in cadets.

    I really appreciate your point about how the Regminent is deeply connected to the city than so many others are not. The only other place I've felt that connection between the military and the city in BC is Victoria, and to be honest I don't even find it as strong there as I would expect.

    I am actually researching for a documentary looking at this very issue – how does the army (and navy) connect with the city here in Metro Vancouver. My focus to this point has mainly been on the Seaforth Highlanders, but now I'm thinking the RWR may provide an interesting counterpoint.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Will has video of almost the whole ceremony if you’re interested for your documentary. It’s not terribly great quality – just taken with a Flip handycam – but if you think you could use it or might want to just see it, we’ll get it uploaded to YouTube for you.

    New Westminster is deeply connected to its military. If you’re interested in exploring further for your docco, Will can put you in touch with some of the local military historians. One of our city councillors, Jaimie McEvoy, has also done some really interesting research on the impact of the city’s contribution during past wars (in terms of both casualties and contributions to the war effort) and I’m sure he’d have some thoughts on how this has affected the city’s treatment of veterans and the military in general.

    Remembrance Day in New West is also an event to see. It’s always an overflow crowd at the armory and a nearby church, followed by the ceremony at the Cenotaph. The service draws lots of local families as well as the usual politicians, dignitaries and veterans.

  3. I’ve participated in the NW cenotaph ceremony, via Girl Guides of Canada and also I have attended as a member of the community to simply watch. My dad served and it is important to me that I recognize his and the efforts of others and I find New Westminster’s simple, elegant, and well-attended ceremony to be the right mix of solemnity and community involvement. It cheers me to see all the young families in the sputtering rain, children learning about and witnessing the occasion. NW also has a candlelight vigil (I don’t recall seeing it last year, actually) but it was an AMAZING sight to see. I used to live across from city hall and after everyone had left,they left the candles in their red glass jars glowing about the soldier statue. Reverence, awe, respect. I felt connected to something.

  4. Thanks Briana

    I would love to get a copy from will, although a copy on CD would probably be better if possible – I’d be happy to give you a few blank ones for your trouble.

    And thanks for the heads up on Mr. McEvoy, once I figure out the questions I need to ask him I will definitely look him up.

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