Wings Magazine

Alternate Approach: Providing a solid foundation

On board the flight deck of any airliner registered in Canada there is a 66 per cent chance that at least one crew member is a former Royal Canadian Air Cadet.

January 7, 2011  By David Carr

On board the flight deck of any airliner registered in Canada there is a 66 per cent chance that at least one crew member is a former Royal Canadian Air Cadet. Since 1941, when the first Air Cadet League of Canada squadron began churning out trained young men for the war effort, Air Cadets have embraced the challenges of leadership and citizenship.


Air Cadets have climbed the highest rungs of political office (former Prime Minister Joe Clark, Premier Brian Tobin and the late Ray Hnatyshyn, Canada’s 24th Governor General), flown the space shuttle (astronauts Marc Garneau, Chris Hadfield, Jeremy Hansen), excelled in business (Raymond McFeetors, CEO of Great West Life) and advanced into the top ranks of the military. Maryse Carmichael, Commanding Officer of the Snowbirds and Chief of Defence Staff, Walter Natyncyzk are former Air Cadets.

Yet in many communities, if thought is given to the cadet corps at all, it is on an often damp spring or fall weekend when suited and booted cadets stand at street corners selling tags. Still, many communities are not all communities. In early November, I visited Trenton, Ont., home of Canada’s largest air base (Base Commander Colonel David Cochrane was an Air Cadet) and one of the oldest Air Cadet squadrons. The 173 Royal Tiger Squadron was formed in 1942, a ripe period for recruitment when – as author Mordecai Richler reminded us – eager Canadian school boys were already glued to their warplane silhouettes.

Between 173 Squadron, neighbouring 704 Air Force City Squadron and 79 Sea Cadet Corps (the Navy League of Canada was founded in 1895), Trenton has more than 130 cadets. Not the largest cadets cluster in Canada by any stretch, but an impressive number for a town its size, even with a Canadian Forces base. Only 20 per cent of cadets come from military homes, the recruitment equal of the proverbial home goal.


In Trenton, the Remembrance Day tradition of honouring our glorious dead is preceded by a 24-hour vigil. A test of character for 50 cadets, many bundled against the cold night air, who stand guard at the local Cenotaph in half-hour shifts. “The whole community gets behind this,” said Capt. Jeff Haigh, a Canadian Forces veteran and Commanding Officer of 173 Squadron. “It also shows cadets what Remembrance Day is about.”

The Cadet corps is the largest federally-financed youth program in Canada. Funding for Air Cadets is backstopped by the Department of National Defence (DND), administered by the Canadian Forces and topped up by the Air Cadet League of Canada, a civilian organization that owns the fleet of 100 gliders and tow airplanes that 22,000 outstanding cadets train on every year. Money from the tag days held locally three times a year stays in the pocket of the individual squadron and is used to support training outside the core program, and field trips such as the one 173 Squadron took recently to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton. Consider that the next time you avert the stare of an eager tag seller or dust ’em over a claim of no change.

This year, Air Cadets celebrates its 60th anniversary. There have been changes. In the 1970s, the unification of the Canadian Forces erased the identities of all cadet corps. By the late 1980s, Air Cadets had traded their unified overall-style greens (referred to in more diplomatic circles as rifle green) for the glory of traditional air force blue.

At the Trenton high school where the Royal Tigers gather, older cadets help put the younger cubs through their paces, including marching techniques (there are no short cuts to marching, but there are tricks of the trade) and drills such as suspending one arm in the air for more than a minute (you try it). This is not your post-war Air Cadets. The program became co-ed in 1975. Hair length is still noted and discipline is always in the air, but the experience is delivered in a less rigid package. Senior cadets are encouraged to engage in administering the squadron, including the laundry list of training and classroom instruction cadets must complete to earn their stripes.

There are about 25,000 air cadets enrolled in 450 squadrons. Less than five per cent will follow the string into military service, with a significantly higher percentage likely to pursue a community-based career in policing, emergency response and firefighting. Not that DND is complaining. “They recognize the value of the program,” says Captain Haigh. “We help build character.”

David Carr is a Wings writer and columnist.


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