Skip navigation

Will universities salute a new campus corps?

Advocates for a revived officer training program at Canadian universities say it would prepare the next generation of leaders and bridge the gap between civilian and military society.

Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

The Canadian Forces can be a very tight-lipped group. After all, everybody knows the old line about loose lips sinking ships. But soldiers and sailors alike can speak a little more freely on the Internet, and a recent topic on the public message boards of – an unofficial site frequented by military types – had them buzzing.

Someone, self-identified as “40below,” had posted an article about a recent documentary entitled No Country for Young Men. The film told the story of the Canadian Officer  Training Corps (COTC), a voluntary reservist program administered by the military on civilian university campuses that reached its peak popularity during the 1940s and ’50s. The writer suggested that it might be a good idea to bring back the program, and then opened things up for discussion. Some respondents had studied at civilian universities and, based on their experience, worried that “civvy U” students would respond negatively, creating an inhospitable environment for potential enlistees. Others were concerned that a new COTC would hamper recruitment for regular regiments, and called it a “waste of resources.”

But most were optimistic. One, with the screen name Noneck, summarized the positive sentiments well: even if this potential new generation of COTC graduates doesn’t proceed into the military, “they still leave with up to four years of foundation knowledge that [will] take them through their civvy careers.”

And that is pretty much what motivates documentary filmmaker Robert Roy, the producer of No Country for Young Men. He is the driving force behind a recent initiative to breathe new life into the old COTC, which was officially scrapped as part of the unification of Canada’s armed forces in 1968. In the film, a diverse cast of characters, including author Peter C. Newman, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and Stratford Festival director John Wood, fondly recall their days in the corps and speak of the lessons they learned.

The reborn COTC that Mr. Roy envisions would follow in the path of its predecessor. It would be completely voluntary; students would enrol as cadets who might be headed for the officer corps of the reserves, but with no risk of being called up to fight in Afghanistan or anywhere else and no obligation to make a service commitment beyond graduation. The program’s primary goal would be to instil leadership skills in students, a task for which he feels the military is particularly well suited.

The program is very much in the planning stages and still has a number of obstacles to overcome. Mr. Roy, who has no military background, notes that he and his nonprofit group – The 7 Year Project, aimed at “connecting Canadians with their military” – have received support from a number of important members of the business and academic community.

Not yet on board is the military. Still, there have been promising signs. Mr. Roy says the program has the backing of the top military brass (if not Department of National Defence bureaucrats), and indeed Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the chief of the army, went on record in support of the initiative last October. “I think this is a wonderful idea,” he told a symposium convened to screen No Country and discuss the idea of a new COTC. He noted that he doesn’t speak for the Canadian Forces or DND but “I do speak for the army. I’m willing to support this, but we’re busy.” He advised proponents to start small with a pilot project at a civilian university. And, referencing a different, better-known film, Lt.-Gen. Leslie prophesied, “Build it and I’m convinced … they will come.”

And build it they will, if they get the chance. The University of Alberta has volunteered to be the site of the first pilot, should things get up and running. Calling Edmonton a “garrison town,” vice-president, academic, Carl Amrhein says U of A is a natural fit for the program, given its close proximity to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Lord Strathcona’s Horse armoured regiment. U of A was very involved when the old COTC was in operation, says Dr. Amrhein, and today’s deans are behind this initiative: “We are not only interested, but enthusiastically interested.” They like the former program’s track record in building 
leadership skills in students.

While Dr. Amrhein acknowledges that an increased military presence on campus may be unwelcome for some, he’s convinced that everybody will be able to sort out their differences through healthy debate. He sees the threat of violent protest or any other major problems as remote. “Our campus community loves rip-roaring academic exchange, and they like it to be well within the confines of collegial discourse,” says Dr. Amrhein.

Zach Fentiman, president of the U of A Students’ Union, agrees. He points to recent debates on controversial topics, from climate change to atheism, that were conducted on campus respectfully and peacefully. “I think an academic campus is well-tempered to be able to discuss such things,” he says. As for a resurgent COTC, Mr. Fentiman says the U of A students’ union (a member of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations) has no strong feelings either way: some students will welcome it while others will not.

Katherine Giroux-Bougard, national chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, is more guarded. She worries that any intrusion onto campuses by large, well-funded organizations, whether the military or big corporations, could limit universities’ ability to set their own course and be free and independent places of learning. “It’s a bit of a slippery slope, in terms of the autonomy of our universities and colleges,” she says.

Henry Giroux (no relation to Ms. Giroux-Bougard) takes this line of reasoning a step further, seeing this COTC initiative as just one more extension of the “creeping militarism” that has taken place in the United States and Canada since 9/11. Dr. Giroux, professor in the department of English and cultural studies at McMaster University, says that even such a small program would serve to speed the elimination of free, public space. “Universities are one of the few places left where people can actually debate and learn how to hold power accountable. Most of the public spheres have now been commercialized, and if they’re not commercialized, they’re militarized.”

And indeed, at some Canadian universities, students have chosen to greet Canadian Forces staff as representatives of war and global exploitation. For example, two years ago, the University of Victoria Students’ Society tried to ban military recruiters from the school’s annual career fair and, when they failed to do so, students set up a coffin in front of the Forces recruiting table to block access. The next year, recruiters were again met with protest. Similar things have happened at other campuses, including Trent University, where students once encircled a Forces recruiting table with a human chain to keep the curious away.

Amy Doyle, a fourth-year environmental studies and history student at Trent, doesn’t think a renewed COTC would work out well at her school. She predicts that students would question why government money (whether from the military, the university or a ministry like Canadian Heritage, a likely source of funds) was being used to create and run such a program. “Why would you use valuable resources for this? The money could be better spent helping us with our tuition.”

Yet, Olivier Courteaux, professor of history at Ryerson University and author of The War on Terror: The Canadian Dilemma, is convinced that students are able to take a more nuanced view. Even as the Afghanistan war remains so unpopular on campus, he has noted a rising level of interest in military and wartime history, especially a growing popularity in his First and Second World War classes. He’s not so sure that this interest would transfer to a COTC-type program but he believes that it would appeal to some, recalling the reaction he got one day when he made an off-hand comment about organizing a boot camp. “There was actually a lot of interest,” he remembers. “I had to tell them it was just a joke.”

Tim Goddard, whose daughter Nichola, in 2006, was the first Canadian woman to be killed in action since the Second World War, says that students – an educated, critical group – could actually be more equipped for drawing distinctions between DND policies overseas and the actual fighting men and women who make up the Forces. Dr. Goddard, now dean of education at the University of Prince Edward Island, says, “You’re much more likely on a university campus to get people who understand the irony of sending 4,500 troops to Vancouver to protect the Olympics when you send 2,700 to Kandahar to control a place the size of Nova Scotia.”

The fact remains that the military is already on most campuses across the country. While most people think that Forces education takes place solely at Canada’s military colleges (notably the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario and in Saint-Jean, Quebec), there are more than 900 officers and soldiers enlisted in the regular forces studying full-time in civilian universities, their tuition paid by the Canadian Forces. Dr. Goddard notes that a number of the military’s men and women study at his school, and it’s a very normal thing. “When they’re on campus, they’re on campus – they wear civilian clothes and they’re just students, like everybody else.” He says he would not have a problem with a COTC chapter at UPEI.

Moreover, at least two Canadian universities – the University of Manitoba and TÉLUQ, the distance university of Université du Québec à Montréal – have long played host to on-campus military offices. Both schools focus on offering distance education courses to help military personnel, a very mobile population, achieve a degree. While DND actually pulled support (and funding) for these offices in 2008, both universities chose to keep them running. Pierre Lafleur, a former military man who coordinates the military support office at TÉLUQ, says the program offers counselling and extra support to those in the armed forces, and it remains very popular: 500 of TÉLUQ’s 18,000 students are in the military, studying full- or part-time.

But Mr. Lafleur admits that distance education courses are not well-suited to building leadership skills, one of the main objectives of those seeking to revive the COTC. For that, he says, you need to go to Royal Military College. And while some in the military community may be concerned that the COTC could siphon off recruits, RMC principal Joel Sokolsky isn’t worried. He won’t comment or speculate on anything related to the COTC, but he points out that RMC offers a great deal more: the university conducts extensive research, and about 30 percent of the degrees it grants are at the master’s or doctoral level. “We have a much broader role within the armed forces, in terms of professional military education at the university level that extends beyond the cadets.”

John Scott Cowan, who preceded Dr. Sokolsky as principal at RMC, adds that the school is likely to welcome anything that increases public support and awareness of the armed forces in other universities. A strong proponent of a renewed COTC, Dr. Cowan observes that the real worth of the program would be in bridging the gap between our military and civilian society.

According to several observers, this gap has been growing for decades. Some, like Mr. Roy and Jack Granatstein, believe it can be traced back to the cancellation of the original COTC back in 1968. “It had a disastrous effect on defence in Canada,” says Dr. Granatstein, a professor emeritus of history at York University and senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. He says the “beauty of the COTC” was that it demonstrated to those in university that the military was not brutal, that there were good people serving in it, and that the training they could provide was beneficial. In his view, this breach between the country’s leaders and the armed forces led the military into a fight for its life, seeking to survive amid funding cuts as its base of support continually declined.

Civilian authority over the military is a Canadian hallmark, but to properly perform this role, civilians must understand the military, continues Dr. Granatstein. Moreover, having a strong armed forces is key to national sovereignty: “If we don’t defend ourselves, somebody else will – in their own interests, not ours,” he observes.

Dr. Granatstein, who spent 10 years in the military before entering the academy, says the Canadian armed forces have always been very effective at instilling leadership skills in the country’s youth. He recalls that when he trained COTC cadets at Camp Borden in Ontario during summers in the 1950s and ’60s, “it was the most effective kind of training that I think 18-, 19-, 20-year olds could acquire. Very simply, it was good for them. They learned something useful.”

Jim Gray, a leader in Alberta’s oil and gas industry and an officer of the Order of Canada, was a COTC cadet during his years at the University of British Columbia. He says those lessons and experiences have remained with him, helping him as a person and as a business leader. Whether commanding troops or managing employees, leaders need to effectively build teams, make good decisions and exercise judgment, build support and rapport amongst the ranks, and inculcate respect, all skills that Mr. Gray believes the military very effectively instils. “The military does it. They practice it. It’s part of their life,” he says.

Back at U of A, Dr. Amrhein is eager to get this kind of leadership training onto his campus. He says that experiential learning is key, and a new COTC could be a fresh and valuable option for students. Moreover, an officer-training program could be an additional tool in producing graduates who improve society in Alberta and Canada. “A lot of different groups have talked to me about whether the university could be more directly engaged in creating leadership capacity for society and the economy,” says Dr. Amrhein. “I hear lots of people say we need to do more, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Tim Johnson
Missing author information
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Jim Elliott / December 11, 2013 at 15:17

    I do not know whether the Canadian Army got its money’s worth out of my COTC service, but I certainly benefited as did my platoonmates, several of whom went on to positions of some prominence in Canada. Several lawyers doctors a dentist, and even a provincial premier. At a minimum the Army got a group of civilians who identified with the forces to some degree.

  2. Paul Tobolski / August 11, 2014 at 22:14

    I was very fortunate to be a member of the COTC at the University of Manitoba. I had been a member of theLoyal Edmonton Regiment and gained the outstanding rank of Cpl. In 1962 as a 19 year old I went to the University of Manitoba and was enrolled in the COTC program. In the summer of 1963 I went to Camp Borden Ontario where I took phase One at the Armoured Corps training

    area. While taking phases one (a 13 week course).

    I had the very lucky chance to attend the Canadian Premier of the movie “The Great Escape’. My father was one of the 50 victims. I returned to Edmonton where I found out I was now a Lt. Eventually, I was promoted to Captain and received a CD and a QSJM. I really enjoyed the training and as opposed to University. I graduated from technical training from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. University was my Mothers idea.

Click to fill out a quick survey