The Canadian tradition of honouring regional or local dignitaries with an honorary rank in the military goes back to 1857 although it was 1895 before the first honorary colonel was appointed. Being an honorary colonel has always been an honour, bestowed upon prominent members of the community for their influence; however, it also involved rallying civilians to enlist during times of war or emergency, and to clothe and even equip troops during times of peace.
In the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), honorary colonels have been appointed for the prominence they hold in the community but more importantly as a mark of esteem. The first RCAF appointees, made in 1931, were four big names in Canadian military aviation, Group Captain J. S. Scott, Group Captain R. K. Mulock, Wing Commander W. A. Bishop, and Squadron Leader D. R. MacLaren. All four being recently retired, giving them the honorary appointments was both a way to honour them and to have them maintain their link with the air force.
Other military personnel and civilians were appointed in the years that followed, honoured for their achievements in the field of aviation, their contributions to the RCAF during the Second World War or their standing in the community. The practice of naming honorary appointees as general members of the RCAF continued through to 1959, when J.A.D. McCurdy, the first person to make a powered flight in Canada was so honoured in February 1959 on the 50th anniversary of the flight of the Silver Dart. With his death in June 1961, the practice of appointing people to the RCAF in general ended. Not until 2009, when Senator Pamela Wallin was appointed, would there be another honorary colonel for the whole of the RCAF .
In 1934, the RCAF Auxiliary began to make its first appointments, selecting local dignitaries - publishers, lawyers, business owners. Their role was to provide a link between the auxiliary squadron and the community, and raising the public profile of the squadron. Unlike their army predecessors, they were not required to assist in enlistment or equip the squadron. While the Auxiliary’s first appointees were for flying squadrons, after the war, RCAF Auxiliary radio schools, medical units and other ground establishments were allowed to name honorary colonels. Not until the late 1980s would the regular force appoint its first honorary colonels for its squadrons and units.
The last 30 years has seen Canadians from all spectrums of society appointed to the list of honoraries. Canadian musicians, television personalities, members of academia executives from all manner of business and industry have joined their retired military confreres as honorary colonels. The visibility that they bring to the RCAF and the pride that the men and women of the air force feel in their honorary colonels provide an important link between the air force and the communities in which it is based. The honorary colonels continue a centuries-long tradition of service and are just as important today as when the program first began.
Scott Howden, Honorary Colonels Special Advisor
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