Ceremonial Guard


Ceremonial tasks in Ottawa began in 1959 with the inaugural Changing of the Guard Ceremony mounted for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Parliament Hill. The ceremony is centuries old and is still performed today. The Canadian Guards Regiment, a regular army infantry unit made up of four battalions with strong affiliations to the British Brigade of Guards conducted the first performance. The Canadian Guards carried-out public duties in the Nation’s capital until the unit was reduced to nil-strength in 1970.

In 1971, the responsibility for the Changing of the Guard ceremony fell to two army reserve regiments – the Canadian Grenadier Guards (CGG) and the Governor General’s Foot Guards (GGFG). Both units contributed a company of infantry soldiers for public duties throughout the summer months.

In 1980, the Ceremonial Guard was created to plan, prepare and execute the prestigious task of public duties in the National Capital Region during the summer. This new unit retained the traditional ties to the Guards who performed the parade the previous decade - the CGG and GGFG. The uniforms of these regiments can still been seen today and consist of scarlet tunics and bearskin caps that represent Canada’s Household troops; a cogent symbol of Canada’s relationship to the monarchy and one of Ottawa’s most treasured icons. In 2016, the Ceremonial Guard ceased to be an independent unit and was reformed as a sub-unit within the GGFG. Further, Ceremonial Guard has become a summer task which is force generated from across the Canadian Army, and consists of members of both the Regular and the Primary Reserve Forces.

Currently serving members in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) who are interested in joining the Ceremonial Guard for public duties should contact their chain of command. Civilian musicians who want to join the Band of the Ceremonial Guard should contact their nearest recruiting centre.

Ceremonial Guard uniforms

The members of the Ceremonial Guard are instantly recognizable in their distinctive scarlet tunics and bearskin caps.

Although they come from many units across Canada, members of the Guard continue to uphold the traditions of two of Canada’s finest regiments - the GGFG of Ottawa, and the CGG of Montreal.

Both regiments wear the black bearskin cap which was first adopted as a battle honour by the British First Regiment of Foot Guards following their defeat of Napoleon’s Grenadier Regiments of the Old Guard at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Upon their return to Britain, the First Foot Guards were subsequently renamed the “Grenadier Guards” in honour of their glorious victory over the French. By 1831, all British Foot Guards regiments were issued with the bearskin headdress which was designed to make a soldier appear taller and more intimidating.

When the GGFG were formed in 1872 to support regal functions in the nation’s capital, they were authorized to wear the uniform of their allied regiment – the Coldstream Guards. This is where the Canadian tradition of the bearskin cap draws its initial inspiration.

Today, the GGFG and the CGG are easily distinguishable by the coloured plumes on their bearskin caps: red for the GGFG and white for the CGG.

Ceremonial Guard – Preparation and Training

Members of the Ceremonial Guard must be physically fit in order to participate in the training and execution of ceremonial tasks as they are rigorous and demanding.

Upon arrival in Ottawa, the guards undergo intense physical, ceremonial and musical training leading up to the commencement of Public Duties. Countless hours are devoted to foot and weapons drill, uniform upkeep, parade rehearsals and physical conditioning.

Public Duties in the National Capital Region

The Ceremonial Guard is assigned five tasks in the National Capital Region each summer:

  1. The daily Changing of the Guard Ceremony;
  2. Mounting Sentries at Rideau Hall, the Residence of the Governor General of Canada;
  3. Fortissimo – the Canadian Armed Forces Massed Bands Beating of Retreat Ceremony;
  4. Support to the National Sentry Programme at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier;
  5. Ceremonial support to locally-based Canadian Armed Forces units, such as conducting Guards of Honour for visiting heads of state, community outreach through band performances as well as conducting concerts for the diplomatic community.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony

Traditionally performed daily on the lawns of Parliament Hill in Ottawa during the summer, the Changing of the Guard ceremony is one of the most recognized military traditions in Canada.

Additional details about the 2023 season will follow in the spring of 2023.

Sentry Duties at Rideau Hall

Members of the Ceremonial Guard perform daily sentry duties at Rideau Hall, which is the official residence and workplace of the Governor General of Canada.

In 2023, the sentries will change every hour on the hour from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily from mid-June to late August. Listen for the pipers as they lead the troops down the driveway!

Fortissimo - The Canadian Armed Forces Massed Bands Beating Retreat Ceremony

Fortissimo is an Italian musical term meaning to play loudly.

In the context of the Canadian Armed Forces, Fortissimo is the military musical pageant typically performed on the lawns of Parliament Hill during a weekend in late July. It includes massed military bands, pipes and drums, dancers and the finest international military contingents from around the globe. Fortissimo has become the CAF’s premiere ceremonial event, drawing thousands of spectators since its inaugural performance in 1997. Over the years, this military spectacle has included international participation from The Queen’s Colour Squadron of the Royal Air Force, His Majesty The King’s Guard from Norway and the United States Army Old Guard 3rd Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard.”

The format for this performance is based on the old army traditions of “Retreat” and “Tattoo” dating back to the 1700s. Modern performances of Fortissimo share many similarities with the Beating Retreat performed by the British Household Division in London, England.

“Retreat” signalled the end of the working day and was sounded by a battalion’s drummers, pipers and fifers. The term comes from the French “Retraite” and was employed by all European armies dating from the 18th century.

The daily routine of sounding Retreat had no tactical connection to the military manoeuvre.

Following the end of the day’s work, the battalion drummers beat Retreat around camp. The music signalled to soldiers working inside and outside the camp to return to barracks to ready themselves for final inspection. Soldiers were often dismissed from daily duty at 2:30 p.m. and had dispersed to look after their own personal administration which included cooking their own meals, foraging for supplies and pursuing civilian employment to supplement the insufficient wages of the period. The troops had to return to camp for roll-call while stragglers were rounded up after dark. At sunset, the gates of the town, fortress or camp were closed and the evening sentries began challenging anyone who approached their posts.

The dilemma for soldiers employed outside camp was actually hearing the Retreat.

Soldiers were subject to severe codes of discipline during the 18th and 19th centuries and anyone absent after dark was rounded-up by regimental duty staff (i.e. police) and thrown into the stockade. These confinements to regimental jail were severe and often included floggings as well as the withholding of bread and water. These punishments could last for days.

The sounding of Tattoo was the answer for those who didn’t return following Retreat.

Tattoo signalled to soldiers further away that it was last call: Time to return to barracks or face the consequences.

Although similar in purpose, the Retreat and Tattoo were two separate duties.

The difference between the two came down to geography and time: The Retreat call was sounded inside camp before sun-down while Tattoo deployed drummers, pipers and fifers outside camp after dark. Corps of drummers formed-up to parade through the streets to round-up soldiers working or relaxing in the public houses and lead them back to camp. In many ways, it was a grand parade. The Tattoo duty became commonplace and as such evolved into a more formalized parade sequence through the years.

By the end of the Victorian era, the Beating of Retreat and sounding of Tattoo evolved to become an evening’s entertainment for both soldiers and local townspeople. Regimental bands in this period began to create marching and musical performances of increasing complexity and appeal. Soldiers of the Canadian Corps were accustomed to the evening retreat ceremonies within their lines during the First World War. In fact, the parading of regimental and massed bands was commonplace in Canada and overseas. Following the victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917, the combined might of the massed pipes and drums of the Canadian Corps numbering 500 pipers and drummers beat retreat and marched past Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and Canadian Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Curry.

These functional musical acts introduced by the army to satisfy an essential military requirement for defence and security is carried out in Ottawa during the summer through the presentation of Fortissimo.

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