Freedom of the City

Backgrounder / May 18, 2017

The following is an extract from Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Forces by E.C. Russell, published in 1980. Some of the circumstances mentioned in the extract, such as the Navy not having a Colour, have changed since the book’s publication. The details and nature of the ceremony, however, are enduring.

By E.C. Russell

One of the most prized honours of a marching unit is the conferring upon the unit of the privilege and distinction of the freedom of the city - the honour for all time of marching through the city with drums beating, colours flying, and bayonets fixed. Several regiments have been so honoured in Canada in recognition of their honorable record and to demonstrate the affection and esteem with which they are held by the citizens. Nor is the granting of the freedom of the city exclusively a regimental affair. In the port city of Vancouver, the naval reserve division, HMCS Discovery, takes pride in being the first and only unit to be so honoured (1973). Similarly, the city of Trenton conferred the privilege on Royal Canadian Air Force Station Trenton in September, 1967.

Usually, the freedom of the city is granted to a unit which has enjoyed a long and happy relationship with a city. An example is the Royal Regiment of Canada which, in 1962, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the regiment, was so honoured by the city of Toronto, the first in the city's history. At the same time the regiment was reminded of its obligation "to hold itself, as a regiment, as the first official protectors of the city". But sometimes the honour is granted to mark a people's gratitude for a heroic service, as in the case of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. In its jubilee year, 1964, the freedom of the city of Ypres in Belgium was conferred on the Patricias for their exploits a half century before.

The conferment of the freedom of the city means, in the physical sense, the granting of the privilege to march through the city with "drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed". Of course, everyone is familiar with the colour and pageantry of the military parade, which immediately raises the question, what is so important about the granting of this privilege? As is the case with so many of our traditions, this custom goes back more than three centuries in British military history.

There has ever been amongst British peoples a deeply seated antipathy towards a large standing army; large regular forces as garrisons in British cities have seldom been welcomed by the populace. This goes back to Tudor times, before and since, when the City of London jealously guarded its ancient rights and depended on its own trained bands to keep the peace and defend the city. Throughout our history, both in Britain and the Commonwealth, there is a strong tradition against the war-like appearance of large bodies of troops in the streets disturbing the civil repose and posing a threat, real or imagined, of infringement of ancient civic rights.

Even the time-honoured method of recruiting "by beat of drum" was highly suspect in the citizen's mind because of past incidents not unlike those associated with the press gangs of the Royal Navy. Thus it became customary to request the permission of the chief magistrate, the lord mayor, before any such foray was undertaken.

Sometimes the sequence of words – drums, colours, bayonets – differs, reflecting different times and different conditions. For example, when the custom of conferring the freedom of the city first took hold after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the bayonet was not yet in use. Today, the naval division has no colour. And it is only in relatively recent times that bands have come into use as opposed to the fife and drum of an earlier age. This would seem to favour the recognition of historical development in today's usage – first, the ancient drum; next, the colours; and lastly, the bayonet.

The ceremony of granting the freedom of the city hearkens back to an even earlier time when cities had walls and gates were barred to friend and foe alike – to the foe for obvious reasons, to the friend until the city authorities were assured of the troops’ best behaviour and the purpose of the presence of the regiment seeking entry. Today's ceremony reflects the ritual which had to take place in the days when troops on the march had no barracks and required being billeted in the town for the night. The following was written more than two centuries ago:

As soon as the Town-Major ... has notice from the Sentinels that the Regiment is in view, he should take a Serjeant and a file of men, and go to the outermost Barrier, and order one of the draw-bridges to be drawn up after him, till he has examined the original orders or route of the Regiment, lest the enemy, by having notice of the march of the Regiment, should, under that pretence, endeavour to surprise the town.

These same procedures of long ago are to be seen today whenever a unit of the Canadian Forces is honoured by a city. The 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, is a good example. As the battalion marched into the city of Fredericton [New Brunswick] in June, 1973, the chief of police stood his ground in the middle of the road, just like the city marshal of yesteryear, stopped the regiment and enquired of the commanding officer as to the purpose of the presence of the regiment on the march in the city. As the troops waited beyond the barrier of old, the commanding officer was escorted to the mayor who called a formal session of the city council, whereupon a resolution granting the freedom of the city was voted upon and approved. There followed an inspection and review of the battalion by the city's chief magistrate, and an exchange of scroll and gifts – all for the purpose of demonstrating the mutual esteem and respect of the citizens and the regiment.

The wording used in the scroll normally presented to a unit at the time of the granting of the privilege of marching through the city with "drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed" is colourful and varied. The following is the text of the illuminated scroll presented to the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment by the City of Belleville [Ontario] in 1964.




THIS DAY AND HENCEFORTH MAY IT BE KNOWN THAT, on this occasion of the Presentation of Colours and in honour of the history and tradition of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment and its predecessor units, that the Corporation of the City of Belleville in the realm of Canada of her Gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, the Second, by virtue of the authority of a resolution passed unanimously by the Council of the said Corporation on the sixth day of January, One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four, HEREBY PROCLAIMS AND GRANTS TO THE HASTINGS AND PRINCE EDWARD REGIMENT The Freedom of the said City of Belleville and all rights and privileges pertaining thereto, as long as the waters of Quinte Bay embrace the shores of the said city, to enter therein and march throughout its streets, thoroughfares and highways, without hindrance or trespass on any and all occasions with Colours and Battle Honours flying, bayonets fixed and bands playing.

This Freedom is granted and confirmed in grateful acknowledgement and recognition of services rendered and duty bravely performed since the formation of the Regiment's parent units, the First Regiment of Prince Edward Militia in the year, One Thousand, Eight Hundred, and the First Regiment of Hastings Militia in the year One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Four and continuing throughout a distinguished record of service in the wars of 1812, the Rebellion of 1837, the Fenian Raid of 1865, the North-West Expedition of 1885; the war in South Africa in 1898, the First World War of 1914 to 1918; the unit formally became the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment in 1920, and this grant is particularly to perpetuate its feats of bravery, devotion and glory from 1939 to 1945 from North Africa to Sicily, to Italy and to the European Theatre, to witness the capitulation of its enemies and thereafter, in causes dear to the hearts of the said City and all its citizens.

In particular and without limiting the foregoing, This Freedom is granted and to be recognized as a memorial to all ranks from said Regiment and its predecessors contributing to its distinguished history, who have given their lives on the altar of freedom in the performance of their duty and earned for their comrades and all who came after them the honours now recognized and being secured to them in perpetuity by their fellow citizens hereby recorded.

SIGNED AND SEALED on behalf of the CORPORATION OF TH E CITY OF BELLEVILLE on this seventeenth day of May, in the Year of Our Lord, One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four.

J.R. Ellis


A.S. Stalker


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