Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy – history of the position

Since the creation of Canada’s Navy in 1910, the title of the Navy’s top officer has changed several times. This reflects changes to the Navy and to Canada’s military over the years.


May 4, 1910:  the Canadian Naval Service begins. The head of the service is called Director of the Naval Service.

August 16, 1911:  King George V designates it the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

1922:  the combined Department of National Defence is created but the RCN remains a separate service.

March 7, 1928:  the title of the head of the Navy changes to Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS). This change helps distinguish the head of the RCN from the head of the Canadian Army, the Chief of the General Staff, who is one rank higher than the CNS. This system of separate service chiefs (Navy, Army, Air Force) reporting to a Defence Minister remains until 1964.

August 1, 1964:  the three services are merged. Bill C-90 sets in place this policy of integration. The three service chiefs and their staffs are disbanded. In their place, there is a single Canadian Forces Headquarters (CFHQ), with a single Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in charge. This is the start of a decade of change and uncertainty, as traditional command and control relationships evolve into an untried unified structure.

The three services still exist, but responsibility for naval matters is now split between:

  • the tri-service CFHQ staff in Ottawa, with a Vice-Admiral Principal Naval Adviser as the senior ranking naval officer, and
  • operational naval headquarters on both coasts, with Halifax recognized as the senior one.

January 1966:  Maritime Command is set up in Halifax. It is a functional command in charge of all Canadian maritime operations. The head of Maritime Command is a Rear-Admiral known as Commander Maritime Command (Comd MARCOM). The Principal Naval Advisor in Ottawa is still the senior ranking naval officer for matters of policy. Comd MARCOM is in charge of day-to-day maritime operations.

February 1, 1968:  the Canadian Forces Re-Organization Act (Bill C-243) brings in the policy of unification. The separate services of the Navy, Army and Air Force are disbanded. They are replaced by a single service called the Canadian Forces (CF) under one service commander, the Chief of the Defence Staff. Under a unified CF, the role of Principal Naval Adviser becomes inactive. The Commander Maritime Command becomes the de facto head of the Navy part of the CF.

1975: things start to change when all air assets are combined into Air Command. This step recognizes that the commanders of Maritime, Mobile (army) and Air Commands are more than functional commanders. Rather, they are environmental commanders in their own right, and they need dedicated staffs to develop policy within a unified Canadian Armed Forces. The position of Comd MARCOM is reinstated at the former service-chief rank of Vice-Admiral. He and his support staff, based in Halifax, are put in charge of both policy and operations.

1997: Maritime Command is moved to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. At this time, the top post is renamed Commander Maritime Command and Chief of the Maritime Staff.

August 16, 2011: on the 100-year anniversary of the original ‘Royal’ designation, Maritime Command is renamed the Royal Canadian Navy. The top Navy position is now called Commander Royal Canadian Navy and Chief of the Naval Staff. However, the Navy remains a Canadian Armed Forces command under the CDS, not a separate service.

See the List of Commanders of the Navy since 1910.

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