Almost all militaries in the world have two types of ranks: the lower ranks, which compose most of the fighting force, and higher-ranking officers, who are usually better educated, better paid, and hold command over the lower ranks.
In Commonwealth countries, these two sets are also referred to as “Non-Commissioned” and “Commissioned”. This is because every officer in the Forces is given a “commission”, a very large and formal document, signed by the Governor General, appointing the person to serve under the Crown and giving that person permission to command lower-ranking soldiers.
Traditionally, these two rank structures in the Canadian military are subdivided in two: the lower ranks have Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs) and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), while the upper ranks have Commissioned Officers and General Officers (in the Army and Air Force) or Flag Officers (in the Navy).
Let’s look at each of these four subsections individually.
Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs):
• In most of the Army, NCMs are ranked as Private, which is subdivided into Private (Recruit), Private (Basic) and Private (Trained), which is reached after about 2.5 years of service.
A number of sections of the Army use special names instead of Private: the rank of Gunner is used in the Artillery, Trooper in the Armoured Corps, Sapper in the Engineers, Signalman in the Signal Corps and Craftsman in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. In the Infantry, Fusilier is used in the fusiliers regiments, Rifleman in the rifles regiments and Guardsman in the guards regiments.
In Canada, Private is abbreviated as Pte.; Pvt. is only correct in America.
• In the Navy, NCMs are divided into the ranks of Ordinary Seaman (the lowest rank in the Navy) and Able Seaman (which is earned after completing basic training and thirty months of service).
• Before 1968, NCMs in the Air Force held the rank of Aircraftman. They became Privates in 1968, when all the Air Force’s ranks were changes to be the same as Army ranks. Starting in 2015, the rank will be changed to Aviator.
• Before 1968, the NCO ranks in the Army were as follows:
Lance Corporal → Corporal → Sergeant → Staff Sergeant → Warrant Officer Class II→ Warrant Officer Class I.
(Between 1939 and 1945, there had also been a Warrant Officer Class III.)
During the Unification, the ranks of Lance Corporal and Staff Sergeant were dropped and an extra warrant officer rank was added; the warrant officer ranks were re-named Warrant Officer, Master Warrant Officer and Chief Warrant Officer.
To make up for the number of lance corporals being suddenly promoted to corporal, the Army appointed a number of senior corporals to the title of Master Corporal. Many sources – including official ones – treat Master Corporal as a rank, even though it is technically an appointment and not a rank.
In the Artillery, Bombardier and Master Bombardier are used instead of Corporal and Master Corporal, and in the guards regiments of the Infantry, Warrant Officers are known as Colour Sergeants.
• In the Navy before 1968, the NCO ranks were:
Leading Seaman → Petty Officer 2nd Class → Petty Officer 1st Class → Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class → Chief Petty Officer 1st Class.
The only change since then was the addition of the appointment level of Master Seaman, which is the Navy equivalent of Master Corporal.
• Air Force ranks are the same as Army ranks. Before 1968, Air Force NCO ranks were:
Leading Aircraftman → Corporal → Sergeant → Flight Sergeant → Warrant Officer Class II → Warrant Officer Class I.
• Army officer ranks have consistently remained as follows:
Officer Cadet → Second Lieutenant → Lieutenant → Captain → Major → Lieutenant Colonel → Colonel.
In the guards regiments of the Infantry, Second Lieutenants are known as Ensigns.
• Officer ranks of the Navy are as follows:
Naval Cadet→ Acting Sub Lieutenant → Sub Lieutenant → Lieutenant (N) → Sub Commander → Commander → Captain (N).
Before 1968, Naval Cadets were called Midshipmen.
• Air Force officer ranks are the same as Army ranks. Before 1968, officer ranks in the Air Force were:
Flight Cadet → Pilot Officer → Flying Officer → Flight Lieutenant → Squadron Leader → Wing Commander → Group Captain.
In 1962, the rank of Flight Cadet was renamed Officer Cadet.
General Officers (“Flag Officers” in the Navy):
• General officers in the Army are:
Brigadier General → Major General → Lieutenant General → General.
Brigadier Generals were called Brigadiers before 1968, except between 1922 and 1928, when they were called Colonels-Commandant.
• The flag officer ranks of the Navy are:
Commodore → Rear Admiral → Vice Admiral → Admiral.
• Air Force general officer ranks are the same as Army ranks. Before 1968 the Air Force general officer ranks were:
Air Commodore → Air Vice Marshal → Air Marshal → Air Chief Marshal.
The Chief of Defence Staff is the only person who is ever appointed to the highest general officer rank.
Air power in the Canadian military first took the form of the Canadian Aviation Corps, which was formed in September 1914 and sent to England under Provisional Commander Capt. Ernest Lloyd Janney to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. They had one airplane that never flew because it didn’t hold up to the damp English weather and was disbanded in May 1915.
Canadian airmen served in the Royal Air Force in the UK until a Canadian Air Force was established under the command of legendary flying ace Lt.-Col. William “Billy” Bishop. The war ended less than two months later and the original CAF was disbanded in Europe in February 1920, having flown zero missions.
The CAF was re-formed as an air militia at Camp Borden in July 1920. It became an independent service branch at the formation of the Department of National Defence in 1922, and became the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. Its commander was the Air Officer Commanding from 1920 to 1921, the Officer Commanding from 1921 to 1922, the Director from 1922 to 1932, the Senior Air Officer from 1932 to 1938, and Chief of the Air Staff from 1938 to 1964.
During the unification of the Forces, the Air Force was dissolved in 1964. Its duties were split between Air Defence Command and Air Transport Command, with additional air power transferred to Mobile Command (the Army) and Maritime Command (the Navy). The flying forces were reunified in a new Air Command in 1975, under a Commander until 1997, when the title was changed to Chief of the Air Staff. In 2011 the old name of the Royal Canadian Air Force was restored, and its commander restyled as Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Chief of the Air Force Staff.
From 1920 to 1964 ranks in the RCAF followed the same as those of the RAF. Since 1975, Air Force ranks have matched the ranks of the Army.
The commandants of Canada’s air forces since 1920 have been:
Air Cdre. Arthur Kellam Tylee OBE, 1920–1921.
Wing Cdr. Ronald Francis Redpath, March–July 1921.
Wing Cdr. James Stanley Scott MC AFC (1st time), 1921–1922.
Wing Cdr. James Lindsay Gordon DFC (1st time), 1922–1924.
Wing Cdr. William George Barker VC DSO MC, April–May 1924.
Group Capt. James Stanley Scott MC AFC (2nd time), 1924–1928.
Wing Cdr. Lloyd Samuel Breadner CB DSC (1st time), 1928–1932.
Squadron Ldr. Albert Abraham Lawson Cuffe, April–September 1932.
Group Capt. James Lindsay Gordon DFC (2nd time), 1932–1933.
Wing Cdr. George Owen Johnson CB MC, June–December 1933.
Air Vice Marshal George Marshall Croil CBE AFC, 1934–1940.
Air Marshal Lloyd Samuel Breadner CB DSC (2nd time), 1940–1943.
Air Marshal Robert Leckie CB DSO DSC DFC CD, 1944–1947.
Air Marshal Wilfred Austin Curtis OC CB CBE DSC ED CD, 1947–1953.
Air Marshal Charles Roy Slemon CB CBE CD, 1953–1957.
Air Marshal Hugh Lester Campbell CBE CD, 1957–1962.
Air Marshal Clarence Rupert Dunlap CBE CD, 1962–1964.
Lt.-Gen. William Keir Carr CMM DFC OStJ CD, 1975–1978.
Lt.-Gen. George Allan MacKenzie CMM CD, 1978–1980.
Lt.-Gen. Kenneth E. Lewis CMM CD, 1980–1983.
Lt.-Gen. Paul David Manson OC CMM CD, 1983–1985.
Lt.-Gen. Donald M. McNaughton CMM CD, 1985–1986.
Lt.-Gen. Larry Albert Ashley CMM CD, 1986-1988.
Lt.-Gen. Fred R. Sutherland CMM CD, 1989-1991.
Lt.-Gen. David Huddleston CMM MSC CD, 1991-1993.
Lt.-Gen. G. Scott Clements CMM CD, 1993–1995.
Lt.-Gen. Allan Marvin DeQuetteville CMM CD, 1995–1997.
Lt.-Gen. David N. Kinsman CMM CD, 1997–2000.
Lt.-Gen. Lloyd C. Campbell CMM CD, 2000–2003.
Lt.-Gen. Kenneth R. Pennie CMM CD, 2003–2005.
Lt.-Gen. James Steven Lucas CMM CD, 2005–2007.
Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt CMM CD, 2007–2009.
Lt.-Gen. Joseph Paul André Deschamps CMM CD, 2009–2012.
Lt.-Gen. Joseph Aimé Jean Yvan Blondin CMM CD, 2012–now.
The Chief of Defence Staff is the single commanding officer of the Canadian Forces, the Canadian version of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The post was created in 1964 when the Army, Navy and Air Force were amalgamated. The CDS is also the head of the Armed Forces Council and Principal Commander of the Order of Military Merit.
The Chiefs of Defence Staff (and their main regiments or posts before being appointed to high command) have been:
Air Chf. Mshl. Frank Robert Miller CC CBE CD (1908-1997), 1964–1966. Director of Training Plans and Requirements, RCAF.
Gen. Jean-Victor Allard CC CBE DSO ED CD (1913-1996), 1966–1969. Royal 22nd Regiment.
Gen. Frederick Ralph Sharp CMM DFC CD (1915-1992), 1969–1972. RCAF Training Command.
Gen. Jacques Alfred Dextraze CC CMM CBE DSO CD (1919-1993), 1972–1977. Royal 22nd Regiment.
Adm. Robert Hilborn Falls CMM CD (1924-2009), 1977–1980. HMCS Bonaventure.
Gen. Ramsey Muir Withers CMM CD (1930-2014), 1980–1983. Royal 22nd Regiment.
Gen. Gérard Charles Édouard Thériault CMM CD (1932-1998), 1983–1986. Collège Militaire Royal, St-Jean (Air Command).
Gen. Paul David Manson OC CMM CD (b. 1934), 1986–1989. 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Gen. Alfred John Gardyne Drummond de Chastelain CC CMM CD CH (b.1937) (1st time), 1989–1993. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Adm. John Rogers Anderson CMM CD (b.1941), 1993-94. HMCS Restigouche.
Gen. Alfred John Gardyne Drummond de Chastelain CC CMM CD CH (b.1937) (2nd time), 1994–1995. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Gen. Joseph Édouard Jean Boyle CMM CD (b.1947), January–October 1996. 4 Fighter Wing.
Vice Adm. Lawrence Edward Murray CM CMM CD (b.1947) (acting), 1996–1997. HMCS Iroquois.
Gen. Joseph Gérard Maurice Baril OC CMM MSM CD (b.1943), 1997–2001. Royal 22nd Regiment.
Gen. Raymond Roland Joseph Henault CMM MSC CD (b.1949), 2001–2005. 444(CA) Tactical Helicopter Squadron.
Gen. Rickey John Hillier OC CMM MSC CD (b.1955), 2005–2008. Royal Canadian Dragoons.
Gen. Walter John Natynczyk CMM MSC CD (b.1957), 2008–2012. Royal Canadian Dragoons.
Gen. Thomas J. Lawson CMM CD (b.1957), 2012–now. 421 Squadron.
In the 1960s, Canada merged its army, navy, and air force into one body, the Canadian Forces. In doing so, it had to merge together a lot of redundant jobs across the three services: three signal corps, three sets of chaplains, three sets of military police, and so forth. To deal with this, in 1968 the Forces established Personnel Branches: job categories to which everyone in the Forces up to the rank of Colonel (or Captain, in the Navy) is assigned.
A lot of the more specialized positions in the Forces, like the Dental Corps or the Legal Branch, treat their branch like a regiment: each branch has an official cap badge and marching song, and hold over traditions from before unification.
In order of precedence, the Canadian Forces Personnel Branches are:
- The Naval Operations Branch (sailors)
- The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (soldiers in tanks)
- The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery (soldiers with cannons)
- The Canadian Military Engineers (military Public Works, land surveyors, and fire & rescue services)
- The Communications and Electronics Branch (signal corps and tech support)
- The Royal Canadian Infantry Corps (foot soldiers)
- The Air Operations Branch (pilots and flight crew)
- The Logistics Branch (transport, supplies, pay corps, postal services, and administration)
- The Royal Canadian Medical Service (doctors and nurses)
- The Royal Canadian Dental Corps (dentists)
- The Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (mechanics, electricians, carpenters, and repairmen)
- The Chaplain Branch (priests and priest equivalents)
- The Canadian Forces Military Police (soldier cops)
- The Legal Branch (lawyers, like the TV show JAG)
- The Music Branch (marching bands)
- The Personnel Selection Branch (recruitment, aptitude testing and civilian readjustment services)
- The Training Development Branch (boot camps and training courses)
- The Public Affairs Branch (PR and advertising)
- The Intelligence Branch (research and reconnaissance)
- The Cadet Instructors Cadre (armed Scoutmasters, basically)
The Armed Forces Council (a.k.a. the Defence Staff) is the official assemblage of top military brass who call the shots in Canada’s military. It is the equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in America.
The Council consists of the following 11 people:
1. The Chief of the Defence Staff (Gen. Thomas J. Lawson CMM CD)
2. The Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (Lt.-Gen. Guy R. Thibault CMM MSC CD)
3. The Commander of the Canadian Army (Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse CMM MSC CD)
4. The Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy (Vice-Adm. Mark Norman CMM CD)
5. The Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin CMM CD)
6. The Commander, Canadian Joint Operations Command, who oversees all the Forces’ missions (Lt.-Gen. Stu Beare CMM MSM CD)
7. The Chief of Military Personnel (Lt.-Gen. David Millar OMM CD)
8. The Chief of Reserves and Cadets (Rear-Adm. J.J. Bennett OMM CD)
9. The Judge Advocate General, head of the Forces’ legal department (Maj.-Gen. Blaise Cathcart OMM CD)
10. The Chief of Defence Intelligence (Maj.-Gen. J.M.C. Rousseau CD)
11. The Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer, the top-ranking non-commissioned soldier in the Canadian Forces (CWO Kevin C. West MMM MSM CD)
The Surgeon-General of Canada is the commander of the medical services of the Canadian Forces, and was first appointed to accompany the Canadian Permanent Militia to the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Since 1952 the Surgeon-General is also appointed to the Royal Medical Household and carries the title of Queen’s Household Physician (QHP) or Queen’s Household Surgeon (QHS).
The Surgeon-Generals of Canada have been:
Col. Darby Bergin MD, 1885-98.
Col. John Louis Hubert Neilson, 1898-1903.
Maj.-Gen. Sir Marie-Joseph-Eugène Fiset KCMG DSO ED GGHS MD MS, 1903-06.
Maj.-Gen. Guy Carleton Jones CMG KGStJ, 1906-17.
Maj.-Gen. John Taylor Fotheringham CMG MD EsqStJ, 1917-20.
Maj.-Gen. Gilbert LaFayette Foster CB, 1920-21.
Col. J.W. Bridges CBE, 1921-25.
Col. H.M. Jacques DSO, 1925-30.
Col. J.T. Clarke CBE, 1930-33.
Col. A.E. Snell CMG DSO, 1933-36.
Col. J.L. Potter, 1936-39.
Brig. Raymond Myers Gorssline DSO MB DPH CStJ, 1939-42.
Maj.-Gen. George Brock Chisolm CC CBE MC ED, 1942-45.
Maj.-Gen. Charles Philip Fenwick CB CBE MC ED, 1945-46.
Brig. C.S. Thompson OBE ED, 1946-47.
Brig. W.L. Coke OBE CD, 1947-52.
Maj.-Gen. Kenneth A. Hunter OBE CD QHP MD (1st time), 1952-56.
Brig. Stanley Gerald Umphrey Shier OBE CD QHP, 1956-58.
Brig. Pierre Tremblay OBE CD QHP, 1958-59.
Maj.-Gen. Kenneth A. Hunter OBE CD QHP MD (2nd time), 1959-60.
Surgeon Rear-Adm. Timothy Blair McLean CD CStJ QHS MD, 1960-64.
Surgeon Rear-Adm. Walter John Elliot CD QHS MD CM, 1964-68.
Maj.-Gen. D.G.M. Nelson CD CStJ QHS MD DPH FACPM, 1968-70.
Maj.-Gen. John Wilmer Browning Barr CMM CD KStJ QHP MD CM DHA, 1970-73.
Rear-Adm. Richard Howell Roberts CD QHP MD FRCPC FACP, 1973-76.
Maj.-Gen. Wilson G. Leach CMM CD QHP BA MD, 1976-80.
Maj.-Gen. Victor A. McPherson CD QHS BA MD FRCSC, 1980-82.
Maj.-Gen. Robert Dupuis CMM CD QHP BA MD CSPQ FRCPC, 1982-85.
Maj.-Gen. Robert W. Fassold CD QHP BSc MD, 1985-88.
Rear-Adm. Charles Joseph Knight CMM CD QHP BA MD, 1988-90.
Maj.-Gen. Jean J. Benoit CD QHP MD FRCPC, 1990-92.
Maj.-Gen. Pierre Morriset CMM CD QHP MDMHA, 1992-94.
Maj.-Gen. Wendy A. Clay CMM CD QHP MD MHSc, 1994-98.
Brig.-Gen. Claude Auger CD QHS MD FRCSC, 1998-2000.
Col. Scott M. Cameron OMM CD QHP MD, 2000-04.
Brig.-Gen. Hilary F. Jaeger OMM MSM CD QHP BSc MD, 2004-09.
Cmdre. Hans W. Jung OMM CD OStJ QHP MD MA, 2009-12.
Brig.-Gen. Jean-Robert Bernier OMM CD QHP BA MD MPH DEH FRCPC(hon), 2012-now.
Between 1940 and 1959 the Surgeon General was also both the Director General of the Joint Medical Services and the Director General of the Army Medical Services. There were separate medical directors for the Navy and Air Force.
The Directors General of the Royal Canadian Navy Medical Services were:
Surgeon Cmdre. Archibald McCallum OBE VRD AdC MD, 1940-52.
Surgeon Cmdre. Eric Hammond Lee CStJ QHP MD, 1952-58.
Surgeon Cmdre. Timothy Blair McLean QHP MD, 1958-59.
The Directors General of the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Services were:
Air Cmdre. Raymond William Ryan RAF, 1940-43.
Air Cmdre. James Winfred Tice CFB ED, 1943-46.
Air Cmdre. Alexander Andrew Gordon Corbet ED CD QHP, 1946-59.