Views and Opinions

Dr. Ian Spreadbury

The Princess of Wales Own Regiment (PWOR) Armoury and Headquarters, Kingston, Ontario.

Sacrificing Culture in the Name of Strategy: Why Militia Armouries Matter

by Dan A. Doran

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The Armoury. This was a word I rarely heard and gave little thought to until transferring to the Canadian Militia after eight years of commissioned service in the Regular Force. The word, or its French equivalent manège, was rarely if ever used to describe the buildings of the 5e Régiment du génie de combat (5 RGC), or 2 Combat Engineer Regiment (2 CER) where I had served.

The structures that house Regular Force units, such as 5 RGC and 2 CER, are pragmatically designed with simple functional lines and no unique stylistic qualities – they are not built to make any architectural statement, but to provide an adequate work space for personnel that perform a specific function. They are not the original homes of the regiments they house, and will likely not be their last homes. Regular Force units go where they are told, which means periodically moving to a newer building on a base when the old one becomes unserviceable or obsolete.

Despite their transient nature, Regular Force units populate the walls of their buildings with their stories: memorial walls, portraits of former commanding officers and regimental sergeants-major, unique regimental artifacts from overseas operations, and so on. These give the halls of each unit’s building cultural relevance despite being divorced from a traditional home which provides physical context and deeper meaning – as though Michelangelo’s Last Judgement were removed and displayed anywhere other than the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

As my career as a reservist evolved, The Armoury became a word synonymous with my new Militia life. I grew to understand that the word has multiple meanings that develop as one grows up within a unit’s traditional home. To young sappers, the armoury is a place that houses them during basic training, a place where they meet their compatriots and close friends at the Junior Ranks’ Mess. A place where stories are shared for the first time in venerable surroundings, and old stories of halcyon days gone by are passed on to a younger generation by older members.

To these older members, the building becomes part of their identity, a second home where their second family resides. The armoury is a place where their career progression can be mapped to the offices they occupy in the same order as did those who came before them. The armoury is an inhabited monument to a regiment, a living museum and a vessel for the unit’s history, culture, and identity.

To retired members, the armoury becomes a touch point that links the present and the past; a walk-in conversation piece by which the old can relate to the young through shared experiences within the same walls. The armoury provides a tangible and tactile embodiment of the collective values of a regimental family.

Unfortunately for reservists, these unique characteristics of the armoury do not translate easily to modern, pragmatic infrastructure considerations. Many of Canada’s armouries date back to the post-Confederation period and are thus costly to maintain, let alone to modernize. These challenges are further compounded by heritage considerations being only one of four components that the office of the Assistant Deputy Minister – Infrastructure and Environment (ADM-IE) scrutinizes when evaluating military infrastructure for potential transfer or sale.1 Superficially, this all makes good sense, ADM(IE) is accountable to Canadians, and thus, is empowered to make these decisions employing an approach that weighs numerous competing factors against each other in order to make a decision. The flaw in this approach when it comes to Militia armouries is that reservists rarely have a meaningful voice throughout the process, even when the fate of their armoury may lie in the balance. More often than not, the Regular Force acts as this voice, but this approach is inadequate, at least in part, because it assumes that the Regular Force can speak to the Reserve’s organizational culture and its symbiotic connection to The Armoury.

The Regular Force has every reason to believe it is acting in the best interest of the Reserves. They only have to review the raison d’être of the Militia, best summarized by Vice-Admiral (Ret’d) Bruce Donaldson, former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff:

“The first is operational. That is, they are trained and ready to respond in cases where disaster strikes within the community.” [With the CAF] “…able to mobilize Reserves quickly in their communities and to have the relationships in place before a crisis, in order to enable the Reserves to react effectively in a crisis.”
“Secondly, the Reserve represents the Canadian Forces and its own regiments within communities.”
“Lastly, the Reserves provide a great example for youth, but also of citizenship, leadership, and commitment to country. They bring something to their communities that few other organizations do.2

These are operational roles and seen through the eyes of ‘full-timers’ make no specific reference to infrastructure – soldiers simply need a stepping off point, any structure should do. But where they miss the mark is in recognizing that Reserve operational capability is tied to human resource management strategy – the simple truth that without dedicated Reservists, none of these are achievable; the armoury creates dedication through connection and belonging, making for better operational outputs.

I have had the privilege of serving both in the Regular Force (8 years), and in the Militia (10 years), and believe I have come to understand a component of the cultural divide that explains, at least partly, the divergent views that exist when it comes to the importance of maintaining the historical architecture of Militia armouries. Moreover, I believe it is this: The life of a Regular Force officer is far more nomadic than the life of his Militia counterpart. At least anecdotally, these cultures and approaches to seeing one’s professional (and personal) life are diametrically opposed. The former tends more to see working and living accommodations as transient – just another office or building. The latter sees both with a sense of permanence and pre-eminence and as such commits to them in a way that a Regular may not fully understand. This summarizes the opposing lenses through which the current architectural dilemma is visualized and communicated by each party.

The first challenge in making the case for preserving Militia armouries is tempering the dominance Regular Force voices have when these discussions occur. Through no fault of their own, these voices can do harm by speaking on an issue with incomplete contextual understanding of the intrinsic links between architecture, culture and identity within a Militia regiment. This is due to the very nature of the Regular Force officer career path that takes them from one end of the country to the other, and then some. The concept of spending 35 years within the same four armoury walls (more for many members who begin as cadets in those same armouries) and continuing to return for various social functions after retirement does not register – and why should it? There is no relatable narrative within their life experience, having been constantly on the move since the age of eighteen.

Once overcoming the first, the second challenge is to make the case for the importance of armouries in not just the unit context, but in the broader national sense, and the impact these armouries have upon Canadian culture and society. Therefore, it becomes imperative for ADM(IE) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to prioritize their preservation as working artifacts, since if they do not – no one else will.

Armouries represent far more than simply a means of housing Militia units; they represent an enduring “symbol of the state”3 throughout the country. As such, they embody in many ways a public statement of collective identity that “…help to give value and significance to the activities of the state.”4 This is of particular importance in a country as large, and with as dispersed a population, as does Canada, where in many cases, the Militia armoury represents one of the only manifestations of the Federal government, other than the Postal Service.

Beyond state symbolism, in a purely pragmatic sense, these buildings tell the story of Canada’s history. Many originate from the turn of the 20th Century, and they convey the aspirational nature of a young country’s future in a rapidly shrinking world. They are the visual expressions of then-Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s proclamation “…that the twentieth century shall be the century of Canada.”5 Professor Desmond Morton, in his seminal work, A Short History of Canada, described Laurier as the ‘architect’6 of Canada’s prosperity – this prosperity was intimately linked with infrastructure – both state and private. Whether it be Montreal’s emblematic and iconic Sun Life building, or the façade of the Black Watch armoury on Bleury Street – these structures tell the story of the earliest days of the Dominion, when Canada first began to see past its imposed colonial identity.

The linking of architecture to identity is not new. “Buildings acquire meaning by virtue of their formal arrangement and by association. Architecture is and always has been used deliberately and unintentionally to define relationships among individuals, interest groups, cities, and nations.”7 Assertions such as these do not exclusively apply to imposing structures such as Toronto’s Grand Central Station, but also to those that are quietly modest, such as the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment’s armoury in southeastern Ontario.

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The Armoury of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment in Picton, Ontario.

The Armoury of the ‘Hasty P’s’ is testament to this relational narrative, and of its salience, described (although at times sardonically) by the distinguished Canadian author Farley Mowat in his book, The Regiment. His account of the history of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, whose armoury is located in Picton – rests in a town that exemplifies the rural heart of Canada, and where the Militia and its armoury has played a meaningful role in times of conflict. He noted the resilience of his Militia regiment, that it was “…well for the country that the Militia units had so well endured the decades of neglect and national ill will. And it was doubly well that the spirit of the old Militia had so deeply permeated the affairs of men.”8 He also attested to the importance of the armoury, although ‘tongue in cheek,’ regarding its importance within the community “…when the townsfolk needed a space to hold a dance, a chicken social or some other great event in the course of country life.”9

McGill University digital collection at

Figure 1: First World War Poster, “Join the Canadian Grenadier Guards.” CGG Armoury in background of recruiting poster, underscoring the importance of the building.

Suffice to say, when it comes to historically-significant architecture, not all buildings are created equal – Militia armouries are not simply a backdrop to the events that happen within their walls, but “cognitive constructions in which identities (national, communal and individual) can be negotiated creatively across cultural boundaries.”10 The architectural design of turn of the century Militia armouries was intended to transcend simple aesthetic form and operative function – they had within them an “ethical function as a heuristic framework of thinking.”11 The designs were intended to enter into the thinking of the occupants and those living around them, and in doing so, to take on a significantly more impactful role than the actual building “in processes of cultural and national construction.”12

There is another facet to these buildings, which was perhaps not considered in the years between the Korean War and the war in Afghanistan, and that is the role of Militia armouries as a balm for veterans coming back from conflict and needing touchstones in their life to assist them in dealing with their experiences. To many today, the armoury has “become through association a symbol for sanctuary”13 for members who have served full-time in wars and missions overseas, and returned to their part-time lives as Reservists. This transition is traumatic in many of the same ways as for those in the Regular Force, but different in that there is an absence of a ‘baked-in day-to-day’ work network. When Reservists complete their Class C service, they return to their civilian roles in society where more than likely, they are the only serving member in their workplace – this creates an aloneness that transcends both work and home life, leaving the member highly emotionally vulnerable. The armoury represents a ‘life preserver’ for some of these members, as it holds all their memories of service, and, as importantly, the service stories of those who have gone before.

This becomes particularly relevant, given that only a modest percentage of members actually deploy, making it difficult for those that do so to relate their experiences to their fellow unit members. It is thus, in part, the armoury that helps the member find his-or-her place within the CAF, complemented by the handful of former members who continue to return to the unit for those same reasons. This combination becomes the intimate support structure for this subset of Militia service people.

In the end, Reservists join, stay and release from the CAF for a multitude of reasons, but those who stay, do so mainly out a sense of belonging and connection to the idea of service to community and country. A significant part of that sentiment is tied to the armoury. This is why closing Militia armouries under the pretexts of improved efficiency through better distribution of manpower makes little sense. It assumes that reservists will simply move where the unit moves, embracing a new building as though nothing had changed. It assumes that reservists are resources that, as exemplified by service in the Regular Force, can be uprooted and moved without consequence.

At this point, I may be accused of being melodramatic – as these moves likely represent having troops move a little way down the road – extending (or potentially reducing) their commute by a few minutes – so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that in the Militia, identity is what retains people – an identity that is woven into a complex cultural fabric, the base of which is the armoury. This psychological effect is well-described by Dr. Francesca Lanz, Marie Curie Fellow at the School of Arts and Culture of Newcastle University:

Identities are formed by the correlation and interdependence between places and people. Once the interrelations break, a place loses its meaning and people lose their sense of belonging to that place. Places traditionally embody people’s identity and are the solid background of people’s actions and life, the prerequisite of the creation of cultures, skills, and economies. Place-identity refers to the construction of identity for and by the people(s) while referring to a place. It also constructs the identity of a place, based on its materiality: morphology, architectural forms, spaces, objects, artefacts, namely the material heritage that constitutes a territory.14

This psycho-sociological element of the Militia organizational culture was most recently argued by C.P. Champion, in his informative and detailed work – Relentless Struggle: Saving the Army Reserves (1995-2019). Therein, Champion describes the Regular Force ignorance of this dimension of Militia culture when discussing the undying strategy of the CAF to amalgamate Regiments in order to create fewer, larger units, all while reducing infrastructure and senior staff costs (i.e. fewer COs and RSMs).


Figure 2: Illustration of the central role the armoury plays in various facets of the Militia and its surrounding community.

Click to enlarge image

In the defence of the Regular Force, the roots of this strategy are not malicious; they are ones that stem from a desire to improve operational efficiency through the creation of units that will, through larger numbers, have greater institutional depth, and thus, greater inherent deployability and reliability. This hypothesis would ring true, if not for the very distinguished management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker’s famously accurate and telling assertion that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”15

Additionally, the cultural importance of armouries in the context of the Militia were reinforced through experiences, when armouries had, in fact, been amalgamated. What transpired was that this operationally-driven calculus did not work out as planned. This reality was well- summarized by Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Peter Hunter, former CO of the Governor General’s Horse Guards (later its Honourary Lieutenant-Colonel) and Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Citibank16 in his testimony to the 1995 Senate subcommittee on the restructuring of the Reserves:

History has taught us that amalgamating units is usually counter productive. Normally ‘two plus two equals four.’ When Militia units are amalgamated, most often, ‘two plus two equals two.’ Simply put, when two units are put together the resulting unit will initially experience large enrolment, which quickly drops to the size of one of the former units and ultimately stabilizes at that level.17

This was further reinforced by Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Wynand Van Der Schee, a former Regular Force officer and former Commanding Officer of the King’s Own Calgary Regiment at a Combat Information Systems Support presentation in 1998,18 who noted:

It bordered on ludicrous…[to] believe that members of the disbanded 19th Alberta Dragoons, a regiment with a strong sense of identity reinforced by being the sole occupants of a small armoury (emphasis added) [Connaught Armoury] on the south side of Edmonton, would [having been disbanded] travel across the South Saskatchewan River to join The Loyal Edmonton Regiment in their armoury on the river flats or the 20th Field Artillery further north in Prince of Wales Armoury. In this game, one plus one usually equals about 1.2 or less.19

So, in the end, both theory and practical experience appear to convey the same message to those willing to learn from the experts and the past respectively – armouries play a pivotal role in the maintenance and preservation of Militia organizational culture, which, in turn, contribute to both recruiting and retention within these units. These two objectives are directly connected to the overall health of the unit and its ultimate level of operational effectiveness, if it is called upon to do so for any reason. Unlike in the Regular Force, it is not operational need that drives infrastructure planning, but organizational culture – because reservists join and remain in the Militia for fundamentally different reasons than their Regular Force brethren.

And with ADM(IE) and the CAF remaining the stewards of these structures, the Militia can only rest on the hope that at some point, there will finally grow an understanding of these particular differences, and an acceptance of the Militia’s needs when it comes to preserving its identity. This entails looking beyond the cold numbers of operational effectiveness and objective costs, and acknowledging both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of these edifices; which is to say, recognizing that the Militia’s architectural heritage is an important part of its identity, and a testament to its history.20 This will not be easy as this is usually the case when two solitudes require finding a mutual understanding to solve a core cultural misalignment.

To close, perhaps the best analogy would be to compare a Militia armoury to the production of single malt Scotch. An armoury performs the same task that bourbon oak barrels do in the aging of Scotch. In the same way that bourbon barrels impart delicious sweetness, scented vanilla, and golden honey flavors to maturing Scotch, so does the armoury impart a regiment’s history, traditions, stories and culture to the young soldier – as does the unit museums, interior décor, architectural ornamentation, former members’ associations, community events and a host of other little and seemingly-insignificant things.

The armoury remains the receptacle and home for all these people, events and stories. Losing the armoury rips away the ancient cask, leaving the contents to spread and evaporate over time until little if anything of its original content remains.

Major Dan A. Doran, MMM, CD, a combat engineer, holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from the Royal Military College, a Master’s Degree in Human Security and Peace Building from Royal Roads and an MBA from the John Molson School of Business. He has served overseas as the Deputy Task Force Engineer (OP ATHENA), a UN Military Observer (UNMIS) and the Force Project Lead (MONUSCO). He is currently a reservist and the DCO at 34 Combat Engineer Regiment, Montreal, Quebec. In his civilian life, Major Doran works as a Project Director for WSP Canada, an engineering consulting firm.


  2. Pamela Wallin & Romeo Dallaire, Answering the Call – The Future of Canada’s Primary Reserve, (Interim Report of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, December 1997), p. 33.
  3. Lawrence Vale, Architecture, Power and National Identity, 2nd edition, (Abingtton, UK: Routlege Press, 2008), p. 7.
  4. Ibid, p. 52.
  5. Desmond Morton, A Short History of Canada, 5th edition (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2001), p. 158
  6. Ibid. p. 158.
  7. Jane C. Loeffler, Book Review: Architecture, Power, and National Identity (Cambridgem MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Design News, 1993), Fall Edition.
  8. Farley Mowat, The Regiment (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), p. 35
  9. Ibid, p. 24.
  10. Peter Scriver, Placing In-between: Thinking through Architecture in the Construction of Colonial-Modern Identities (National Identities, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2006), p. 207.
  11. Ibid, p. 207.
  12. Ibid, p. 221.
  13. Nelson Goodman , How Buildings Mean (Goodman and Catherine Elgin, Reconceptions in Philosophy, Hackett, 1988), p. 33.
  14. Francesca Lanz, Perspective Re-Inhabiting. Thoughts on the Contribution of Interior Architecture to Adaptive Intervention: People, Places, and Identities (Journal of Interior Design, 43(2), 2018), p. 6.
  15. Emad Rizkalla, Why Corporate Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, (Washington DC, Huffington Post Press, 2016).
  16. C.P. Champion, Relentless Struggle – Saving the Army Reserves: 1995-2019 (Durnovaria, UK: NP, 2019), p. 51.
  17. Ibid, p. 100.
  18. Ibid, p. 82.
  19. Ibid, p. 101.
  20. Antoine L.Lahoud, The role of cultural (architecture) factors in forging identity (National Identities Vol. 10, No. 4, December 2008, Routledge), p. 389.