Military Customs and Traditions

DND photo by Corporal David Veldman

HMCS Harry de Wolf, accompanied by a hovering CH-48 Cyclone helicopter, photographed during sea trials off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 15 October 2020.

Naval Culture, Customs, and Traditions: Perspectives from Members of the Royal Canadian Navy

by Krystal K. Hachey and Carrie N. Topping

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Krystal Hachey, Ph.D., is a Defence Scientist, who leads the Leadership, Culture and Ethics team at Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis within Canada’s Department of National Defence, conducting scientific research examining the relationship between culture, ethos, professionalism, performance and leadership effectiveness within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Lieutenant-Commander Carrie Topping, CD, is in her 20th year of service in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). After having qualified as a Naval Warfare Officer, she later became a Personnel Selection Officer and attained an M.Sc. in Industrial Organizational Psychology. She is currently employed as the RCN Command Personnel Selection Officer.


Culture has been defined as “a shared and relatively stable pattern of behaviours, values, and assumptions.”1 Military culture, as identified by the subject matter scholar J. Burke,2 includes the foundational values of discipline, professional ethos, ceremonies, etiquette, esprit de corps and cohesion. Imbedded within military culture are the customs, traditions, rituals, and visible artifacts valued by its members.3 As the senior service in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has a rich culture of customs and traditions far different from the other two environments,4 such as naval specific salutes, rank nomenclature and everyday language (i.e., “Avast, anchor’s away and the buoy’s abaft the beam, Oscar’s been hoisted aboard” and “The stoker’s on scullery duty because he was skiving on the mids and went for duff”). Additionally, the Navy has customs and traditions associated with signalling, marks of respect, music, flags and pennants, and naval ceremonies, such as those conducted when launching a ship, changing command, and crossing-the-line.5 These RCN customs and traditions are captured under the CAF Identity System, which “embodies visible and audible attributes of the CAF,”6 and are meant to provide members meaning and cohesion as a naval family during their service.7

The RCN has been shaped by changes in society, the institution, and as a result of increasing diversity, such as the employment of women in hard sea going occupations and a focus upon greater minority group representation.8 External reviews into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the CAF9 and into personal conduct within the RCN10 have impacted total force and naval policies governing personal conduct (Operation Honour, Naval Order 1001-0; Naval Order 1601-1; Naval General Message (NAVGEN).11 Moreover, the RCN has been further moulded by guiding strategic documents released by the organization12 including, but not limited to, The Naval Vision: Charting the Course for Canada’s Forces into the Next Century,13LEADMARK: The Navy’s Strategy for 202014, and Strong Secure Engaged (SSE): Canada’s Defence Policy.15 The evolution of the future fleet has been outlined in recent strategies, which provide detail with respect to future capability requirements and the changing nature of the Navy, including the introduction of new platforms, organizational structures, and occupations.16 These documents also describe the potential challenges associated with transitioning an organization that is deeply rooted in tradition17, and how increasing developments in technology will have a strain on the RCN18 if they fail to be adaptable and agile19. With all of the potential changes occurring in the RCN as it moves towards the future fleet, adapting the culture, including associated customs and traditions, becomes an important facet to consider.20

Cover of “Leadmark – The Navy’s Strategy for 2020”.

Government of Canada, Department of National Defence


This project was initiated by the RCN to examine the perceptions of sailors regarding aspects of naval culture, including customs and traditions. The following research questions were proposed:

  • What are the prevalent RCN customs and traditions (both positive and negative)?
  • To what extent are current RCN customs and traditions exclusionary, either inadvertently to some groups (i.e., women, ethnic minorities), or explicitly (i.e., between ranks, services)?
  • How will RCN customs and traditions change as a result of the introduction of new technology?


Data was collected for this study as part of a larger project examining CAF members’ perspectives of customs and traditions in the organization. In order to understand the diverse experiences of men and women in the RCN, the project was developed using a constructivist paradigm21 and the gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) process22. While constructivism assumes that there are many social realities based upon the experiences of individuals, the goal of the GBA+ process is to identify the differential impacts of research, policy, and practices on diverse groups of women and men.24 Ultimately, the following questions were used to guide the development of the methodology:25

  • Does the methodology address the gaps identified in the literature review?
  • Does the sampling strategy reinforce traditional notions of representation that focus on most commonly shared experiences, thus minimizing significance of unique experiences?
  • Does the data collection strategy provide opportunity for expression of diverse experiences and perspectives, within different cultural and sub-cultural contexts?


After Department of National Defence (DND) ethics approval,26 participants were targeted using a parallel subgroup27 and a ‘snowball’ sampling scheme,28 by group (i.e., sex), occupation (i.e., divers), and geographic location (i.e., West Coast: Victoria). The sampling also targeted rank (i.e., junior non-commissioned members [NCMs], senior NCMs, and junior and senior officers), component (i.e., Regular Force and Primary Reserve),29 age (i.e., 18–50+), designated group member (DGM)30 status (i.e., visible minorities, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people), and positions with a low representation of men or women, such as in the naval engineering occupations.31 Targeted sampling was conducted to ensure that diverse groups of men and women in the CAF had the opportunity to participate.32 Individuals were invited to participate through an email, between October 2016 and January 2017, and were offered the options of an in-person interview, in-person focus group, or telephone interview. Participants first signed a consent form, followed by the research protocol, and finally, they were given a debriefing where they were given the chance to provide any additional information.


The sample consisted of 65 RCN members who participated in either interviews or focus groups. As Table 1 shows, the majority of participants were older than 35 (85.5%), Regular Force (47.7%), male (60.0%), Anglophone (72.3%), and senior officers (32.3%). Participants were from several geographic locations, including Victoria (n = 18; 27.7%), Halifax (n = 13; 18.8%), Ottawa (n = 12; 18.5%), the city of Québec (n = 11; 16.9%), and Vancouver (n = 9; 13.8%). Additionally, as presented in Table 2, roughly one-fourth of the sample identified as a DGM, with higher proportion identifying as part of a visible minority (n = 6; 9.2%). There was only one case that overlapped, such that they identified in more than one group (i.e., a person with a disability and member of a visible minority).


The larger CAF-wide study focussed up on broad topics related to military culture, professionalism, and customs and traditions across the Army, Navy, and Air Force. In contrast, the current study focussed upon issues specific to Naval culture (i.e., “Based on your experiences, how would you describe the culture of the Royal Canadian Navy?”), customs, and traditions (i.e., “Over your career, how did you learn about customs and traditions?”), as well as perceptions related to the transition to the future fleet (i.e., “In your experience, how do you think the advancement of technology will impact customs and traditions? The culture of the Navy?”). The interviews and focus groups ranged from 30 to 90 minutes.33

Demographic Characteristic Frequency Percentage
Youth (18–24) 1 1.6
Young Adults (25–35) 8 12.9
Middle Age (36–49) 33 53.2
Older Adulthood 20 32.3
Class of Service
Regular Force 31 47.7
Class A Reserve Force 12 18.5
Class B Reserve Force 20 30.8
Class C Reserve Force 3.1
Female 26 40.0
Male 39 60.0
First Official Language
French 14 21.5
English 47 72.3
Other 4 6.2
Junior NCM 10 15.4
Senior NCM 16 24.6
Junior Officer 18 27.7
Senior Officer 21 32.3


Table 1 – Demographic Characteristics of the Royal Canadian Navy.


Employment Equity
(EE) Group
Frequency Percentage
Indigenous Person
Yes 3 4.7
No 61* 95.3
Person with a Disability
Yes 3 4.6
No 62* 95.4
Member of a Visible Minority
Yes 6 9.2
No 59* 90.8


*Note: Not everyone responded to the EE question.

Table 2 – Employment Equity Group Membership.


Data Analysis

The data were coded in two cycles.34 The first cycle coded the data in chunks using several coding approaches (i.e., descriptive, process) and mainly focused upon the data as they related to the different questions, while the second cycle involved deeper investigation into the patterns, categories, and themes of the codes.35 NVivo qualitative data analysis software36 was used to organize the data and provide the first round of coding, and Microsoft OneNote and Excel were employed to summarize the main themes and to provide the second round of coding.


Three major themes resulted from the qualitative data analysis: (1) the culture of the RCN, (2) the customs and traditions in the RCN, and (3) the impact of the move to the future fleet. Each is detailed in the following section.


Figure 1 – Culture of the RCN from a Sample of CAF Forces Members.

Click to enlarge image

RCN Culture

As depicted in Figure 1, participants expressed opinions that the culture of the RCN was impacted by prominent events in CAF history including:(1) unification in 1968,38 in which the Navy, Army, and Air Force were combined as one force; (2) the Somalia incident39, named after the murder of a civilian during a peacekeeping mission; (3) recent deployments to Afghanistan, resulting in the Regular Force’s growing respect of the competencies of the Naval Reserves; (4) the internal review of personal conduct in the RCN, specifically, alcohol consumption;40 and, (5) the external review of sexual misconduct in the CAF.41 In addition, participants recognized the origins of the RCN, and perceived the British system as having an ongoing cultural impact. They also suggested the organization was shaped by the attitudes of white older males, was rule-abiding, slow to change, had a strong divisional system, and was traditional in nature. Participants noted that the “Navy is still very much mired in our British History [focus group, Regular Force, English, officer, female],” is primarily made up of “white males / macho [interview, Regular Force, French, officer, male],” and there were opinions that the Naval familial nature was being lost. However, some participants noted that the culture had changed over the years for the better, especially regarding diversity. As one participant noted: “With women coming onboard the behaviour started to change positively. We used to be ‘work hard, play hard’, and now it’s more ‘work hard, play smart’ [interview, Regular Force, French, officer, male].”

The strong divisional system frequently mentioned by participants, refers to the upward and downward communication and interaction between officers and NCMs, which is clearly defined for naval personnel.42 One participant stated that, “Obviously it’s a very structured environment in terms of rank, in terms of customs [Interview, Regular Force, other official language, female, officer, DGM]” while another felt that “the Navy seems to be a little bit stricter and harsher, especially in how the officers deal with their sailors [interview, Naval Reserves, English, male, officer, DGM].” An additional participant felt that the Navy was “pretty pedantic about following the divisional system [focus group, English, female, officer],” while another expressed opinions regarding “a caste-type system between NCMs and officers, and then within the NCM group [interview, Regular Force, English, male, officer].”

Several participants expressed concerns that the Canadian public lacked awareness of the RCN and what it contributes to the CAF. One participant stated: “I think Canadians as a culture are blind to our Navy [interview, Naval Reserves, English, male, NCM, DGM],” while another indicated that “There’s a lot of people I find when I travel across Canada that had no clue that we had a Navy [focus group, English, NCM].”

DND photo by Leading Seaman Valerie LeClair

Lieutenant-Commander Paul Smith (right, the CO of HMCS Summerside), shares a laugh with Lieutenant (N) James Eilers of the United States Navy during Exercise Cutlass Fury conducted off the coast of Nova Scotia, 21 September 2016.

Differences in Culture across the RCN

The existence of subcultures within the RCN was another re-occurring theme identified by the participants. As depicted in Figure  1, these subcultures were concentrated around the geographic centres of the major RCN locations: the National Capitol Region, Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT), Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC), and Naval Reserve Headquarters (NAVRESHQ), which is located in a Francophone city (i.e., Québec) and reports to MARPAC. These groups are represented by grey circles, whereas the smaller green circles that intersect them symbolize significant cultural populations that are imbedded within the larger subcultures (i.e., French and Naval Reserves). Participants articulated the differences between the geographical subcultures noting that the formations on the coasts were distinct from both the National Capital Region (i.e., the area surrounding Ottawa, the capital of Canada), and the Naval Reserves Headquarters. Significant differences were also noted between the Regular Force and Naval Reserves and between Anglophone and Francophone populations. One participant remarked:

I would think that in Ottawa versus the East Coast—I would think that they are way ahead of the game. The diversity here [in Ottawa] is huge and mirrors and mimics more of what we would like to see [interview, Regular Force, English, female, NCM].

There were perceptions that methods and attitudes differed between the two RCN components. One member stated, “there’s a difference of mentality, of approach between the Naval Reserves and the Regular Force [interview, Regular Force, French, male, officer].” Another explained his related perspective, suggesting that the Naval Reserves have “a bit less of a warrior attitude [interview, Regular Force, English, male, officer].” However, positive change towards the “One Navy” vision43 was acknowledged by many. One focus group participant recounted that, “…we’ve tried so many different ways to integrate and make it an inclusive club, and it’s vastly different from what it was 35 years ago [focus group, English, female, officer].” Additionally, members in general suggested that the Regular Force was beginning to have a more favourable view of the Primary Reserve, a change perceived to be instigated through integration of Forces during recent deployments to Afghanistan. As one participant noted, “It’s taken a long time for the permanent force Navy to recognize the value of the Primary Reserve [Naval Reserves] Navy [focus group, English, female, officer].”

DND photo ET2016-0462-02 by Cpl Carbe Orellana

HMCS Chicoutimi awaits Peoples Liberation Army (Navy) ships visiting Victoria on behalf of the Chinese military, 13 December 2016.

Customs and Traditions

Participants offered many examples of how information related to naval customs and traditions was acquired: basic training, RCN courses, mentors, mess dinners, “osmosis” and word-of-mouth, specific events (i.e., Remembrance Day), and the chain of command. An overarching theme arose with the belief that customs and traditions were not being disseminated in a common and consistent way. As one participant noted, “It takes decades, if not centuries, to build traditions and a heartbeat to lose them [focus group, English, female, officer].” Members attributed this inconsistency to the recent reduction in time dedicated to teaching these cultural aspects. Cuts to training days on courses have led to necessary shifts in priorities to more operational and societal requirements (i.e., harassment prevention training).

Regarding specific customs and traditions, participants identified particular events either at the CAF level (i.e., Remembrance Day), at their unit (i.e., soup at morning stand easy), during mess dinners (i.e., naval toasts), or onboard a ship (i.e., saluting when crossing the brow and crossing-the-line ceremonies) as occasions when naval customs and traditions are emphasised. When asked about exclusionary customs and traditions, many participants were unable to identify any, but felt that several were in the midst of change. Those who suggested examples of exclusionary customs and traditions perceived a strong relationship between the RCN and Christianity. One member expressed the following opinion: “A lot of our traditions reflect male Christian beliefs. Even though we don’t really follow them, they’re still there and there’s still an undercurrent [interview, Regular Force, English, male, officer].” Several participants also felt that events could have the untended potential of excluding some groups (i.e., atheists or other religions), due to the reliance on Christian traditions. One participant suggested the following with respect to swearing in ceremonies or other events that call for members to make attestations:

There are some events that use the King James Version of the Bible… Expanding the scope of what choices are available to swear or strictly adhering to the Affirmation may be more appropriate [interview, Naval Reserves, English, male, officer].

Given the recentness of the internal review of personal conduct in the Navy44 at the time of data collection, multiple participants had the resulting changes at the forefront of their minds and discussed the impact of alcohol on RCN culture. The removal of alcohol onboard ships was a drastic change driven by a renewed RCN policy45 that followed the example of other allied navies (i.e., the United States Navy). Participants associated the shift with less time spent socializing with work colleagues and more time spent with family. Difficulty adjusting to the transformation of this deep-rooted cultural aspect was evident. One participant noted that “the esprit de corps as a whole is significantly less than it used to be [interview, Regular Force, English, male, officer],” while another remarked that “the social aspect has definitely changed [interview, Naval Reserves, English, male, NCM, DGM].” Several participants described perceptions of unintended consequences that they attributed to the enforcement of the drinking policy, which, in addition to making the naval platforms “dry,” stipulates more stringent guidelines for the consumption of alcohol.46 Using this policy as an example, participants expressed the need to feel valued by the chain of command. One participant felt that “morale on a lot of the ships has really plummeted because they’re not given respect for what they do [focus group, English, NCM].” Another participant acknowledged that “there was some abuse of that at sea, but there were a lot of people that didn’t abuse it [focus group, Regular Force, male, NCM].”

Impact of the Move to the Future Fleet

The opinion that new technologies, which have been identified as operationally imperative for the future fleet, would have no impact on RCN customs and traditions was uncommon among participants. In fact, many expressed concerns that their incorporation would cause a reduced reliance on individuals and, therefore, result in less socialization and practice of customs and traditions, which would in turn effect member identity. The common opinion, as expressed by one participant, was that “it will definitely impact our traditions and culture moving forward [interview, Regular Force, other first language, female, officer, DGM].” Some reported having already experienced change, such as the amalgamation of occupations with common skill sets (i.e., the Marine Technician occupation resulted from the incorporation of Marine Engineers, Electrical Technicians, and Hull Technicians).47 As one participant stated:

That’s a huge hit to morale in the engineering world with the Navy, for sure. At this point especially, we’re going into the development of new occupations now of marine technician, and that’s big on the mind [focus group, English, officer].

DND photo by Master Corporal Anthony Laviolette

Able Seaman Xissy Wang responds to a man overboard drill aboard HMCS Ville de Québec outside Halifax harbour, 12 May 2020.


The goal of the current study was to examine perceptions of the culture, customs, and traditions of the RCN from a diverse group of members at a pivotal point in the evolution of RCN culture. The following section provides a review of the results in light of the research questions concerning RCN culture and takes into consideration the organizational change that has occurred in the three years since data collection.

In order to understand the elements that bind a particular group, it is important to be cognisant of the cultural setting,48 which is, in the case of the current study, military culture.49 Deeper investigation uncovered cultural aspects specific to the RCN, which participants felt were influenced by unification,50 the Somalia incident,51 recent deployments to Afghanistan and the reviews on personal conduct in the RCN52 and sexual misconduct in the CAF.53 Results also revealed members’ perceptions of the cultural foundations of the RCN; for example, descending from the British system, rule-abiding, slow to change, and structured through a strong divisional system. The need for the RCN to “Canadianize” has been identified by naval personnel for decades,54 indicating that many of the concerns identified by participants in this study are not new. In addition to the ongoing prevalence of British tradition in the RCN, the influence of Francophone Canadians and bilingualism on the organization was also apparent.55 Strong examples, made evident through participants’ remarks included the differences between the Formations on the coasts and National Capital Region, where bilingualism is more widespread, and the main Naval Reserves Headquarters, which is located in a Francophone city. In addition to the differences in language ability between RCN geographical areas, members also indicated differences between Anglophone and Francophone individuals posted within the regions.

The RCN has a well-established culture,56 as demonstrated by participants’ ability to consistently identify customs and traditions unique to the naval environment, such as the crossing-the-line ceremony. Historically, many of these customs and traditions were rites of passage or hazing rituals passed down through generations. Crossing-the-line ceremonies are not distinctively an RCN tradition; they are conducted by other navies as well.57 These shared experiences, often accomplished through the observation of customs and traditions, help members to bond with their peers, their leaders, and to their unit and organization as a whole.58 Given the nature of naval employment, these bonds are essential to ensure the ship’s company is a cohesive unit and operationally effective.

Despite the evidence of a strong RCN culture, results revealed that the opportunities to learn about the customs and traditions was inconsistent, ranging from word-of-mouth to basic training courses and, in some cases, participants mentioned that previously scheduled lessons on these topics were cut to shorten the length of courses due to financial restrictions, which suggested to participants that the history of the RCN was not prioritized by leadership. In a hierarchical organization such as the military,59 leadership plays an important role in transmitting customs and traditions. While the competencies required of naval leaders is changing,60 keeping members apprised of the historical culture that binds them is an important aspect in maintaining cohesion.

DND photo PR01-2019-0021-1871 by Corporal David Veldman

HMCS Shawinigan sails alongside HMCS Kingston and the French Navy Ship Lieutenant de vaisseau Le Henaff for a manoeuvring exercise during Exercise Obangame Express 2019 in West Africa, 18 March 2019.

While the RCN is perceived to have historical roots tied to Christianity61 and traditional military culture (i.e., combat masculine-warrior),62 a diverse workforce continues to be a strategic goal for the Canadian government, the CAF (i.e., Strong Secure Engaged [SSE])63, and the RCN.64 For example, there have been efforts made to be more inclusive in the CAF to other religions and cultural backgrounds such as accommodations for dress and religious practices (i.e., the option to wear a turban as a part of the uniform if prescribed by a members religion, or for Indigenous members to wear their hair in a traditional braid)65 and Padres being hired from a wide range of faiths, and so on. However, despite these efforts, some participants felt there was still a close relationship between Christianity and some of the historical practices still observed within the RCN; suggesting that there is more to be done to foster a culture of inclusion. The challenge, recognized by leadership within the RCN, is in identifying methods of change that will preserve the important link to the evolution of the Navy and strengthen the bond among its sailors, while becoming more inclusive to the diverse group of RCN members that it strives to attain.

At the time of data collection, the amalgamation of the naval technical occupations, driven by the move to the future fleet, was fresh in the minds of those impacted. Participants struggled with their ability to identify with their new occupation and perceived a wider impact of the ongoing transition to the future fleet, resulting in less opportunities for socialization and fewer occasions to practice their customs and traditions. The RCN has a rich history, but, according to participants, little is being done to propagate it or to address the effects of recent initiatives (such as amalgamation) on members. Since the initial data collection, research has been sponsored by the RCN to identify the impact of the amalgamation on the individuals from the original technical trades. The intent is to discover common issues that can be rectified for this group and to inform the smooth transition of any future amalgamations that result from the staffing requirements of the new platforms. In addition, a group of four occupations currently under review for potential amalgamation is also being surveyed to discover their immediate concerns so that they can be addressed appropriately prior to the implementation of any change.66 Most importantly, outcomes such as job satisfaction, retention, and performance are often linked to the relationship between group cohesion and military identity.67 Further research is ongoing that targets specific occupations, in addition to the RCN as a whole, to discover their unique motivations for release from the military in an effort to aid retention efforts.68 Job satisfaction, along with many other well-being factors is also being studied through a solution-focussed qualitative project that incorporates the perspectives of both military members and their families.69 These studies currently being conducted by the RCN are meant to discover how to preserve the culture of a close-knit naval family through a period of great change.

DND photo by Master Seaman Dan Bard

Lieutenant (Navy) Ann Lee from HMCS Regina relays orders to the helm on the bridge during a replenishment at sea exercise with a Royal Australian Navy ship during Exercise Rimpac 2020, 20 August 2020.

Many of the aspects of naval culture identified in the current study have been recognized in the past. For example, a research study using an auto-ethnography approach to explore naval culture in the RCN found similar observations concerning the perspective that the Navy is based on white males, the shared sense of belonging (i.e., cohesion), additional subcultures (i.e., other branches), as well as differences between the Naval Reserves and the Regular Force.70 Many of the aspects identified in Figure  1, were also part of earlier observations of naval culture reaching back decades.71 Identifying, developing, and evaluating culture change initiatives (i.e., how customs and traditions are disseminated) as currently being done by the RCN, can be used as a key performance measure to monitor the impact of changes within the RCN. As already indicated, these themes have been identified before, but are still prominent.72 However, what is evident from the current climate within the RCN is that leadership is motivated to effect change.73 This is being accomplished through evidence-based research,74 and by implementing the GBA+ process when developing or reviewing any RCN policies, programs, and services.75

Consistency of Results with Previous Quantitative Data

Although this was a qualitative study with a small sample size, these results are consistent with other large-scale RCN sponsored research. For example, when comparing the overall CAF population, outcome variables related to group cohesion and military identity76 tended to be higher for individuals in the RCN.77 In addition, the results from the administration of the Defence Workplace Well-being Survey (DWWS), which collected responses from May to August of 2018 and had a total CAF sample of 41,387 personnel, suggested through individual analysis of the three elements that there is still work to be done to ensure a fully inclusive RCN.78

Diverse Perspectives

The current study implemented a constructivist paradigm79 and the GBA+ process.80 In particular, the study targeted participants using a parallel subgroup81 and snowball sampling scheme,82 and provided different ways in which individuals could participate (i.e., face-to-face interview and focus group, and phone interviews) to ensure diverse perspectives were included.83 There are significant initiatives that champion the importance of diversity and strive towards increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in the CAF (i.e., SSE).84 It is more essential than ever to discover and understand the experiences of these men and women, since they still represent a small portion of the CAF population.85 The fact that one-fourth of the sample who participated in this study identified themselves as a DGM demonstrates the research potential for using a targeted sampling approach for qualitative research in the CAF.


This research has several limitations, including the gender diversity of the participants and generalizability of results. While many efforts were made in the sampling design to ensure participation from a diverse group of men and women, only binary information was collected for gender, thereby excluding other gender identities. Given the recent passing of Bill C-16, which adds gender identity and expression to a list of prohibited grounds of discrimination,86 it is even more important to ensure that the experiences and opinions of diverse persons are heard. Future research should therefore explore how culture and customs and traditions impact various gender identities. Additionally, although the goal of a qualitative study is not to generalize across a population, the size and distribution of the sample prevents this. However, the primary benefit is the provision of insight into the experiences of a diverse group of RCN members, which can be used to provide context to quantitative studies already completed and formulate future research considerations in order to guide leadership towards continued positive change.

Important Considerations and Future Research

In light of the results concerning the customs and traditions in the Navy and the move to the future fleet, there are several important factors for RCN consideration, in addition to recommendations for future research.

Increase the Quality and Quantity of Information about RCN Customs and Traditions.

Results suggested that there is no standard approach to communicating customs and traditions in the Navy. As well, over the years and due to operational priorities, the formal instruction on RCN culture has been reduced or eliminated. While there are manuals dedicated to these customs and traditions,87 alternate instructional methods or forms of communication are likely to be more effective (i.e., exposure to ceremonies during initial occupational training or the use of multimedia formats). In addition, the perception of leadership support for RCN customs and traditions can be changed through visible participation and outward communication (i.e., social media or RCN wide newsletters.). This should help to grow the bond between members and the feeling that the RCN is in fact “One Navy;”88 one enormous ship’s company.

Investigate How to Disentangle RCN Customs and Traditions from Religion.

Naval customs and traditions are founded upon those of the British Navy, and many are perceived to have roots in the Christian religion.89 With the changing nature of the CAF, the increase in diversity and drive towards a culture of inclusion,90 there needs to be a concerted effort to examine how the current customs and traditions may or may not be inclusive of all RCN members.

Investigate the Positive and Negative Impacts of RCN Subcultures.

It is suggested that the consequences to sub-cultural differences that impact cohesion within the RCN be examined, both negative and positive, especially given the unique contribution of Francophones and bilingualism to the CAF.91 Any positive impacts of sub-cultures should have that specific influence encouraged and any negativity can be addressed before becoming detrimental to the desired RCN culture.

Investigate Culture and Customs and Traditions in the RCN at Regular Intervals.

Creating a method of measurement for culture-change initiatives is critical to ensure success.92 Consistent with the RCNs focus on performance measurement for other initiatives (i.e., RCN Ethics training, fitness testing rates, etc.), research should be initiated to create a measurement tool that evaluates the progress of culture-change initiatives and allows for adjustment when necessary. Since the cultural aspects of cohesion and military identity are tied to a number of work outcomes,93 future research to disentangle the cultural variables into items that can be measured would allow for a subsequent study to confirm the consistency of their relationship with relevant work outcomes within a larger RCN population. This could allow for measurement of work outcome variables at regular time intervals as a form of periodic progress assessment of culture change.

DND photo by Corporal Joey Beaudin

Lieutenant (Navy) Olivia Clarke navigates HMCS Moncton as it transits the St. Lawrence Seaway, 14 July 2018.


This study used data collected in 2016 to examine the culture of the RCN, including customs and traditions, at a critical point in time during the move to the future fleet. Using interviews and focus groups with members of the RCN, results revealed salient aspects of RCN culture. Central themes included opinions regarding subcultures, the perceived decrease in opportunities to learn about historical aspects of the RCN, the importance of leadership, and the uncertainty concerning socialization and member identity felt by participants during a period of great change that is expected to impact the daily life of its sailors. Since data collection, the RCN has been proactive in making positive change and continues to do so. The results of this study allowed for the proposal of future research considerations to assist the RCN in continued progression towards its goals.


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  11. Government of Canada, Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2018). Operation Honour. Retrieved from ; Royal Canadian Navy. (2014a). Naval Order [NAVORD] 1601-1 Provision, serving and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Retrieved from ; Royal Canadian Navy. (2014b). Naval General Message [NAVGEN] 017/14 Personal Conduct. Retrieved from ; Royal Canadian Navy. (2015a). Naval Order [NAVORD] 1001-0 RCN Code of Conduct. Retrieved from ; and Royal Canadian Navy. (2015b). Naval Order [NAVORD] 5032-0 RCN Employment Equity Policy. Retrieved from .
  12. Government of Canada. (1994a). 1994 Defence white paper. Ottawa: Government of Canada. (1994b). The Naval vision: Charting the course for Canada’s maritime forces in the next century. Halifax. Government of Canada. (1997). Adjusting course: A naval strategy for Canada. Ottawa: National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (1999). Shaping the future of Canadian defence: A strategy for 2020. Ottawa.
  13. Government of Canada (1994b).
  14. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2001). LEADMARK: The Navy’s strategy for 2020 (Directorate of Maritime Strategy, DB3-22/2001E). Ottawa.
  15. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2017c). Strong, secure, engaged: Canada’s defence policy. Retrieved from
  16. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2016). Royal Canadian Navy: Strategic plan 2017-2022. Retrieved from http://navy- ; National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2017a). Canada in a new maritime world: LEADMARK 2050. Ottawa. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (2017c).
  17. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (2016).
  18. Haydon, P.T., Commander (ret’d), (2001). What naval capabilities does Canada need? in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 21-28. Retrieved from .
  19. McFadden, D. (2010). The navy and Canada’s national interests in the maritime century. Canadian Military Journal, 10(4), 53-58. Retrieved from
  20. Thomson, M., Adams, B., Filardo, E-A., Elderhorst, E. & Harkness, A. (2013). Royal Canadian Navy culture and organizational change (Human Resource Systems Group, DRDC-RDDC-2015-C164). Ottawa, ON: Defence Research and Development Canada.
  21. Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Lincoln, Y. S., Lynham, S. A., & Guba, E. G. (2011). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences, revisited. Sage handbook of qualitative research, 4, pp.97–128.
  22. Status of Women Canada. (2015a). A brief history of GBA+. Retrieved from; Status of Women Canada. (2015b). Gender-based analysis plus. Retrieved from Status of Women Canada. (2016). GBA+ research guide. Retrieved from
  23. Creswell (2007).
  24. Status of Women Canada (2015a, 2015b, 2016).
  25. For more information on the methodology of the study, consult Hachey, Bryson, & Davis (2018). Hachey, K. K., Bryson, R., & Davis, K. D. (2018). The gender-based analysis plus process and social science research (DRDC-RDDC-2018-R197). Ottawa: Defence Research Development Canada. For more information on the larger study results, consult Hachey (2019). Hachey, K. K. (2019). Member perspectives on military culture, customs and traditions in the Canadian Armed Forces (DRDC-RDDC-2019-R026). Ottawa, ON: Defence Research Development Canada.
  26. Department of National Defence Social Science Review Board Ethics Approval 1565/16F.
  27. Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Leech, N. L. (2007). Sampling designs in qualitative research: Making the sampling process more public. Qualitative Report, 12(2), 238–254. Retrieved from
  28. Mason, J. (1996). Qualitative researching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  29. Members of the Navy who are part of the Primary Reserve are referred to as Naval Reserves. Those participants will be identified as from the Naval Reserves. Primary Reserve will refer to all three environments.
  30. Through the Employment Equity Act of the Government of Canada, the four designated groups include women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities; Government of Canada. (2007). Employment equity groups. Retrieved from
  31. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2015). Canadian Armed Forces employment equity report 2014-2015. Retrieved from
  32. A representative sample of potential participants was created using SAS software. CAF member data was obtained from Director Human Resources Information Management (DHRIM), while employment equity (EE) DGM information (e.g., Indigenous) was obtained from Directorate of Human Rights and Diversity (DHRD) (Hachey et al., 2019).
  33. Hachey et al. (2018).
  34. Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2014). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook (3rd edition.). Los Angeles: Sage.
  35. Saldaña, J. (2013). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Los Angeles: Sage.
  36. Nvivo qualitative data analysis software. (2015). Version 11. QSR International Pty.
  37. Quotes include (if the data is available) information on the following: (1) Interview or focus group, (2) Regular Force or Naval Reserves, (3) First official language (English, French), (4) Officer or NCM, (5) Male or female, (6) DGM status.
  38. Gosselin, D. (2008). Hellyer’s ghosts: Unification of the Canadian Forces is 40 years old – Part One, in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 6-15. Retrieved from; Gosselin, D. (2009). Hellyer’s ghosts: Unification of the Canadian Forces is 40 years old – Part Two, in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2009. Retrieved from
  39. Coombs, H. (2017). 25 years after Somalia: How it changed Canadian Armed Forces preparations for operations, in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 35–46. Retrieved from; Shorey, Lieutenant-Commander G. (2000-2001). Bystander non-intervention and the Somalia incident, in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 19-28. Retrieved from .
  40. Baines (2014).
  41. Deschamps (2015).
  42. Maritime Command. (2001). Guide to the divisional system. Retrieved from .
  43. Commanders Intent and Guidance, Royal Canadian Navy Strategic Plan 2017-2020.
  44. Baines (2014).
  45. Royal Canadian Navy. (2014). Naval Order [NAVORD] 1601-1 Provision, serving and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Retrieved from
  46. Royal Canadian Navy (2014).
  47. Pacific Navy News. (2018). Naval trades amalgamated into one. Retrieved from ; 00379 Maritime Technician Occupation Specification.
  48. Kirke, C. (2010). Military cohesion, culture and social psychology. Defence & Security Analysis, 26(2), pp.143–159, at: .
  49. Burke, J. (2001). Expertise, jurisdiction, and legitimacy of the military profession. Paper presented at the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, Baltimore, MD; English (2004); and Snider, D. M. (1999). An uninformed debate on military culture. Orbis, 43(1), 15–26. doi: 10.1016/S0030-4387(99)80054-4.
  50. Gosselin (2008, 2009).
  51. Coombs (2017).
  52. Baines (2014).
  53. Deschamps (2015).
  54. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (1949). Report on certain “incidents” which occurred on board H.M.C. ships Athabascan, Crescent, and Magnificent and on other matters concerning the Royal Canadian Navy. Retrieved from
  55. Bernier, S., & Pariseau, J. (1994). The French Canadians and bilingualism in the Canadian Armed Forces. Retrieved from .
  56. Arbuckle (1984) and Russell (1980).
  57. Bronner, S. J. (2006). Crossing the line: Violence, play, and drama in naval equator traditions. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.
  58. Siebold, G. L. (2007). The essence of military group cohesion. Armed Forces and Society, 33(2), pp. 286–295. doi: 10.1177/0095327X06294173; and Siebold, G. L. (2011). Key questions and challenges to the standard model of military group cohesion. Armed Forces & Society, 37(3), pp. 448–468. doi: 10.1177/0095327X11398451.
  59. Shamir, B., Zakay, E., Brainin, E., & Popper, M. (2006). Leadership and social identification in military units: Direct and indirect relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(3), 612–640. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02499.x.
  60. Hanser, L. M., Miller, L. W., Shukiar, H. J., & Newsome, B. (2008). Developing senior navy leaders: Requirements for flag officer expertise today and in the future. Retrieved from
  61. Rennick, J. B. (2017). Religion in the Canadian Military: Adapting to an increasingly pluralistic society. Retrieved from
  62. Dunivin, K. O. (1994). Military culture: Change and continuity. Armed Forces & Society, 20(4), 531–547. doi: 10.1177/0095327X9402000403; and Soeters, J. L., Winslow, D. J., & Weibull, A. (2006). Military culture. In G. Caforio (Ed.), Handbook of the sociology of the military (pp. 237–254). New York, NY: Springer.
  63. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (2017b).
  64. Royal Canadian Navy (2015b); and Royal Canadian Navy. (2016). RCN Employment Equity Plan. Retrieved from .
  65. Rennick (2017).
  66. The data for these studies is being collected as additional questions administered during the 2019/2020 CAF Retention Survey for those who identify as coming from one of the occupations impacted by the amalgamation of the Maritime Technician Occupation or are currently being studied for potential future amalgamation. Research is ongoing, publications are expected to be available in 2020/2021.
  67. Butler, A., Eren, E., & Budgell, G. (2014). Literature review: Theories, concepts and measures of professional, organizational, and military identity (Human Resource Systems Group, DRDC-RDDC-March 2014). Ottawa: Defence Research and Development Canada; and Chiocchio, F., & Essiembre, H. (2009). Cohesion and performance: A meta-analytic review of disparities between project teams, production teams, and service teams. Small Group Research, 40(4), 382–420. doi:10.1177/1046496409335103.
  68. This data is being collected through the oversampling of target occupations identified by the RCN during the 2019/2020 CAF Retention Survey. Publications are anticipated for availability in 2020/2021.
  69. The intent of this study is to discover the RCN specific challenges related to work-life balance and find unique solutions to overcome them. Research is ongoing and publication of the results is expected in 2020/2021.
  70. Lucu (2013).
  71. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (1949).
  72. Lin, I., van der Werf, D., & Butler, A. Measuring and monitoring culture change: Claiming success [DRDC-RDDC-2019].Ottawa, On: Defence Research and Development Canada.
  73. Royal Canadian Navy. (2017). RCN Strategic Plan. Retrieved from .
  74. For example, the RCN commissioned a study in 2016 to study gender balance in the organization, Representation of Women in RCN Managed Occupations (2017), to create a baseline performance measure for the RCN’s goal of increasing the representation of women within the RCN to 25.1% by 2026. Another study entitled Regular Force Attrition of Women vs Men in the RCN (2018) indicated that on average, female officers released earliest in their careers, followed by female NCMs, Men tended to serve longer. The study on Retention and Attrition in Hard Sea Occupations (2018) indicated that the challenges are different between subgroups within the RCN.
  75. Vandehei, L. (2019). Government of Canada. (2019). Gender-Based Analysis Plus Awareness Week. Retrieved from .
  76. Butler et al. (2014) and Chiocchio and Essiembre (2009).
  77. DRDC-RDDC (2018). Unit Morale Profile Summary Results for Naval Technical Officers (NTOs), Marine Systems Engineering Officers (MS ENG), and Naval Engineering Officers (NAV ENG). Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis Scientific Letter (3). Ottawa: Defence Research and Development Canada; and Harding, C.D., Howell, G.T., Wolejszo, S., & Michaud, K. (2017). Results summary – Unit Morale Profile Version 2.0 (UMP v2.0) analysis of six Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT) Units (DRDC-RDDC-2017-B028). Ottawa, ON: Defence Research and Development Canada.
  78. The CAF DWWS results are in the publication process with anticipated receipt in 2020. RCN data collected during the DWWS is being analyzed by the researchers for the delivery of more detailed results specific to the RCN. The publication is expected to be available in the spring of 2020.
  79. Creswell (2007) and Lincoln et al. (2011).
  80. Status Women of Canada (2015a, 2015b, 2016).
  81. Onwuegbuzie and Leech (2007).
  82. Mason (1996).
  83. Additional information concerning the methodological approach can be found in Hachey et al. (2018).
  84. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (2017b).
  85. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (2015).
  86. Parliament of Canada. (2016). Bill C-16. Retrieved from
  87. Arbuckle (1984) and Russell (1980).
  88. Commanders Intent and Guidance, Royal Canadian Navy (2017).
  89. Arbuckle (1984), Rennick (2017), and Russell (1980).
  90. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. (2018). Women in the Canadian Armed Forces. Retrieved from .
  91. Bernier and Pariseau (1984).
  92. Lin, I., van der Werf, D., & Butler, A. (2019). Measuring and monitoring culture change: Claiming success [DRDC-RDDC-2019].Ottawa: Defence Research and Development Canada.
  93. Butler et al. (2014), Chiocchio and Essiembre (2009); and Zaccaro, S. J. (1991). Non-equivalent associations between forms of cohesiveness and group-related outcomes: Evidence for multidimensionality. Journal of Social Psychology, 131(3), 387–399. doi:10.1080/00224545.1991.9713865.