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From bureaucracy to the battlefield — the Governor General’s Foot Guards turn 150

The roots of one of Canada’s most easily recognizable military reserve units might raise a few eyebrows within the starchy, buttoned-down ranks of Ottawa’s civil servants.

The Governor General’s Foot Guards — that scarlet-draped, bear-skin-hatted regiment familiar to visiting tourists in the nation’s capital — turns 150 years old today. The unit’s marching band and changing-of-the-guard ceremony on Parliament Hill have for decades symbolized military pageantry in Ottawa.

The regiment was officially formed on June 7, 1872 by order of the minister of militia.

from bureaucracy to the battlefield the governor generals foot guards turn 150
Members of the Civil Service Rifle Corps in 1866. The militia unit was forerunner of the Governor General’s Foot Guards regiment, which turns 150 today. (Contributed/Governor General’s Foot Guards Official History)

But it was formed and led by members of Ottawa’s civil service in response to the perceived threat of an invasion by an expansion-hungry United States following the Civil War.

Even today you will find “guards” members in federal offices across the city. The guards’ current commanding officer said the line between members’ lives as risk-taking reservists and as risk-adverse federal public servants is much more distinct than it was for his predecessors.

“I think back … in the early days of the regiment, you would have seen much more of that back-and-forth, taking one role and having it bleed into the other, but that’s not the case today, for sure,” said Lt.-Col. Vincent Quesnel.

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Gov. Gen. Julie Payette gives a high-five to Alex Randall, 3, dressed as a member of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, during trick-or-treating at Rideau Hall on Halloween in 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Built on the foundation of a militia called the Civil Service Rifle Corps, the guards regiment went on to see its members fight in almost all of the country’s early military campaigns — including the Great War.

It wasn’t until the Second World War that the regiment began to fight as one cohesive unit, trading their infantry rifles and spades for tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

The Governor General’s Foot Guards was home to Victoria Cross winners — including Cpl. Filip Konowal, a Ukrainian-Canadian immigrant who joined the regiment following the First World War after winning the country’s highest military honour at the battle of Hill 70 in August 1917.

Konowal struggled with health issues and was spotted mopping floors in Parliament by Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King. Upon learning who Konowal was, King immediately offered him a job keeping the Prime Minister’s Office tidy.

“I mopped up overseas with a rifle, and here I must mop up with a mop,” Konowal was quoted telling the Ottawa Citizen in a 1956 interview.

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Members of the Governor General’s Foot Guards are reflected as they take part in a ceremony at the Peacekeeping Monument to honour fallen peacekeepers in Ottawa on August 12, 2012. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

He was taken under the wing of another Victoria Cross winner, Maj. Milton Fowler Gregg, who was a company commander in the guards. 

His story strikes a chord with those serving today.

“I think that … Konowal would be one of those cases, back in the day, when we didn’t recognize what PTSD was, and that, you know, he was suffering from that at that time, and he was having a hard time in the city and they did manage to get him a job,” Quesnel said.

Most Canadians know the guards from their ceremonial duties. Quesnel, a 30-years-plus veteran of the unit, said it might be easy to forget that the regiment is an active reserve force that has been called out on numerous occasions for both domestic and overseas deployments.

Quesnel said that when he plans Governor General’s Foot Guards operations, he has to make a clear distinction between “red operations” — with troops in red ceremonial tunics — and “green operations” with soldiers in the more comfortable green fatigues.

“I think it’s an idiosyncrasy of the regiment itself, but you know, it makes it very clear when I’m talking about operations,” he said.

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Members of the Canadian Forces clear brush 60 kilometres south of Ottawa in Kemptville, Ont. on Jan. 12, 1998. People in the area had been a week without power. (Canadian Press)

Quesnel said a personal high point for him was the guards’ contribution to helping the community in the aftermath of the 1998 Ottawa ice storm, when whole platoons were attached to the cleanup effort.

Several celebrations have taken place in the run-up to the 150th anniversary, including a “Freedom of the City” parade, which took place on Saturday.

It was the first time in a long time that people in Ottawa had seen the guards in action. The pandemic halted public events for the Governor General’s Foot Guards. Quesnel said it was satisfying to see the guards back in front of people again.

“It was very, very good for us to get … back into the streets,” he said of the parade. 

“We’re here, we are ready to do what’s needed, whether that is red or green operations. And as we get back to normal, we are looking to recruit and grow our numbers back up again.”

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