Changing of the Guard: The Veterans Guard of Canada in Ottawa

Today, May 24, 2023, marks the eighty-third anniversary of the establishment of the Veterans’ Home Guard, which was later renamed the Veterans’ Guard of Canada. As such, here’s a short post looking back at the first anniversary of the Veterans’ Guard in 1941.

When Canada declared war on Nazi Germany on September 10, 1939, the country was already in the midst of preparing for war. Although far displaced from continental Europe, Canadian government and military authorities had expressed concern about the possibility of attacks on Canadian soil from enemy agents or saboteurs. For the past two years, the RCMP and military authorities had been working to identify and monitor pro-German and Austrian individuals and groups in Canada who could present a possible threat. After Canada declared war, the Canadian government, fearing “Fifth Column” attacks, authorized the arrest and eventual internment of hundreds of German and Austrian – and, later, Italian – civilians deemed threats to national security.

While known or suspected enemy sympathizers were housed in internment camps, hundreds of military installations, government buildings, factories, and other sites deemed essential to the war effort were believed to be at risk of sabotage or enemy attacks. Some companies hired civilian security details while the government authorized active army regiments be posted at critical sites. But as these regiments were mobilizing and preparing for service overseas, another force was desperately needed. One solution came with the establishment of the Veterans’ Home Guard, later re-named the Veterans’ Guard of Canada.

Established on May 24, 1940, the Veterans’ Home Guard consisted of First World War Veterans who were deemed too old for active service overseas but who could still perform valuable duties on the homefront. With thousands of such men volunteering from coast-to-coast, the Veterans’ Guard was organized into numbered active and reserve companies of approximately 250 to 300 men. While this Corps is now primarily remembered for guarding prisoners of war (POWs) in Canada, the Veterans’ Guard spent countless hours on coastal defence and guarding sites essential to the Canadian war effort.

Platoon of No. 3 Company, Veterans Guard of Canada in front of the Cartier Square Drill Hall in Ottawa, c.1940-1941. Author’s Collection.

No. 3 Company of the Veterans Guard of Canada (later re-designated as No. 9 Company) was among the original companies established in 1940. Under the command of Major G.F. Armstrong, the company was headquartered in Ottawa and numbered seven officers and 320 other ranks. The vast majority were volunteers from Southeastern Ontario, with platoons arriving from Kingston, Belleville, Peterborough, Renfrew, and Brockville. Once assembled, the company was quartered at Ottawa’s Landsdowne Barracks and immediately tasked with guarding government buildings and other important sites in Ottawa for the next year.

In celebration of the Veterans’ Guard of Canada’s first anniversary in May 1941, No. 3 Company was granted the honour of guarding Parliament Hill for twenty-four hours. In the evening of May 24, 1941, men from No. 3 Company, under the command of Lieutenant Charles M. Bygate, participated in the Changing of the Guard in front of 1,500 spectators. Temporarily relieving men of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Veterans’ Guard assumed guard duties for the next twenty-four hours.

Platoon from No. 3 Company of the Veterans’ Guard of Canada in front of Centre Block on Parliament Hill, c. May 1941.
Author’s Collection

The smart manner in which the veterans, in charge of Lieut. C.M. Bygate, participated in the ceremony of the changing of the guard, indicated that the heroes of the first Great War had forgotten nothing of their military training.

“Veterans Guard Takes Over ‘Hill’, Ottawa Citizen, 26 May 1941.

The men of No. 3 Company assumed their duties with pride and one photographer documented the event in a series of photographs. The following series shows that guards were posted at each of the main entrances to Centre Block while others patrolled Parliament Hill. Like most Veterans’ Guard companies at this point in the war, the men were issued with the First World War-era Ross Rifle, which most of these men had used almost thirty years prior.

Following the end of their twenty-four hour assignment, the Royal Canadian Air Force relieved the Veterans Guard and the company then celebrated the Corps’ birthday with a special party at Lansdowne Park.

These pictures came from a then-private of No. 3 Company (seen below) who documented some of the Company’s duties in Ottawa in the first half of 1941. Unfortunately, his identity remains unknown.

After being relieved of their duties at Parliament Hill, the Company remained on guard duty in Ottawa until it was transferred to Montreal in mid-July 1941. Various Veterans Guard companies were rotated through Ottawa in the following years and, by 1944, the Corps was responsible for guarding two Wireless Stations, 308 Sparks Street, the Supreme Court Building, 60 Queen Street (Ottawa Area Command), Landsdowne Barracks, the UK Inspection Board at 479 Bank Street and 138 Queen Street, Cartier School, 345 Laurier Street (Research Council Building), and the Rideau Hospital. Some of these guard duties ceased shortly after VJ-Day while the rest would continue through 1946.

Renamed No. 9 Company in September 1941, the company periodically returned to guard duties in Ottawa over the next five years, but spent the rest of the war primarily guarding internment camps, and later labour projects, in Ontario and Quebec. Following the transfer of German POWs in Canada to the United Kingdom, the company was disbanded in 1946.

Published by Michael O'Hagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

One thought on “Changing of the Guard: The Veterans Guard of Canada in Ottawa

  1. <

    div dir=”ltr”>Thanks for that


    div>Laurentian university Archives has some photo albums of Veterans Guards who guarded POWs…tell story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: