Military enlistment: why Canadians join the Forces

During the Second World War, more than one million Canadians served in the Forces. In 2006, our combined Forces — regular and reserve — totalled 87,700. Regardless of the year, purpose and size of the military, Canadians enlist for similar reasons.

David Shergold is a doctor at Sunnybrook Hospital’s Veterans’ Centre. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 20 years before switching to medicine, and was the Forces’ recruitment doctor stationed in Toronto for five years.

He says there are two main motivations to join the military. There are those who feel a sense of duty or patriotism; and, there are those who join for personal reasons, such as the desire for a full-time job or an adventure.

To best understand the reasons Canadian soldiers enlist, says Shergold, “You’ve got to make a comparison either between war time or peace time.”

Enlisting during times of peace

Shergold enlisted in the navy during a time of peace because of both motivations. “Part of me joining was out of a sense of duty. My dad was 38 years in the navy. My grandfather was 38 years in the navy. And my great-grandfather was 20 years in the navy. So I’m fourth generation.”

But the idea of an adventure was also appealing. “As a young man, I think that was an attractive aspect too, that you could do something that was legal, aggressive and exciting.”

Mischa Moscovitch, 24, is currently a private with the Toronto Scottish Regiment reserve force. He too joined during a time of peace because of both mindsets; he wanted to go on adventures and grow as a person while serving a duty.


Enlisting during times of war

During war, there is a more stark contrast between soldiers who were motivated by duty and those motivated by personal reasons.

My 94-year-old grandfather James Scharf enlisted in the Second World War at the age of 18. He was initially attracted to the full-time job and the steady pay.

“He was coming off the hardships of the Great Depression,” said my uncle Gord Scharf, a captain in the Canadian Forces, about my grandfather. “He mentioned on Remembrance Day he was working the night shift and when he was going into work he was seeing soldiers leaving to have a night on the town. That also attracted him. ‘Why am I working at night when I can work during the day and seem to have enough money left over to have some fun?'”

Jack Granatstein, one of Canada’s top military historians, said personal motivations like my grandfather’s were common during the Second World War since spaces available in the military increased. “There was unemployment and probably for a lot of people it was three meals a day, pay, and that would be an incentive.”

And then there were those who wanted to perform a duty. Granatstein says, “Patriotism was always an incentive. Canadians were very British at that point, and when Britain was at war many Canadians viewed Canada was at war, and it was the duty of every fit man to serve King and country.”

Shergold says patriotism is more evident during times of war. “When the Afghanistan conflict was on it was similar to World War II in the sense that you’re going to go and kill someone, it isn’t just training. So you have a different catchment of people who are motivated in that manner and want to stand up for their country.

In peace time you’re going to have that easier difference, without a call to duty like war, you’re going to have a career, something that is unique or adventurous.”

Today’s military

Moscovitch says since the number of spaces in the military decreases during times of peace, joining the Forces today is challenging. “The Canadian military is a vigorous application process, they have to accept you. You have to be in perfect shape, it’s very demanding physically.”

This past summer, he was on base for two months taking a specialization course. “You’re sleeping in trenches, sleeping in the forest, being woken up by flash grenades at 3 in the morning.”

Moscovitch emptied his backpack to display some of the gear soldiers carry around in the field.
Shergold said a soldier’s motivations to enlist come into question when conflict becomes real. When he was in the navy, “Some of the exercises we did were very close to reality, firing torpedoes and sinking ships. It’s when you’re that close to it that you come to realize really fast if this is what you really want to do in your life.”