On the morning of Nov. 11th, while standing at a local cenotaph with a large group of proud ‘poppy-wearers,’ I began thinking about this topic (Canadian Honours). As I watched the various armed forces march by with colourful ribbons and medals proudly displayed, a Pipe Band made my Scottish blood tingle! I noted the strong, sure step of the ‘young’ followed by the determined steps of the more elderly in civilian dress…the ones whose uniforms have been put away, perhaps for over 50 years.
As a long line of people began to lay wreaths of remembrance, I began thinking of the actions of brave Canadians who had fought in wars, and this led to my thinking of other Canadians I had heard of over the years whose actions had received Canadian honours that I knew very little about. My curiosity (and insatiable love of research!) were both rewarded a few weeks ago when I found a book by Christopher McCreery – Fifty Years: Honouring Canadians. It was the history of the Order of Canada from 1967-2017.
McCreery noted that almost every sovereign nation in the world has an honours system as an official way for the state, on behalf of the people, “to recognize outstanding contributions, meritorious service, bravery, military service, and long service.” Honours to Canadians before 1967 had always been bestowed by the British honours system whereby most of the same orders, decorations, and medals were used throughout the British Empire/Commonwealth.
Due to a few scandals about appointments for honours, in 1918 Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden drafted a government policy that all honours must be approved by the Candian prime minister, and no further hereditary honours were to be conferred on Canadians. In 1935 as a young Canadian Diplomat, Vincent Massy broached the subject of an honours system to the governor-general who was keen on the idea but the PM, Wm Lyon Mackenzie King, wouldn’t hear of it! The subject was raised again in 1948 and again squashed by the PM (lots of background reasons why he was labelled a “killjoy”!)
Vincent Massey continued for years to lobby for the creation of a Canadian honours system. Finally, in the 1960s, when optimism was high to take a “step” away from being a “British colony” by raising our own Maple Leaf Flag, the group working on creating a Canadian honours system made headway just in time to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday! Massey maintained that the Canadian Honours system would be a “definite contribution to Canadian unity.”
You might recognize some Canadians honoured by this honours system:
- Oscar Peterson
- Terry Fox
- L.M. Montgomery
- Roland Michener
- Frederick Banting
- Sir Ernest MacMillan
Several recipients have had their honour revoked and include:
- Alan Eagleson
- Steve Fonyo
- Conrad Black
To read more history and details of these honours another of McCreery’s books is recommended:
The Canadian Honours System, 2nd ed. Toronto, Dundurn, 2015
You will see great pictures of the medals at this website: