Since 1967 nearly seven thousand Canadians have been appointed to the Order of Canada. The now familiar snowflake insignia adorns the lapels of some of the builders of modern Canada – the visionaries, volunteers, contributors and those who have epitomized the motto of the Order "to desire a better country." While honours systems are present in all societies, the transformation of the practice of conferring honour into a mechanism to reward exemplary citizenship in a non-partisan, grass-roots driven, was a uniquely Canadian innovation.
It was 50 years ago this week that the first appointments to the Order were announced. The establishment of the Order of Canada was a significant departure from the long-entrenched relationship between patronage and the conferral of honours which stretched back two centuries.
For half a century Canada went without a civilian honours system. As the First World War drew to a close, great controversy erupted over the conferral of knighthoods and peerages upon a number of Canadian business magnates – some of whom were widely derided as war profiteers in Parliament and the press. Out of this controversy came the Nickle Resolution, which brought a near complete end to the flow of civilian honours in Canada. So ferocious was the debate surrounding honours that, for half a century, all politicians – aside from R.B. Bennett – avoided the subject. Canadian discomfort with honours and elitism would linger into the 1960s and ultimately had a profound influence on the establishment of the Order of Canada in 1967.
It was R.B. Bennett, who first envisioned an honours system as a tool to recognize exemplary citizenship. During Bennett's premiership, British honours in Canada were briefly revived – with nearly half of the honours being conferred upon women in recognition of a diverse array of causes – something unprecedented at the time. Bennett's lists also recognized the leaders in Canadian science, culture and equality; Sir Frederick Banting, Sir Ernest MacMillan, Lucy Maude Montgomery and Charlotte Whitton, were amongst those honoured in 1934-35. Bennett's vision that formal recognition could be a vehicle to promote a sense of citizenship, dedication and volunteerism that would serve as an example of how an honours system could be employed as much more than just a reward for the party faithful.
The future Governor General, Vincent Massey, who would also chair the Royal Commission on the National Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences, proposed the establishment of a Canadian Order in 1935. His idea was met with great opposition by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Throughout its hearings across Canada, the Massey Commission received submissions calling for the establishment of a Canadian honours system. The Commission called for the founding of a uniquely Canadian honour; the recipients of which would be selected by an arm's length advisory council to be made up of eminent Canadians. The intended effect of this insulation of the appointment process was to remove appointments from the political realm – with the prime minister ceding his historic prerogative over recommending honours, to a non-partisan body. The detailed proposal would ultimately be supressed and removed from the final report of the Massey Commission by the government of Louis St. Laurent.
Following the adoption of the new national flag in 1965, and having survived the flag debate, prime minister Lester Pearson turned his energies towards another symbolic project – the creation of a Canadian honour in time for the Centennial. Upon hearing of this new effort, one MP commented "oh, my God, please don't. Haven't we had enough trouble about emblems? Please don't submit us to this!"
With the assistance of MP John Matheson, and officials Jack Hodgson Esmond Butler, and Michael Pitfield, the proposal for the Order of Canada was developed. Taking Massey's 1951 concept that recommendations for honours should be taken out of the hands of politicians and entrusted to a non-partisan arm's length committee, the inventive mechanics of the Order were devised. Another innovation was to seek recipients through a grass roots nomination process which encouraged any citizen to write up those who them felt worthy of being recognized. The new honours system had to avoid the patronage aspects of the British honours system. No more would politicians have a direct say in who received what and why, and the element of public involvement had to be significant if the new institution was not to be derided as just a Canadiainzed version of the British honours system.
Within Pearson's cabinet, one of the fiercest opponents of the Order was Mitchell Sharp. Sharp disagreed with the state-sponsored promotion of elitism that he envisioned the Order would end up encouraging. He would have a complete conversion after attending the Order's first investiture in November 1967. There Sharp had the opportunity to meet many of the first 90 Canadians appointed to the Order. He would later reflect "it was a brilliant occasion ... Before us was as distinguished a group of Canadians as had ever been assembled in one place."
On 1 July 1967 that the first list of 90 members of the Order would be released and with this the identity and nature of the Order of Canada as the country's preeminent society of honour, was established. Pearson was adamant that the new honour recognize not only the great scientists and leaders, but also the volunteer and those who had devoted themselves to the betterment of people at the local level.
The retooling of the ancient concept of honours into a system of recognition that sought to reward exemplary citizenship was very much a Canadian development, one that is today looked to by many of Canada's allies as the outstanding example of how best to administer a national honour. Aside from a very few contentious appointments, the Order of Canada and the broader Canadian honours system has functioned with little controversy over the last 50 years.
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