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Media Bites: Is The Order of Canada a Consolation Prize?

01/02/2014 12:04 EST | Updated 03/04/2014 05:59 EST

The New Republic published a wonderfully cantankerous article the other day, bemoaning the fact that Billy Joel -- Billy Friggin' Joel -- had been one of five entertainers to receive the Kennedy Centre Honor, America's highest cultural achievement award, from President Obama last month.

A "debauched sham," thundered author Kevin Mahnken. For how long must we stand idly by as this grand national honour is cheapened through thoughtless handouts to tawdry "maestros of kitsch"!

All I can say is Kevin should be thankful he doesn't live in Canada.

On December 30, the day after the Kennedy Centre aired its predictably over-the-top awards ceremony, Ottawa unloaded its annual dump truck of recipients of our nation's highest honour -- the Order of Canada. This year's winners included such cultural giants as pulp detective novelist Louise Penny, noted supporting character actor Colm Feore (I think he was on Battlestar once), Jeanne Beker, "Canada's most famous fashion journalist" (an oxymoron if there ever was one), the never tiresome Douglas Coupland, and not one, but two members of the 90's-era CanCon band Blue Rodeo. Don't talk to us about maestros of kitsch.

What makes the traditional New Year's announcement of fresh inductees to the Order of Canada so consistently galling is how damn many there always are -- this year, 90 in all. In contrast, Washington only issued a grand total of 25 of its "highest civilian honours" in 2013 -- five Kennedy Centre medallions, 16 Presidential Medals of Freedom, and (an usually high) four Congressional Gold Medals. Followed to its logical conclusion, I guess we are to infer that little Canada, a nation of 34 million people, produces around 3000 per cent more many praiseworthy individuals per-capita than the United States, a country of 300 million. Surely even the most hardcore nationalist would concede the figure can't be more than 1500 per cent, tops.

The Order's fundamental problem is rooted in its exceedingly vague mandate, which simply seeks to honour impressive "service or achievement" in every conceivable field of Canadian life. As a result, each year's flurry of handouts includes not only entertainers, authors, and artists, but also politicians (this year, the great statesman Don Mazankowski, finance minister, 1991-1993), lawyers, scientists, teachers, athletes, journalists, activists, bureaucrats, and a virtually endless parade of other blandly tolerable do-gooders. If the standards were even slightly more discriminating, say, along the lines of Harry Truman's criteria for the kind of thing you should do to get the Presidential Medal of Freedom  -- "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours" -- the situation might be slightly less depressing and the medal slightly more worthwhile. Instead we give it to people like Kim Campbell and Randy Bachman.

Indeed, for a nation of such supposedly modest people, Canadians give themselves an awful lot of prizes. Some eyebrows were raised in 2012 when it was revealed the Harper administration had produced so many Diamond Jubilee Medals for the Queen's big 6-0, MPs had to literally take out ads in community newspapers begging for nominations, but this was hardly unprecedented. According to Rideau Hall's website, even on non-Jubilee years, Ottawa forks out "hundreds" of civilian medals, a year, including the Governor General's Architecture Medal (12 given in 2012), the "Caring Canadian Award" (240 awarded in the last two years) and something called the "Celebration of the Nation's Table Award," which is for chefs, I think, and boasts "six different categories" of recognition. Then there's the 10 "provincial orders" given by the nation's lieutenant governors (I assume mostly so they have something to do), plus rackets like the Junos, the Genies, and Geminis, which although not directly government run, are so subsidized, hyped, and endorsed by the state they may as well be.

All this blind awarding can only wind up achieving the exact opposite of what it's supposed to. When we started down this road in the mid-1960s, there was a genuine sense that a good way to promote the growth of greatness in our sleepy, underachieving nation was to create lots of prizes to celebrate it. But as any economist could tell you, a treasured property like "greatness" can only retain its worth so long as it's relatively scarce. Just as printing more money doesn't make everyone richer, simply handing out lots of awards for being great won't actually make more great people -- it'll just devalue the privilege.

Since Canada obviously produces far more baubles for greatness than a population of our size and calibre could be reasonably expected to earn, our supposedly "most distinguished" awards have long ceased to be. Thanks to its absurd over-distribution, most of us now rightly regard the Order of Canada as little more than a status signifier for the already well-connected (some recipients like Bob Rae and Lloyd Robertson creepily never take their medals off their lapels), an elite affirmation of politically-correct causes (Dr. Morgentaler in 2008; the guy in charge of Residential Schools reparations this year), a media-friendly nostalgic trip (hey, remember Mario Lemieux?), or a showy way to appease a couple unsung heroes we should all feel guilty for having never heard of (like nutritionist Dr. David Jenkins, awarded this year in recognition of all the good he's done "helping Canadians make informed food choices").

That's not always the case, of course. There have been many heroic and inspiring Order alumni too (with over 6,000 medals doled out since 1967, I should certainly hope so). But bright colors rarely retain their luster when mixed with so much grey.

A single Billy Joel might be a tragedy. A couple hundred is mediocrity.