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The Canadian Honours System Hardcover – Nov 30 2015

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Strong Is the New Pretty

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 712 pages
  • Publisher: Dundurn; 2 edition (Nov. 28 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1459724151
  • ISBN-13: 978-1459724150
  • Product Dimensions: 18.7 x 3.9 x 26.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 Kg
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #235,035 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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About the Author

Christopher McCreery holds a doctorate in Canadian political history from Queeṉ’s University and is the author of more than ten books. He is private secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, serves on the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of History/Canadian War Museum, and is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. In 2010 he was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order by Her Majesty the Queen. He lives in Halifax.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Orders, Decorations, and Medals Around the World: Ubiquitous National Institutions

Like flags and coats of arms, almost every country possesses an honours system. At the centre of these systems there is usually a national honour. Britain has the Order of the Garter and Order of the Thistle, France the Légion d’honneur, Japan the Order of the Rising Sun, Canada the Order of Canada, and the list goes on. Indeed, there are only a few countries that do not currently possess a national honour or honours system.1 All other states and regimes have found a use for honours, and in many ways they are a necessity of nationhood.

The concept of honour is as old as humanity itself. Yet honours ― that is, the official bestowal of recognition ― are in comparison a relatively recent phenomenon. The concepts of honour and honours are directly linked, though there are important differences. Honour is the notion of adhering to what is right: high respect and good reputation through persistent good deeds. One can lead an honourable life and never receive official recognition in the form of an honour. Honours are official marks of recognition, whether they are conferred by proclamations, titles, grants of arms, or insignia. It is equally possible for a person to have received an honour and yet be dishonourable. These variables are defined by every society in accordance with the values that a particular civilization prizes.

Canada’s honours system is derived primarily from two of its founding peoples, the French and British. However, not even these two countries can claim to have invented honours. Throughout modern history a plethora of systems and awards has been designed and used as essential apparatuses of both states and regimes. At times, systems have been displaced by both evolution and revolution, yet always a revised system, roughly patterned on its predecessor, has emerged. All modern honours systems have certain common elements, and the most central of these is the presentation of an insignia, being a badge or medal. This tradition can be traced back to circa 150 B.C. and the gold button given by Alexander, the ruler of Seleucid Syria, to a Jewish high priest for bravery demonstrated in battle. Honour has also been accorded through the bestowal of land and titles, and in ancient Greece a complex system of crowns was devised to reward public and military service. The practice of embossing medallic insignia on breastplates (phaleristics) was initiated by the ancient Romans and has in some ways carried forward to the present day. In India’s Pudukkottai state there was an ancient tradition of the raja presenting gifts and honours to loyal subjects. This ritual served not only as a mechanism for recognition but was also a source of political power. As well, few are unfamiliar with the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Moving through history, the ideals of chivalry and honours gradually replaced the act of granting land with that of bestowing knighthoods and insignia.

The purpose of honours is to reward service or valorous acts, and to accord recognition to those who, according to the state, are deemed to merit such. At various times honours have also been, and in some countries continue to be, a central tool of political patronage. All types of honours are intended to foster a feeling of loyalty and a personal connection to the state or regime.

Our modern national honours system can be divided into three main categories: orders, decorations, and medals. It is worth noting that there is some overlap between the last two categories, and some honours referred to as medals are actually decorations, and vice versa.


These are societies of honour that are instituted by the state, usually to recognize lifelong exemplary service of the highest calibre. Orders are usually divided into several different levels to allow for recognition of those who have rendered service at both the national/international level and at the local or regional level. In Canada we have several orders that are national in scope: the Order of Merit, the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, the Royal Victorian Order, and the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.

Orders can be “field specific” ― the Order of Military Merit, for example, is restricted to members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have rendered meritorious service over an extended period of time. Similarly, the Royal Victorian Order is primarily bestowed upon those who have served the Queen or Royal Family in a distinguished manner.


This section can be further divided into two subsections: Bravery/Valour/Gallantry and Meritorious Service. The term also applies to the Canadian Forces’ Decoration and is colloquially used to describe all honours.


Awarded for a specific act of bravery, valour, or gallantry, bravery awards are bestowed upon those who perform an exemplary act, such as life-saving, in a time of peace, while valour and gallantry decorations are for valour and devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. Provisions have been made in the Canadian honours system to allow for valour decorations, such as the Victoria Cross (VC), to be awarded for gallant acts performed while in non-warlike situations, provided they involve a hostile armed force.

Meritorious Service

These are awarded for a specific act of meritorious service, not necessarily over an extended period of time. This category is notably employed to recognize short-term merit as part of a specific action or project, whether it is rendered over five minutes or five years.


There are four types of medals: service medals, commemorative medals, long service medals, and other awards. The term is often used in common parlance to describe all honours, be they the insignia of orders, decorations, or medals.

Service Medals

These are awarded for service in a particular mission or operation. While primarily limited to members of the armed forces, in the Canadian context police officers and civilian personnel from various government departments are also often included.

Commemorative Medals

Commemorative medals are awarded on the occasion of a special event such as a coronation, jubilee, or anniversary.

Long Service Medals

These are awarded for long service and honourable conduct over a set period of time. The Canadian Forces’ Decoration (essentially a medal despite its name) is awarded for twelve years of honourable service, while the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Long Service Medal and Exemplary Service Medals are awarded for twenty years of honourable service.

Other Awards

Most specifically these are the Sacrifice Medal, awarded to those who have been physically or psychologically wounded as a result of service in an operational area; the Polar Medal, which is awarded for specific service in Canada’s North; and the Queen’s Medal for Champion Shot, which is awarded for winning an annual marksmanship competition. In the provinces this category includes Volunteer and Citizenship Medals.

These three main types of honours emulate directly the British system of honours, which, although ancient in its origins, only began to develop in this form in the mid-nineteenth century. Since the fourteenth century, England had used its Order of the Garter and other knighthoods to reward loyal nobles. In the nineteenth century the Order of the Bath was expanded, while others such as the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Order of the Star of India, and the Order of the Indian Empire were created. These were not restricted to nobles, and their membership came to include non-titled members of the military and civil service.

The Battle of Waterloo yielded the first standard-issue medal intended for wear. Created in 1816 at the direction of the Duke of Wellington, the circular medal measured 36 mm in diameter with a ring suspender hung from a ribbon and served, in many ways, as the basis for the design of future war medals. There was the additional aspect that the medal was impressed with the recipient’s name and issued to officers and men alike.

In 1830 and 1831 respectively, the British Army and Royal Navy each instituted long service medals. The Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medal was awarded for twenty-one years of service in the ranks. The Royal Navy Long Service and Good Conduct Medal was originally awarded for twenty-one years of service as a rating in the Royal Navy. These were the first long service awards, and both continue to be awarded to members of the British Army and Royal Navy.

At various times members of the Canadian military were awarded a diverse number of long service medals and decorations. These were dependent not only on the length of service rendered but also the branch of service, rank ― non-commissioned officer or commissioned officer ― and whether one was in the regular force or reserve. In all there were more than a dozen different long service awards consolidated into the Canadian Forces’ Decoration in 1951. With the Canadian Forces’ Decoration, the distinction between service in the regular and reserve forces was abandoned, as was having separate awards for officers and non-commissioned officers.

In 1847 the Military General Service Medal was established, and in the following year the Naval General Service Medal was created to recognize service rendered in specific wars and actions between 1793 and 1840. These early awards have served as the basis for modern service medals throughout the Commonwealth: their standard design, bearing the Sovereign on the obverse and an allegory on the reverse, is a tradition that continues, most recently with the institution of the Sacrifice Medal and the Operational Service Medal.

The first standardized bravery decoration was created in 1854 with the institution of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, followed two years later by the Victoria Cross. The VC was quite a novel development in that it was open to all ranks from private to field marshal. During the First World War, a broad range of branch specific awards for the navy, army, and air force were established.

Canada is not alone in taking much of its honours structure from Britain. In an evolutionary sense it was both logical and practical. Countries from Australia to Zimbabwe all find the general basis of their honours system in the British tradition, at least in terms of structure. Australia, Fiji, and certain other Commonwealth countries also derive the structure of their national orders from the Canadian experience.

Although influenced by the British tradition, the Canadian honours system is not simply the imperial honours system covered with maple leaves and fleurs-de-lys. There are significant differences between the Canadian and British honours systems, and between the Canadian honours system and those used in many other countries. The Canadian system is non-partisan ― that is, members of the governing party are neither directly nor indirectly involved in the selection of recipients of honours. In many countries such decisions are made by the head of government (e.g., the prime minister), and thus honours invariably become a political patronage tool. In many countries it is only members of the political and social elite who are found with neck badges and medals, but not so in Canada. Canada is also one of the few countries that does not engage in automatic awards.

The focus of this study is honours that are officially sanctioned and created by the Crown at the federal and provincial levels in Canada. Official honours in Canada emanate from the Queen, who is the country’s head of state (worldwide, most national honours are created by an instrument approved by the head of state). In the case of the provinces, various honours have come into being after the granting of Royal Assent by the lieutenant governor, as personal representative of the Queen, to legislation passed by the assembly or through an order-in-council that the lieutenant governor, on behalf of the Crown, has assented to. These provincial honours are therefore deemed to emanate from the Crown in right of that particular province. Nevertheless, only when these provincial creations are incorporated into the national Order of Precedence for the wearing of orders, decorations, or medals can it be said that they have been officially recognized by the Queen in Right of Canada and can therefore be worn along with other official honours from the Crown.

Similarly, other honours such as U.N. and NATO service medals come from recognized head of state level organizations that the Crown in Right of Canada has agreed to recognize, along with their associated rules and regulations, and incorporate into the national Order of Precedence so they can be worn with official Canadian honours.

These incorporations in the official order of wear, however, do not make these honours, either provincial or organizational, formally part of the Canadian honours system, nor do they imply that they are awarded by or on behalf of the Queen. Only those honours that are created by and awarded on behalf of the Queen in Right of Canada are part of the Canadian honours system, while the Order of Precedence allows for the official wearing of a wider array of honours that are “recognized” by the Crown of Canada.

Unofficial honours (see chapter 39), that is, those honours not recognized by the Government of Canada, including provincial (and even municipal) honours that have not been sanctioned for wear by the Government of Canada, are only peripherally referenced herein.

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