About the Author
Christopher McCreery holds a doctorate in Canadian political history from Queen’s University and is the author of more than a dozen 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 the Queen. He lives in Halifax.
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Debate and Discord: Honours in Canada
Almost every sovereign nation around the globe has an honours system, which is quite simply an official way for the state, on behalf of the people, to recognize outstanding contributions, meritorious service, bravery, military service, and long service. Despite the ubiquity of honours systems, Canada went nearly fifty years without civil honours to recognize the sort of contributions that are today acknowledged through the Order of Canada. The story of how Canada abandoned civil honours is one that plays a significant role in the development of the grassroots-nominated, non-partisan model of honours pioneered with the establishment of the Order of Canada in 1967.
The Order of Canada and broader Canadian honours system finds some of its origins in the honours systems of two of Canada’s founding peoples: the French and the British. Canada’s indigenous peoples did not have a formal honours system; however, they did have a well-defined concept of honour. Service to a community and bravery were recognized in indigenous communities not with gold or silver medals but through respect accorded to individuals, often through the adoption of chieftainship. Amongst the Inuit, a different system existed through a system of rewards, akin to honours. Military achievement was occasionally rewarded by “distinctive facial tattoos.” With the arrival of Europeans, this system was augmented through the awarding of Chief’s Medals, which French and British officials used to recognize the loyalty of a particular indigenous group or the achievement of a treaty. These medals continue to be presented to this day on special occasions.
Honours were seldom conferred in New France, despite the fact that prior to the French Revolution France had an extensive honours system. It was a system graded by the hierarchy of French society. The sovereign would elevate French subjects to the nobility as dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts, and barons. One Canadian, Charles Le Moyne, Seigneur de Longueuil, was made Baron de Longueuil in recognition of his peace negotiations with the Iroquois on behalf of the French Crown. In New France, honours were awarded by the governor on behalf of the King — however honours could not be conferred without the approval of the King. The principal honour bestowed upon those living in New France was the Ordre royal et militaire de Saint-Louis, which was established by Louis XIV in 1693. The Order consisted of three grades: Grand Cross (limited to eight members), Commander (with a limit of twenty-four members), and Knight (with no limit on the overall membership). It was an honour conferred for distinguished military service, and one limited to Roman Catholic men alone. Notable French governors such as Louis-Hector de Callière; Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac; and Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, were amongst the Order’s Canadian members.
Perhaps the most well-known subject in New France to receive the Order of St. Louis was François Coulon de Villiers. Coulon de Villiers went on to serve in the French colonial army with great distinction. In the battle for Fort Necessity, on July 4, 1757, Coulon de Villiers became the only man to ever defeat George Washington in battle. Following the fall of New France in 1759, the British honours system supplanted its French predecessor as the principal means by which Canadian residents were recognized for distinguished military and, later, public service.
Until 1967, Canada used the British honours system, what are more accurately referred to as “imperial honours,” for all military and civil honours. As in Royal France, these honours included being made a duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron. These are the various degrees of the peerage — hereditary titles which entitle the holder to sit in the British House of Lords. The hereditable quality of these titles would later cause problems in Canada. Baronetcies are not part of the peerage but are hereditary titles, the holders of which do not sit in the House of Lords but use the title “Sir.” Then there were the orders of chivalry, such as the Order of the Bath (Knight Grand Cross, Knight Commander, and Companion), the Order of St. Michael and St. George (Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, and Companion), and eventually the most accessible honour, the Order of the British Empire (OBE), which had five levels (Knight/Dame/ Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, Commander, Officer, and Member). The higher levels of those orders (Knight/Dame Grand Cross and Knight/Dame Commander) carry knighthood, which means the person is dubbed a knight and assumes the non-hereditary title of “Sir” or “Dame.” In addition to these honours for meritorious military and civil contributions, there was a host of gallantry awards and bravery decorations, such as the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Military Medal, and George Medal to name a few. There were also a variety of medals for war service were awarded to Canadians for service in the South African War, 1899–1902, First World War, and Second World War.
Canadians came to administer these honours and the Canadian government had control over who received them, although most of the same orders, decorations, and medals were used throughout the British Empire/Commonwealth. Given the large number of Canadians who received imperial honours during the last century — well over two million when one considers the various service medals awarded for the First and Second World Wars alone — it would be revisionist to pretend that these honours were “foreign.” In Canada, honours administration was left to the prime minister, who was allotted a certain number of knighthoods for which he could recommend Canadians to be appointed to. While the sovereign was — and remains — the fount of all honours, the prime minister once had an immense degree of personal control over who received honours, whereas today he or she has no formal influence over who is recognized with Canadian honours. Aside from a few very high-profile cases, the Canadian government once had a great degree of control over the flow of British honours. Nevertheless, the perception remained that imperial honours were tightly controlled by the British government.
The Crown has always been the “font of all honours” in Canada, and this requires that all officially recognized honours be created by the sovereign and either awarded in the name of the Queen or sanctioned by the Crown. Following Confederation, a convention emerged whereby the prime minister of Canada submitted his honours lists to the governor general, who vetted them and submitted them to the colonial secretary and then on to the sovereign. The governor general, who was at that time a British official, also nominated Canadians for honours, usually without the knowledge of the Canadian prime minister. Awards for members of the military were submitted by the Department of Militia and Defence to the governor general for transmission to London.