The Canadian system of honours and awards is a highly emotive subject to serving and former members of Canada’s military services. When individuals in uniform meet and when old soldiers gather, their eyes invariably settle upon the ribbons and awards displayed on the chest of each person they meet.
The wearing of either undress ribbons or the awards presents a constant reminder of the services of that particular individual to Canada. The display also presents an opportunity to the curious to learn more about Canada’s past history. As futurist John Kettle once said, “How do you know where you want to go unless you know where you have been? That is why we must study our history.”
Within the system there are five separate classes:
• the Canadian and Sovereign Orders;
• decorations for military valour, bravery and service;
• Canadian medals;
• medals commemorating events such as coronations and significant milestones;
• long and exemplary service medals.
For simplicity’s sake we call the representative insignia of Orders and Decorations and all other medals collectively as awards. There are also insignia and devices such as oak leafs, rosettes and bars, all of which have special meaning when worn with either the undress ribbon or the ribbon or chain upon which the medal is suspended. In some cases, the award authorizes the recipient the right to use post-nominals after the name as with a professional qualification. Administration of the Canadian Honours System is carried out by the Chancellery of Canadian Orders and Decorations, which has sole responsibility for Official Honours
Canadian official honours emanate from the Sovereign and are the only awards created by Royal Warrant of Letters patent signed by the Sovereign. Through issue of Canadian Government Orders in Council, the Sovereign has also approved United Nations and Truce Commission Medals as well as Provincial Orders within the official honours list. Ironically, British awards are considered as foreign honours like any other honour emanating from a head of state.
When approved by the Canadian Government, these honours are published in the Canada Gazette and may be worn with official Canadian insignia, following all Canadian awards.
• Official awards are either suspended from ribbons worn around the neck or on the left breast, depending upon the type of award.
• Semi-official awards that have the approval of the Sovereign, such as the Royal Canadian Humane Association and the life saving medals of the Order of St. John, can also be worn with official honours.
• All other awards are considered to be unofficial and cannot be worn with official honours.
• Unofficial honours include those approved for wear by organizations that are not incorporated into the Canadian honours system by the Sovereign, such as those awarded by the Royal Canadian Legion for service.
Canada’s honours system originates from the British system that was instituted by sovereigns long past. It is useful to reflect upon the British system since until 1919 Canadians could receive British Knighthoods. In his book Canadian Orders, Decorations and Medals, John Blatherwick provides a succinct summary of the system:
“The British nobility is headed by the Queen (or King) and her children, who are princes and princesses. The five grades of the nobility are: Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount and Baron. A Baronet is one rank below the peerage granted by the Sovereign and confers upon the person the right to be called Sir and to use the post-nominal letters Bt. Unless previously knighted, a Baronet is not necessarily a Knight Bachelor. A Knight Bachelor ranks behind a baronet and confers the right to be called Sir and to use the post-nominal letters Kt. There are also six official British Orders of Chivalry. The two oldest, The Most Noble Order of the Garter and The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, both confer Knighthoods but are often also given to persons already belonging to the British nobility. The remaining four Orders, the Order of the Bath, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of the British Empire, all have more than one class. The top two classes of each of these Orders confer Knighthood on the person.”
Spink & Sons, who produce British awards reports in their Catalogue of British and Associated Orders, Decorations and Medals, state that The Most Noble Order of the Garter founded by King Edward III consists of only 25 Knights and is the personal gift of the Sovereign. Its motto in Latin is Honi soit qui mal y pense or Evil be who evil thinks. Extra Knights are sometimes added, as was the Emperor of Japan. Even rarer is The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, which consists of only 16 distinguished Scotsmen. Its motto is Nemo me impune lacessitor or No-one provokes me with impunity. This rather exclusive group received an extra Knight when King Olaf of Norway was admitted in 1962. As with the Garter, all the insignia are returnable to the Sovereign. There were no Canadians in these British Orders.
The next Order — one which could be awarded to Canadians — was The Most Honourable and Ancient Order of the Bath. The name was derived from the ancient ritual of bathing or cleansing which was symbolic of washing away any impurities before admission to the Order. Its motto is Tria juncta inuno or Three joined in (namely England, Scotland and Ireland). Founded in 1725 with one class and division, it was later enlarged in 1815 by creation of both military and civil divisions. The military division has three classes: Knight Grand Cross, Knight Commander and Companion. In 1847 the civil division was enlarged to include these same three divisions.
Until 1935, Canadians could be awarded any of these classes in both divisions. Unlike the two more senior Orders after 1857, the insignia are only returnable to the Sovereign upon promotion within the Order. According to Blatherwick, 11 Knight Grand Cross (GCB) and 37 Knight Commander (KCB) admissions were granted to Canadians. Among them:
• Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, CB, RCN, after whom the Nelles Block in Esquimalt is named;
• Major-General Georges Pearkes, VC, CB, DSO, MC, Canadian Army, whose name is found on the main National Defence Headquarters building in Ottawa;
• Air-Vice Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, RCAF.
Next in line for Canadians was The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George. Originally founded in 1818 for citizens of the Ionian Islands in the Mediterranean, eligibility was later extended to all citizens who had rendered distinguished services in the colonies and in foreign affairs generally.
It has an appropriate motto: Puspicium melioris aevi or Token of a better age. It also has three classes: Knight Grand Cross (GCMG), Knight Commander (KCMG) and Companion (CMG). Like The Order of the Bath, the insignia are only returnable to the Sovereign upon promotion within the Order except for the silver gilt collar chain, which was made returnable since 1948.
The definition of distinguished services must have been quite narrow, since Blatherwick reports that only 14 GCMGs, 83 KCMGs and 378 CMGs were issued to Canadians up to 1935. An addition 10 awards went to Canadians who had returned to Britain after 1935, who received their awards as British citizens. The recipients include such well known Canadians as General Sir Arthur Currie, GCMG, CB, Bt (KCMG), the Right Honourable Wilfred Laurier, GCMG, and the Right Honourable Robert Laird Borden, GCMG.
While prime ministers and their governments have increasingly exercised more influence over the award of honours, the Royal Victorian Order remains as the sole prerogative of the Sovereign to award. Established by Queen Victoria in 1896, it can still be awarded to Canadians except for the first two classes that confer knighthood. The Royal Victorian Chain, introduced in 1902 is only awarded to foreign royalty and very senior members of the Royal Household. Nevertheless, it has been awarded to two Canadian born Governor Generals: Right Honourable Vincent Massey, PC, CC, CH, GCSU, CD, and Right Honourable Roland Michener, PC, CC, CMM, KStJ, CD.
The Order has five classes and three different classes of medals:
• Knight Grand Cross (GCVO)
• Knight Commander (KCVO)
• Commander (CVO)
• Member (Lieutenant after 1984) 4th Class (MVO or LVO)
• Member 5th Class (MVO)
• Victoria Medal
• Edward VII Medal
• George V Medal (post-nominal of RVM used after 1984)
The Order has no motto. At present, the awards go to an average of six Canadians annually. LGen George MacDonald, CMM, MVO, CD, Maj Pierre Lamontagne, MVO, CD, and LCdr Terrance Christopher, OMM, LVO, CD, are some of the more recent recipients. Blatherwick records that Mr. Joseph-Herve Yves Chevrier, CM, RVM, CD, is one of 22 Canadians awarded the Royal Victorian Medal.
Like the Royal Victorian Order, the Order of Merit is awarded by prerogative of the Sovereign. It was founded in 1902 as a very special distinction awarded to individuals who excelled in the fields of art, music and literature. At times of war, it has been awarded to military leaders.
Membership is limited to 24 with a few additional awards to foreigners who are not citizens of British Commonwealth countries. The insignia is retained and carries no motto. Recipients may use the post-nominal of OM. Among the recipients:
• former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, OM, CMG;
• former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Bowles Pearson, CC, OM, OBE;
• former United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Order of the Companion of Honour was also founded in 1902. Sometimes called the junior OM., this is order was originally limited to 50 companions and expanded to 65 in 1943. It is awarded to men or women who perform special services of national importance, with award recommendations coming from the Prime ministers of British Commonwealth countries.
The Order of the Companion of Honour motto is In Actions Faithful and in Honour Clear and is retained. Recent Canadian recipients:
• former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, PC, CC, CH;
• former Chief of the Defence Staff General John deChastelaine, OC, CMM, CH, CStJ, CD
The junior British Order is The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, founded in 1917. This Order was created due to a large demand for honours and awards caused by World War I, as a reward for non-combatant services to the war effort, especially for women who were excluded from most other honours. It could be awarded for both gallantry and service.
This Order was created with originally one division of five classes and in 1918 was divided into two divisions, men and women separately, with five classes each. These classes are:
• Knight (or Dame Grand Cross (GBE)
• Knight (or Dame) Commander (KBE/DBE)
• Commander (CBE)
• Officer (OBE)
• Member (MBE)
The first two levels confer Knighthood. After 1919 they could not be awarded to Canadians, except when Prime Minister Bennett caused the award of the Order to Canadians during the years 1934-36.
The British Empire Medal superseded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire in both military and civil divisions in 1922. It was awarded for meritorious service to individuals who would not be eligible for selection into the Order itself.
Many Canadians were inducted into the Order or were awarded the Medal. Canadians who are currently serving Britain abroad as attached military officers remain eligible for the Order as a foreign honour. dom whois Among many Canadians to have been awarded the honour are:
• Sir Frederick Banting, KBE, MC;
• Mr. Ron D. Southern, CM, MBE;
• Major General Walter M. Holmes, MBE, CD;
• Brigadier General Harry B. Brodie, MBE, CD;
• Colonel Malcolm I. Walton, OMM, MBE, CD;
• Captain J. A. Joan Cashin, MBE, CD.
This is the first in a continuing series on the Canadian Honours System, past and present.
By Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) John N. Stuart, OMM, CD