When the Order of Canada was introduced in 1967, Canada was deep in anxiety over its own identity, revelry around the centennial notwithstanding. Two years earlier, George Grant’s jeremiad Lament for a Nation had presented the thesis that Canada, as a project, had failed. English Canada, Grant argued, had pursued Confederation with the intent of preserving a British, Tory vision of a morally disciplined community. Such a vision, Grant thought, was succumbing to the overweening influence of the United States, with its seductive vision of individualist liberalism, where the individual’s desires are more important than their duties, and its Puritan-inspired claim to be on the side of history and therefore of Providence. The future belonged to the liberal, technological society to the south, and, as Grant put it, “Our culture floundered on the aspirations of the age of progress…The current of modern history was against us.”
Canada was in danger of becoming a cultural clone of America. Few people wanted this, exactly, but nor were they drawn to Grant’s conservative and faintly Luddite ideals, prompting Canadians to ask: Who exactly are we?
This debate intersected with another argument, ongoing since at least 1876, over whether or how Canadians should receive honours. Who a society honours says a great deal about what that society understands of itself. Socrates was not just teasing the Athenians at his trial when he suggested they give him the highest honour of the Prytaneum: he was making a statement about how society should extol the pursuit of truth and virtue. Ideally, an honours system shows what a society strives for, not merely who it admires.
Thus did Lester Pearson, Canada’s presiding Liberal prime minister during the centennial bash, oversee the creation of an Order to be awarded for “dedication to the community and service to the nation”. On the surface, it seemed a remedy for the condition Grant had diagnosed: a faintly feudal and old-fashioned way to recognize people who exemplified the “Canadian value” of self-denial for collective betterment of their community – an award that would help define that identity into existence.
Christopher McCreery, an author, academic and occasional advisor to both Conservative and Liberal governments (and who is himself a well-decorated figure), does not explicitly make this connection in the recent second edition of The Order of Canada: Genesis of an Honours System. But in his fascinating and comprehensive history of the development of the Canadian system of honours, a clear picture emerges: the Order is not intended to merely reflect Canadian identity; it also is used to help generate that identity.
McCreery notes that our first Governor General, Viscount Monck, was not only a firm advocate for Confederation, but also pushed for a national honour to accompany it. Our colonial masters in Britain refused to sanction Monck’s latter suggestion because they felt such an honour would have lent too much legitimacy and autonomy to the nascent nation. Knighthoods, peerages, and baronetcies dispensed by Westminster would have to suffice. Still, right from the beginning there was recognition that a national honour would serve to highlight and enforce Canada’s political and cultural distinctiveness.
While Conservatives like Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Richard Bedford Bennett, whose vision of Canada was closer to Grant’s, were content with British honours for themselves and other Canadian worthies, Liberals regarded such awards as ornaments of aristocracy, and therefore thoroughly un-Canadian. They were unmoved by the fact that Canada’s Indigenous peoples had been granting chieftanships long before the white man arrived and “had as much a penchant for honours and prestige as the Europeans”, McCreery notes. (21st century Liberals might find this precedent more persuasive than did their 19th century forbears.) Sir Wilfrid Laurier (McCreery does pause over the irony) spoke of an “age of democracy” ushered in by the Great War. “Democracy and aristocracy are not compatible institutions,” he declared righteously, “and as democracy advances aristocracy must recede.”
Language like this is exactly what Grant, with his Platonist longing for the eternal outside of history and time, identified in his Lament as a signal of Canada’s cultural collapse. In his view the nation was founded to preserve against “progress”, not capitulate to it. “Liberalism,” as he defined it, is “the faith that can understand progress as an extension into the unlimited possibility of the future…men assume in the age of progress that the broad movement of history is upward. Taken as a whole, what is bound to happen is bound also to be good.” It is the historicization of Alexander Pope’s religious maxim that “whatever is, is right”, and Grant’s identification of it as a religious faith is as apparent in Laurier’s rhetoric as it is in Justin Trudeau’s.
This Liberal position largely won out in 1919 with the Nickle Resolution forbidding Canadians from receiving foreign honours (including Conrad Lord Black of Crossharbour, when he ran afoul of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien nearly a century later). This is richly Canadian: a “modesty” in declining honours which masks a kind of grumpy moral superiority. McCreery recounts how Nickle, ironically a Conservative MP, may have been motivated by resentment that his father-in-law never received the honours he was due, his sympathies with the egalitarian social vision of the Communists, and the fact that his mother was American. (This soft Canuck prejudice against our richer, rowdier southern neighbours has been a bi-partisan phenomenon throughout our history.)
Other important contributors to the great Canadian debate over how to pat ourselves on the back sought to have both our medals and our democratic virtue. Sir Sam Hughes, the Boer War veteran and defence minister during the First World War, proclaimed himself as dedicated a proponent of democracy as anyone, yet saw a role for aristocratic emoluments. How fitting that Canada’s last Liberal-Conservative minister helped define the milieu from which the Order of Canada arose.
Later apologists for such an honour – often Governor Generals who perhaps felt a bit self-conscious about their personal exalted status – seem to have had a similar social vision. One of them was Baron Tweedsmuir (G-G from 1935-40), who was outright prohibited from advocating for a Canadian honour by Mackenzie King. Baron Tweedsmuir was better known as the spy novelist John Buchan, whose protagonists (like Richard Hannay of The Thirty Nine Steps) were often fairly average people cast as saviours of civilization through their own modest but diligent efforts. This is fundamentally a democratic vision, but amenable to fortification by a Tory sense of aristocracy.
Consequently, according to McCreery, Canada wound up with a Pearsonian Liberal vision of a national honour which is democratic both in how it selects, through a grassroots nomination process, and in who it selects, which could be anyone “from the cleaning woman to the great scientist”. That’s how Canadian distaste for the elitism and corruption of the British honours system was reconciled within our Order of Canada, and created a quintessentially Canadian paradox for conferring nobility within a democracy.
To help us understand what this means, McCreery notes how differently the Order is perceived by Canadians than honours are in other nations. Whereas elsewhere “the public rarely expresses concern when crimes are committed by someone who holds a national honour”, Canadians react with anger when a recipient of the Order behaves badly. This, suggests McCreery, “reflects Canada’s more democratic sense of honour. For Canadians, honour is not something one is born with; rather, it reflects an individual’s functioning within the social order.” It is an honour that can, as Assembly of First Nations founding chief and convicted anti-Semitic hatemonger David Ahenakew and others discovered, be forfeited by acting dishonourably. (One-legged cancer fundraiser and serial petty criminal Steven Fonyo was likewise stripped of his Order.) So, in theory, Order recipients are not just people who make Canada better, but people who reliably uphold our imagined ideals of Canadian niceness.
This is perhaps the most Canadian thing about the Order: it is so earnestly aspirational. Its Latin motto is taken from Hebrews 11:16: “they desire a better country”. Once again, we see Canadian self-deprecation. This motto is not a declaration that Canada is great (as some Yank political buffoon might say); it is a recognition of those who are trying to build a great nation. In its original context, that verse refers to the Old Testament patriarchs who travelled to Canaan, but who were ultimately seeking its Platonic archetype, the promised land of Heaven. Canadians do not have knights; we have pilgrims. McCreery’s book is not only a history of an honour system, but also of a country which, in pursuit of an identity, defined itself by the pursuit of virtue.
Was it successful? Has Grant been refuted? Here is where McCreery nudges us in the direction of a negative answer.
There is a fascinating section on the statistics about how often the Order is declined by its nominees. The province from which the most refusals come is, unsurprisingly, Quebec. However, Quebeckers also constitute the highest number of Order recipients who initially declined the Order only to subsequently accept it, perhaps reflecting Quebec’s never-quite-realized yearning for independence. Overall, writes McCreery, “surprisingly few Canadians refuse membership in the Order…and nearly half of those who initially refused later accepted it.” The author credits the Order’s growing prestige, yet this prestige is not without blemish.
In 2008, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the champion of legal, state-funded, abortion-on-demand in Canada (though he was “terminating pregnancies” long before the law permitted him to), was appointed to the Order. Several historic “firsts” ensued, such as the first time a sitting Prime Minister publicly criticized the Order: “My preference,” Stephen Harper remarked in response to a question about Morgentaler’s worthiness, “would be to see the Order of Canada be something that really unifies.” The Morgentaler award also precipitated the first resignations from the Order because of who else had received it. Six Roman Catholic churchmen, including Cardinal Turcotte of Montreal, subsequently returned their insignia.
George Grant saw abortion as the ultimate triumph of technology over human dignity. Grant was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981 and died in 1988, the year of Morgentaler’s Supreme Court victory. If he had lived to see Morgentaler rewarded with the nation’s highest honour 20 years later he likely would have bemoaned it as further confirmation of his thesis that the national project of preserving a society of duty and morality had been a failure. And he probably would have given his OC back.
Perhaps the richest irony is that Canadians had expressed such distaste for an honours system in part because of how politicized the granting of British honours had become, and were sold on the Order of Canada partly because it was billed as “insulated from political influence”. However true that once may have been, the roster of who’s in and who’s not in recent years suggests it’s not anymore.
For example, former Ontario Conservative premier Mike Harris is not in the club, and while former Alberta Conservative premier Ralph Klein was granted middle-rank Officer status, top-rank Companion honours were given to former Liberal ministers Lloyd Axworthy and (also ex-Ontario NDP premier) Bob Rae. Preston Manning was made a Companion, but it reputedly took considerable arm-twisting by the Harper Conservative PMO to make it happen. Legendary western conservative publisher Ted Byfield and professional hockey curmudgeon Don Cherry were also nominated for OCs when the Harper government was in power, but they were rejected by the selection committee chaired by then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin. (Byfield later said he would not have joined a club that included Morgentaler.) Yet a who’s who of CBC and Toronto Star worthies, including Sally Armstrong, Stevie Cameron, Gwynne Dyer, Michael Enright, Peter Gzowski, Michele Landsberg, Haroon Siddiqui, and Mark Starowicz, all got medalled.
With every announcement of a new tranche of OC recipients who disproportionately tilt left, more and more Canadians may conclude that the Order now represents precisely the politicized and disreputable form of official patronage that it was originally intended not to be. Perhaps we should strike a royal commission to review our honours system, and once again take up Grant’s challenge to identify exactly what kind of “better country” it is that we desire.