Our Own Victoria Cross Unveiled

July 8, 2008 by Tom MacGregor

Governor General Michaëlle Jean invoked the image of crowds lining up on Parliament Hill to pay their respects to Smokey Smith VC as he lay in state in 2005 when she unveiled Canada’s own Victoria Cross on May 16.

“The line stretched all the way to Wellington Street. The decoration captured the imagination of an entire country,” she said. “The British Victoria Cross is the highest degree of recognition one could hope to receive in the course of a lifetime. And there are but a few who have received it just over a century and a half.”

Nearly 100 Canadians have received the Victoria Cross. The last of those were awarded for actions during the Second World War. Like all the others they were presented by Britain.

Canada has had its own Victoria Cross since Queen Elizabeth II gave her assent to three medals of military valour in 1992. But since then the Canadian version of the cross existed only as artwork on paper.

Changing that has been the task of the Victoria Cross Production Planning Group under the direction of the Chancellery with specialists and representatives from the Department of National Defence, Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Department of Natural Resources and the Royal Canadian Mint.

The result was unveiled at the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall, in a ceremony just before the Victoria Day weekend with Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Canada wanted its own Victoria Cross. A cross that would resemble the British cross but that would better reflect who we are. And in 1992 Queen Elizabeth II gave her assent,” said Jean. “We took the time to do things right, with the help of our partners.”

The Victoria Cross was designed in consultation with Prince Albert and officially created by Queen Victoria in 1859. Its first recipients, including Canada’s Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn, were soldiers in the Crimean War. The simple cross with a fierce lion standing over the Royal Crown was cast from medal from cannons reputed to have been seized from the Russians during the war.

Canada’s Victoria Cross is described as “a bronze straight armed cross pattée, 38 millimetres across with raised edges: on the obverse a lion guardant standing upon the Royal Crown, and below the Crown, a scroll bearing the inscription “Pro Valore”; and on the reverse, the date of the act for which the decoration is bestowed is engraved in a raised circle. The cross is suspended by means of a plain link from a V below a straight bar ornamented with laurel leaves, on the back of which is engraved the rank, name and unit of the recipient.” The medal is suspended from a crimson ribbon.

Where the original Victoria Cross had the words “For Valour”, the Canadian cross uses the Latin “Pro Valore”—as Harper said, “Using the ancient language employed by both our founding nations.”

In order to create a unique medal for the Cross, a slice of the original gunmetal was given to Canada by the British government. “A young soldier with the Canadian Forces on assignment in England picked up the gunmetal given to the people of Canada by the United Kingdom, and brought it back to our country—carrying out her errand, I have been told, in absolute secrecy,” said Jean.

Scientists with Natural Resources analyzed some of the VCs held by the Canadian War Museum to derive a precise formula for the metallurgical composition. To make this medal truly Canadian the gunmetal was mixed with the metal of an original Confederation Medal from 1867 and various Canadian metals that represent all the regions in Canada.

Detailed artwork was needed by the mint to turn the two-dimensional artwork into a three-dimensional pattern or die. The image was refined so that Quebec’s fleurs-de-lis were added to the floral elements on the insignia’s scroll alongside the traditional rose, thistle and shamrock found on the Royal Arms of Canada.

Wax reproductions were created of the insignia’s obverse and reverse. A ceramic mixture was then poured around the assemblages and allowed to set. After the ceramic hardened it was heated so the wax could be melted and poured away, thus creating a positive thin hollow mould of the Victoria Cross within the ceramic blocks.

To cast the medal, the ingots of new alloy were melted and poured into ceramic moulds. Once cooled the ceramic was broken away to reveal the unfinished Victoria Cross. The castings were trimmed with precision electrical discharging machines and transferred to the Mint where they were finished by hand. The medal then received an application of dark patina to protect the surface and give it its distinct colouring. The combination of casting and hand-finishing ensures that no two Victoria Crosses are exactly alike.

Twenty Victoria Crosses and extra ingots of the Canadian mixture are stored at Rideau Hall. Other specimens will be added to collections in the Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada and the Canadian War Museum.

The Victoria Cross is the highest of Canada’s medals for military valour. It is awarded “for the most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”

Harper noted that the original VC was a change from the way medals had been awarded in Britain, “Until (the creation of the Victoria Cross) Britain’s highest awards for valour were restricted to officers,” said Harper. “This new medal could be bestowed on men of all ranks because it was finally recognized that heroism knows no bounds. No matter how ornate the medal design it could never match the valour of those it honoured.”

The Canadian Victoria Cross is followed in the Canadian Honours System by the Star of Military Courage and the Medal of Military Valour. In 2007, the star was publicly awarded three times while the medal has been awarded 11 times, all for actions by soldiers serving with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan.

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