Face To Face On The Wearing of a Deceased Veteran’s Medals

May 1, 2014 by Legion Magazine

Should family members of deceased veterans be allowed to wear the military medals of their deceased relative? 


Author Glenn Wright of Ottawa says NO. Author John Boileau of Halifax says YES.

Wright is retired from the federal government where he worked as an archivist and historian with Library and Archives Canada, and the RCMP. He has also authored books on Canada’s wartime service. Boileau, a retired army colonel, has authored several books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles on Canadian military history. He is also a frequent radio and TV commentator on military issues.

During a pilgrimage to Vimy in 1936, Charlotte Wood wears the medals of her sons who served. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA148875]

During a pilgrimage to Vimy in 1936, Charlotte Wood wears the medals of her sons who served.




Service medals as well as honours and awards are sometimes worn by family members on Remembrance Day to respect and commemorate recipients of the medal and their contributions to military service. Yet, Canadian law and custom are unequivocal—military medals are to be worn only by those who were awarded them.

By all means, let’s remember what the medal represents, but let’s be wary of a practice that could very quickly lead to misuse and misrepresentation.

Medals are not costume jewellery. They connect recipients to a time in their lives when serving our nation took precedence over all else. From the militiamen in the War of 1812 to the young men and women who served in Afghanistan, it was a personal decision to defend our country, our values, our way of life. Permitting family to wear these medals diminishes the award itself. After all, what right do we have to appropriate the experience, sacrifice and valour of the original recipient and for what purpose? Would any protocol to allow the wearing of medals on the right breast as opposed to on the left breast be obvious to all observers? That would open the door to confusion and be a serious disservice to all veterans and disrespectful of those who first earned the medals.

If the existing law were amended, what would the protocol be and how would it be enforced? What if wearing medals was abused and they were worn on days other than Remembrance Day? Would that lead to other demands, would family members want to wear other honours and awards, such as the Order of Canada? The true value and meaning of the medal would be trivialized.

Does wearing the medal of a serviceman or servicewoman who may have served in the Second World War truly evoke the memory of that veteran two or even three generations removed? Should a 14-year-old wear great-grandfather’s Distinguished Flying Cross? Medals should be cherished and treasured by families because they are a tangible link to the recipient and may be the only reminder one has of a loved one. Why risk loss, damage or theft by wearing them in public?

There are other ways to cherish the memory of veterans. With the centenary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War upon us, we can commemorate our veteran ancestors by studying what they did. For the First World War, entire service files will be online and accessible to all at Library and Archives Canada in early 2015. The service records of those who died in the Second World War are available now without restriction.

There are other practical alternatives to wearing an ancestor’s medals. We already remember fallen heroes in various ways, the most popular being the memorial ribbon currently used by the Canadian Armed Forces, police services and so on. In place of wearing original and often valuable, irreplaceable medals, why not design a distinctive memorial ribbon family members and even friends can wear on Remembrance Day to remember veterans, even long-ago ancestors, who served our country? This would be simple and practical.

Finally, for those of us who have a family or ancestral connection to wartime or peacetime service, our very presence at Nov. 11 ceremonies is recognition of our own emotional attachment not only to a relative or relatives who served, but to all veterans who fought and died for our country. Perhaps at some future Remembrance Day, when many of us may have a memorial ribbon to wear, we can honour the fallen without appropriating what they so bravely earned.




Charlotte Wood of Winnipeg, Canada’s first Silver Cross Mother, attended the unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in 1936. She had 12 sons, several of whom served in the Canadian or British forces. Not all of them survived the war.

At ceremonies, Charlotte Wood wore the medals of all her sons that served.

If she had worn their medals in Canada, she would have broken the law.

Since 1920, Article 419 of the Criminal Code of Canada has stated in part: “Everyone who without lawful authority…wears a…military medal…or any decoration or order that is awarded for war services…is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.”

Perhaps because the incident occurred outside Canada, no one charged Charlotte Wood.

In fact, very few people who wear the medals of others ever are. It is normally up to police to investigate and lay charges, Crown prosecutors to approve sending those charges to court and judges to hear and rule on them. But apparently it is generally deemed not in the public interest to proceed with such charges, perhaps being considered an inappropriate use of an already overworked judicial system.

This law was ostensibly introduced to deter others from impersonating veterans returning from the First World War who were entitled to certain benefits. If it ever was a compelling reason then (how about simply showing a discharge certificate?), it is certainly groundless in this day of digitized records.

The wearing of deceased veterans’ medals by relatives has become a hot-button topic lately. Both sides of the argument have weighed in with their opinions. Most who object believe relatives have not earned the right to wear medals or see it as an attempt by the wearers to boost their egos, which could cheapen the medals. But veterans’ relatives do not claim to have been awarded these medals. They want to wear them for other reasons.

As the Criminal Code only prohibits the wearing of military medals, decorations or orders awarded for war service, it would appear that there are several medals that can be worn legally by others, such as various commemorative medals. It would also seem that military medals not awarded for war service can also be legally worn by others, including the Special Service Medal and Canadian Forces Decoration.

The federal order-in-council, Canadian Orders, Decorations and Medals Directive, 1998, states that “the insignia of orders, decorations and medals shall not be worn by anyone other than the recipient…” It is doubtful however, if charges would ever be laid under this order.

In fact, it would be hard to imagine Canadians tolerating the prosecution of anyone for wearing the medals of loved ones on special occasions, for example a mother whose son was killed in Afghanistan or the widow of a Second World War veteran.

Although it is illegal to wear veterans’ medals in Britain and some other Commonwealth countries, these same countries do not have a problem if the veteran is deceased. As the Royal British Legion website notes, “The medals awarded to a deceased service/ex-service person may be worn on the right breast by a near relative”—parent, spouse, sibling or child—as opposed to on the left side of the chest, where most medals recognized in the Canadian Honours System are traditionally worn.

What a sensible solution—one that Canada should adopt.

With a few simple guidelines, this could become a reality. For example, medals could only be worn on the right side (as Legion medals are now), the veteran would have to be deceased, only one set of medals could be worn at a time and only close relatives (parents, spouses, siblings and direct descendants in perpetuity) could wear them on limited appropriate occasions, such as Remembrance Day.

What better way to show gratitude for our departed veterans’ service, honour their memory, reflect pride in their achievements and maintain their legacy?

  • Jordan Morais

    Absolutely not. I may have only ever served as a cadet, however, my grandfather’s medals always were and always will be HIS medals.

    I’m Canadian, but I think the Purple Heart is possibly the best example of why only the recipient should wear any honours. Only the recipient was wounded or killed in action in service for their country. A soldier returning as a quadriplegic is definitely hard on their family, but I highly doubt it is harder for them than the soldier.

    If one wishes to display a lost loved one’s medals on special occasions, I believe they should put in the effort to buy or build a portable display case. Carrying around a box for a day is a trifle compared to what someone else did to earn those medals.

  • I am the daughter of a deceased World War 2 veteran and my father never, ever wanted his medals framed or sitting behind glass on a wall. I display them every year on my right chest , with a photo and name of my dad at Remembrance Day Ceremonies. There is no shame or confusion as to who earned the medals and who is being honoured. Each veteran who earned a medal should have the freedom to choose how they want to be remembered regarding their medals. These medals are being sold daily in pawn shops, flee markets, internet sites , Ebay and no one cares. All these soldiers have already been forgotten. My father can rest knowing that his medals will always be treasured and displayed on the right chest like other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. His legacy and medals will live on and not end up in someones basement collection.
    I do have huge support from veterans and some legions as well. All veterans whether you agree or not should have the freedom to choose. Isn’t that what my dad and others like him fought for. They didn’t fight for a medal. I am working on helping families of deceased veterans be able to meet the last wishes of the veterans who do want to see this tradition in place during Remembrance Day. Blessings to all of the veterans. We will remember them.

  • Mikeonthebike

    Dr Michael Pilon, Major retired:

    As a 23 year veteran of the Forces and a relative of who served in
    WWII, I have strong opinions on why we should honour those who

    Served. I was the person who took photos of some inebriated teens
    urinating on the War Memorial in Ottawa some 8 years ago. The disgrace was not
    that they did this. They had no idea what the “statue” was. The disgrace was
    the fact that our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was left unprotected. It was a
    year long, solo mission ; but, I did manage to get Sentries placed at the Tomb
    in the summer . It is unfortunate that I had to paint the Government into a
    corner; but, sometimes that is what works best with officialdom.

    When my father, Ft/Lt Francis
    Victor Pilon AFC, passed away I begin to wear his medals on my right chest as a
    tribute to him and his fellow veterans. I was somewhat taken aback when on Nov
    11 a person told me it was illegal. He was less than discrete and when I
    basically said “You can try to remove them if you like” he backed off and
    people near me gave me a smile of approval. But subsequently I discovered that
    such an act of respect and love is considered a crime in Canada.

    I shared this information with
    several Australian police officers, with whom I served in Cyprus. One told me
    that a retired Chief of the Defence Staff in Australia not only pushed to have
    this practice allowed but he encouraged people to do so and march past in their
    remembrance celebrations. The reason he gave was that it would encourage
    people to participate and remember, New Zealand and the UK also encourage
    relatives to wear deceased elatives medals.

    But in Canada there is an almost
    heels dug in stance against this. But, we can sell medals on E-Bay or at
    antique shows. I find this not only irresponsible but frankly offensive.
    I hope that efforts will be made to look on such a display as an example of
    love and perpetuation of remembrance for those who served.

    I would want my children or wife to
    carry on a remembrance of my service should I pre-decease them. To punish such
    actions as breaking the law is contrary to what our service should stand for.
    Please consider what the majority of us feel. It is not just about the medals ;
    but, about remembrance and respect. Please do the right thing.

  • Mikeonthebike

    A portable case is a joke in my mind. Why not set up a table and sell them..oh wait that is what a lot of people do.Sad

  • bev petrie

    I am a daughter of a WW II veteran who was only 17 when he left his family farm to fight for Canada. He was injured in battle losing an eye and damaging his right leg. He was very proud of his medals when he received them in the mail in 1966. I couldn’t believe it took our country’s government 21 years to show their appreciation for his service. I feel it would be a disservice to wear my father’s medal that he earned fighting for our freedoms at the age of seventeen. I would be dishonoring him by wearing his medals. I am framing them with a service picture of him and a record of his service and the battles he fought it so I can pass itdown to our next generations. He was brave and deserves tthe respect for earning these medals. Signed by Bev Petrie

  • Reid Rorem

    As a Retired Sailor and a current Firefighter I say NO. There is something not right
    about it. As an example, I never did like the idea of organizational medals on
    the right side. With no disrespect to those that give a lot to organizations at
    times you see members of these organizations on Remembrance Day parading with a right chest full of medals next to the guy (or gal) who has honourably served
    our country with no medals to show based on their time in or the luck of the
    draw. What do the unknowing think? Wow, has this guy really put it on the line
    they might think. Will the wearing of other’s medals create that same illusion
    to the unknowing? I wonder.

  • Marilyn
    I just want all the veterans and citizens to know that I have already been displaying my fathers medals on my right chest each and every Remembrance Day for the last six years, in a special medal holder that my brother made for me. There is a photo of my dad and his name included with the medals. Everyone comes up to me and looks into the eyes of my father and I let them know what each medal stands for and why my father earned it. They say to me they like this tradition and would much rather see this medals on my right chest then in the pawn shops, flea markets and Ebay. I am teaching everyone beside me and who comes up to me a little piece of history of what happened to my dad on D-Day, Juno Beach. This is what Remembrance Day is all about. Medals are going to be lost as well as the soldiers legacy if something is not done to allow the families of deceased veterans to have a good tradition to pass down from generation to generarations. the veteran can even put in his will that the medals must nver be sold and be passed down to display at Remembrance Day Ceremonies
    I have also seen people go up and shake legion members hands who are wearing a bunch of medals on their right chest. They think these legion members went to war and mistake those legion medals for war medals. Thats where the confusion comes in. My tradition does not confuse anyone and everyone knows who earned the medals on my right chest and they respect the way I honour my father of World War 2.
    The bottom line is , who has the right to tell a veteran that his last wishes cannot be honored after he/she dies? If he or she wants their daughter or son to display the medals on the right chest for a measly two hours, once a year on Rembrance Day, then that wish should be respected.
    Charlotte Woods (the first silver cross mother) in the photo above is a perfect example of who she is remembering. I am fighting for what I now call the Charlotte Wood amendment regarding the displaying of the medals on the right chest for Remembrance Day.
    Last but not least, my father and others like him fought for our freedom during World War 2, on D-Day. He did not fight to earn a medal. He fought for the freedom to choose. Those who want their medals to stay on a shelf or behind glass currently have that choice. Those who want their children to carry the torch on their right chest during Remembrance Day should also have their choice.
    We will remember them.

  • Marilyn
    I would like to reply to Reid Rorem. My father Reid was also a Toronto Firefighter for 30 years and was blown off a ladder and met many tough times during this very touch job saving lives and putting out fires. Besides his injuries from World War 2, he also had injuries from being firefighter and had to retire at 55 after 30 years on the job. My father never wanted his medals framed or sitting on a shelf and I have made him proud over the last six years by displaying them on my right chest in a medal holder that my brother made for me during each Rememnbrance Day Ceremony. Our dads name and photo are clearly included with the medals on my right chest. There is no confusion as to earned the medals and who is being honored. I know what each medal stands for and I tell people who come up to me during Remembrance Day some hisitory of D-Day when my dad landed on Juno Beach in Normandy. Thats what Remembrance Day is all about isn’t it?

  • Brian Karp

    My father fought and was wounded three times as a member of thr Royal Winnipeg Rifles .He was at Juno Beach and saw his friends and comrads go down beside him. He related many stories fo the great conflict with tears in his eyes and suffered greatly for many years after the war ended . He put his life on the line for us that were left behind and it would be a dishonour for myself or anyone else to wear the medals he earned so valiantly and was so proud of

  • Grace Skomorowski

    My father Thomas Herbert Burrell was killed in action in Italy. He is buried in Moro River Cemetery. I do not believe that I or any of my family should wear the medals that he earned. However, I would like to be able to wear his Memorial Cross on my Legion jacket. At the moment I wear it on a purple ribbon around my neck under my clothing so it is not technically not breaking the law. I would like it out where people could identify me as a child of the war dead

  • Legion Magazine

    The Memorial Cross (often called the Silver Cross) is awarded to the immediate family of a veteran who died as a result of military service. It can be worn in public by those who received it. You would not be breaking the law as it was not awarded to the veteran but to his family.

  • RoyalWe

    Funny how in countries like the UK, Australia and NZ where they allow the wearing of medals by descendants there seems to be a stronger sense of honour and awareness of the sacrifice of our deceased soldiers made on our behalf. We can continue to postulate about the rightness of who can wear what or we can put our veterans and the memories of their efforts at the forefront.

  • Barry

    I noticed that some of you think it would be a dishonour to your grandfather, or father or whoever if you were to wear their medals on the right chest for Remembrance Day Ceremonies. However, that is how you feel about your veteran. What about the family who has been instructed to wear the medals on the right chest when their soldier dies, as the soldier has requested in his/her will or otherwise.
    Would it not be a dishonour to this soldier to ignore their request and refuse to wear the medals on the right chest in their memory and according to their last wishes during Remembrance Day Ceremonies?
    You are all missing the point. Keep your medals up on the wall or behind glass is that’s what your soldier wanted you to do. However, remember that those soldiers who wanted their medals to be displayed on the right chest of their son, daughter, grandchildren, during Remembrance Day Ceremonies, deserve to have their last wishes granted. They earned the medal, therefore they earned the right to be remembered in the manner they choose. Do not dishonour any veteran by informing them that the children cannot wear the medals as per the soldiers last wishes. This is truly dishonouring the medals as well as the soldier who earned them.
    Are you going to tell a silver cross mother who is wearing her sons medals on the right chest that she is dishonouring her son who just got killed in Afghanistan? I saw a silver cross mother wearing her sons medals on the right chest this past Remembrance Day. That’s all she had left of her son and she stood proudly remembering him.
    I also saw a seven year old boy wearing his fathers medal on his right chest. His father was killed in Afghanistan as well. Are you going to tell this little boy to take off his dads medal because he is breaking the law? Have some common sense and give these families a break. Stop being so harsh regarding the medals that each soldier earned and again allow them their last wishes.
    May God Bless all of our veterans and respect each individual request for each individual family.

  • Barry

    Did anyone see the CBC D-Day broacast on June 6, 2014 of the two TWIN BOYS FROM VANCOUVER , CANADA? They travelled to Juno Beach in Normandy to spread their great grandfathers ashes. They waded into the shores of Juno Beach and pulled out a wooden box with a photo of their grandpa on the top of the box. Inside were the ashes and they spread them into Juno Beach. Their great grandfather was a World War 2 veteran. The touching part of this story as well, is that both TWIN BOYS, had their grandpas medals on their right chest to honour thier grandfather. One had the real medals on his right chest and the other had a replica of the real medals on his right chest. NOT ONE PERSON OBJECTED OR HAD A PROBLEM WITH THESE BOYS WEARING THE MEDALS ON THEIR RIGHT CHEST. CAN’T WE JUST STOP DEBATING ABOUT MEDALS THAT DON’T EVEN BELONG TO US. LET THE VETERANS and their families MAKE THEIR OWN CHOICES AS TO WHAT THE VETERANS WANT THE FAMILIES TO DO WITH THEIR MEDALS AFTER THEY PASS ON.

  • Mike Bell

    Only in Canada for some reason, absurdly, would we not be allowed to wear a deceased relatives medals, ludicrous – I lost three uncles in WW2 – and a great uncle served in WW1 – be damned if I will let anyone forget they served and died for Canada…charge me, prosecute me, send me to jail, let the public know…including the rank and number of the officers that would do it!

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  • Mike Bell

    I like the idea of designing a special ribbon or medal to remember our fallen vets and relatives who served…letters should be written to the GG, he gets things done

  • Rudi Saueracker

    The Special Service Medal is a war-class medal and, in fact, is superior and worn prior to the Peacekeeping Service Medal. The Canadian Forces’ Decoration is a good-conduct medal and, as such, is earned as well.

    No one may wear someone else’s medals, period. What Charlotte did in 1936 doesn’t apply today, just as certain other laws that were in force then do not apply today.
    Would someone object to a 10-year-old child whose father or mother died because of their service wearing those medals on Remembrance Day? It is illegal, but I doubt anyone is going to raise a stink about that. There are far more important issues for veterans and serving to deal with.

    Should the Government of Canada bring in a bill allowing us to adopt a similar position as the United Kingdom for Remembrance Day services that allow direct kin—as in parents, spouse or child—to wear the medals of their deceased family member on the right side? I could live with that easily. But only on that day, period!

  • John A

    My Grandfather fought in BOTH WW 1 and WW 2, ( which is almost impossible to do ), but he did, as a Proud member of the British Army in WW 1 and the RCAF in WW 2. He passed his medals on to me, and asked me to keep them, and be proud. I strongly believe he wanted me to wear them in his memory on Nov. 11th, as he always did. I respect all members of our Armed forces, and wish to say Thank-You to each and every member.

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  • Tanweer Abbas

    My father joined Royal Air Force during in WWII at the tender age of 17 serving in Burma during the entire time and living in sweltering heat and humidity under constant threat of Japanese attack, wild animals and tropical diseases. He did return home to his loved ones unlike many other thousands of them that perished in the war leaving their parents, siblings and children to grieve them for ever. It is a matter of pride and honor for their families for the sacrifices and contribution to the peace that we enjoy today, Should not that be acknowledged on November 11 every year by wearing the veteran medals on the right side of the chest by the sons/daughters and direct grand children as well as their spouses. Wearing it on the right side on Veteran Day only signifies being a relative of the deceased veteran and does not imply being the actual owner of the medals. Not allowing this simple gesture meant to honor and thank them will be an utter and downright show of apathy to those veterans.
    P.S. I have decided to wear my father’s medal on next Veteran Day no matter what, and they can arrest me for displaying respect to my dead father and many thousand more like him.

  • I agree with you, direct kin, deceased veteran, right side of the breast but would allow a week, Remembrance week.

  • Yes. My Grandfather served in three wars, The Imperial Army in the Boer War and the Great War and the Canadian Army in the Second War. There can’t be a handful of men in the Commonwealth with this distinction and even fewer Canadians.
    I would love the legal authority to wear his Campaign Medals on my right breast to open discussions with anyone who would ask where I can tell them about this great man.
    As a further aside I am quite sure at my age mo one with any interest would think I earned medals in the Boer War or Great War.

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