NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

The Honours We Bestow


Canada’s honours system includes (from left) the Companion of the Order of Canada; Officer of the Order of Canada; Member of the Order of Canada.

It gives Canadians, without their asking, a deserved moment in the spotlight. It represents an honour to the individual and to the country. It answers a need for a uniquely Canadian way of recognizing excellence and enhancing our national identity. It’s our honours system.

At the centre of this system is a retired army general whose official title is Deputy Secretary to the Governor General, and who heads the Chancellery of Canadian Awards and Decorations in Ottawa. Lieutenant-General Jim Gervais was commander of Canada’s army before retirement, after a long career that began with the Royal Canadian Dragoons. He says that, like most military officers he had an interest in honours during his service, and so finds his present post a natural.

“After the flag debate of the 1960s, the timing seemed right to create a Canadian honours system, and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was in favour of it.” So in 1967, as part of the centennial celebrations, the first truly Canadian major honour, the Order of Canada, was inaugurated. In 1972, an office to administer a comprehensive Canadian honours system was set up. As a companion service, the Canadian Heraldic Authority was founded in 1988. “The whole thing came about in a typically Canadian, cautious and evolutionary manner,” adds Gervais.

Earlier, all British subjects, including Canadians, were eligible for Britain’s honours. As a result, the evolution of separate Canadian honours was slow. Up to 1919, more than 300 Canadians had received major British awards, ranging from titles of nobility to military decorations. In that year, the Nickle Resolution was accepted by Canada’s parliament, by and large ending the practice of awarding British titles to Canadians. Echoes of this sounded recently during the dustup over whether Canadian newspaper tycoon Conrad Black could become a British lord.

During World War II and the Korean War, Canadians were still eligible for British and Allied decorations. In 1956, the government put an embargo on honours from abroad except for those for military gallantry or peacekeeping service. At the same time, the thinking began about patriating honours for Canadians, which led to our present situation.

Now, with numerous official Canadian awards going to several hundred persons each year, the system may seem a bewildering array to the uninitiated, but not so, says Gervais. “Actually, there has been no great growth in the principal honours, other than that due to growth of the Canadian population. There has been tremendous growth in those arising from military service, which reflects our involvement outside Canada with the United Nations and otherwise. And there will be more of this to come.”

Military honours have always been a Canadian tradition. Lt.-Gen. Christian Couture is the senior official responsible for military human resources at National Defence headquarters. “The most important aspect of honours is recognition, and they are a very visible sign of that recognition from the military and the public alike for service or special deeds. There’s no doubt the scope and number of military honours will grow, depending on how the world evolves. Look at the current international situation.”

The Canadian honours system consists of four elements, namely orders, decorations, medals and heraldry. Orders recognize significant achievements and conspicuous service in important fields of human endeavour, and are generally restricted in numbers awarded. Decorations are awarded for varying degrees of bravery, professionalism and devotion to duty. Medals commemorate general service or special occasions. Heraldry concerns marks of honour or identity such as coat of arms and flags.

The “place of honour” is held by two decorations. First is our own Victoria Cross, offspring of the British award dating from 1856. “Many Canadians earned the British-awarded Victoria Cross,” explains Gervais, “and it is widely recognized as the highest of honours, so it was felt to be wise to retain it when we moved to Canadian military valour decorations.” The Canadian VC dates from 1993, and is reserved for individual Canadians or allies serving with our forces, and who have made an extraordinary achievement. There has been no opportunity to award our VC, so no one to date has received the Cross, which carries the motto pro valore–for valour. Right behind the VC is the Canadian bravery decoration, the Cross of Valour. It is open to civilians and military personnel for “acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.” Only 19 have been awarded since its creation in 1972.

The high position accorded to these honours is “a reflection of the values of our citizens, in which conspicuous gallantry and sacrifice in the interest of our country are of paramount importance,” says Gervais.

The Order of Canada is perhaps the most widely recognized of Canada’s honours. It is awarded to living Canadians–excepting active politicians and judges, who are not eligible–and is regarded as this country’s highest honour for lifetime achievement in any field. There are three levels of membership, in order of precedence, Companion, Officer and Member, and a recipient can be promoted within this hierarchy for continuing exceptional service. Since its creation in 1967, more than 4,000 citizens have become members of the Order.

The Order carries a Latin motto meaning, “they desire a better country.” Recipients can use the letters C.C., O.C. or C.M. after their names. The badge of the Order can be passed on to family members in a will, or given to a reputable museum, and membership can also be rescinded. Both individuals and groups are eligible to receive the Order, and an honorary appointment can be made of citizens of another country.

Representative recipients over the years include author Pierre Berton, architect Arthur Erickson, humanitarian Jean Vanier, singer Anne Murray and past Governors General.

Meritorious Service Decorations also recognize excellence, but can be for a single achievement or accomplishments over a period of time, rather than a lifetime. They are separated into military and civilian categories, and are open to Canadians and non-Canadians, alive or posthumously. Both categories have two levels of award, a Cross and a Medal. The military awards are to persons of outstanding professionalism or who have brought honour to the Canadian Forces. The civilian awards can go to individuals from any field of endeavour. In Gervais’ view, these decorations are relatively unknown and hold great promise for wider award. He says, “when we honour someone in a country our size, we generally find there are a number of others equally deserving.”

Four hundred of these decorations have been given, and those awarded last fall show the diversity of recipients. Among them were a philanthropist, the air crew that flew to the South Pole to rescue a cancer victim, a doctor who came to the aid of those injured in a terrorist attack on the United States embassy in Kenya, two train crew who saved the lives of hundreds of passengers by avoiding a collision and whose action resulted in their own deaths, and a French citizen who raised money and saw to the construction of a cemetery for seven killed in a WW II plane crash, including a Canadian airman.

“From the military perspective, the Meritorious Service awards enable recognition of honour brought to the forces,” says Couture. “They honour an event or series of events in the same framework, and for instance, went to those who, in Kosovo, were in a position of trust and responsibility and did extremely well in preventing deaths at risk to themselves.”

Decorations for bravery include the Cross of Valour referred to above, the Star of Courage and the Medal of Bravery and the Star and the Medal of Military Valour. All are awarded, alive or posthumously, to those who have risked their lives to save or protect others. The ranking reflects the different degrees of risk involved in the act of bravery, and the distinction between the Meritorious Service Decorations and these is that the latter relate more to voluntary action by people who are not undertaking a professional duty. To ensure accurate information, the police investigate all civilian cases, while the forces provide background for the military nominees. More than 2,000 have received one of the decorations since 1972, the oldest person to receive one being an 82-year-old man who saved a child from being hit by a car, the youngest recipient a five-year-old who saved his sister from a bear attack.

The Order of Military Merit has three levels and was established in 1972, “to recognize a career of exceptional service or distinctive merit displayed by the men and women of both the regular and reserve forces.” The levels, once again, reflect varying degrees–this time of responsibility–and promotion can take place within the Order. A limited number of appointments can be made each year–last year, there were about 90. The insignia can be retained by the family after a member’s death.

A parallel Order of Merit of the Police Forces has been established recently. The first of these awards will be made next year.

Two awards presented by the Governor General come from origins outside the mainstream, those of the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The former was founded in 1896, is the personal prerogative of the Queen, and is made up of five levels for services to the monarch or the royal family. Only 100 or so have been given to Canadians since 1901. The latter is included because the Governor General serves as Prior of the Order, and includes seven levels of service for work in the fields of health and first aid.

There are other honours at the disposal of the Governor General, although they do not take a place in the official order of precedence. The Caring Canadian Award was created in 1996 by then incumbent Roméo LeBlanc to honour Canadians otherwise not publicly recognized for voluntary contributions at the community level in aid of individuals or groups or humanitarian causes. The Governor General’s Academic Medal was created in 1873 by Lord Dufferin to encourage academic excellence, and more than 50,000 have been bestowed on high school and university students. And the arts provide winners of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, recognizing lifetime achievement.

There are still other public honours. Some are referred to as semi-official, including life-saving medals of the Royal Humane Society and the Royal Canadian Humane Association. Unofficial honours include those given by the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, and those presented to firefighters and for bank law enforcement, and are not supposed to be worn with official honours.

Canada’s official honours are awarded in the name of the Sovereign by the Governor General. The Chancellery researches nominations for awards, maintains the official records of honours, and supports a number of committees or individuals that review and recommend nominations. Incidentally, the Canadian public has a voice as well, in that anyone can make a nomination for several of the awards. For instance, in the case of the Order of Canada, recommendations from all sources go to an advisory council of distinguished Canadians, chaired by the Chief Justice of Canada, who recommend a number to the Governor General. Candidates for military honours are recommended by commanding officers and channelled through an advisory committee and the Chief of Defence Staff.

This works well, says Couture. “We think the system is quite good, although we would like to see it accelerated a bit to ensure these rewards are not made as long after the fact. I use the word rewards because I know from personal experience that receiving honours encourages people to carry on and on a wider basis, helps morale.”

As Gervais points out, “unlike many countries, including Britain, Canada does not rely on political influences in the way it honours its citizens. Ours is a bottom-up system. We depend on public participation to generate nominations for awards, so we encourage members of the public to assume ownership in honouring Canadians by looking at their fellow citizens and sending in their names for consideration. We’re particularly interested in nominations from some of the remote areas of Canada. It’s a constant challenge to have the honours reflect the population of the country.”

How do our practices compare with those of other nations? Gervais says, “most are similar, but have their own twists. The U.S., for instance, has a fundamental difference in that branches of the service retain control over their honours, while the president retains the right to award some high honours, like the Congressional Medal of Honor. “We also maintain close communication with other countries, like Australia, who have borrowed ideas from us, and we in turn from them. Or New Zealand, which has recently ended the giving of titular honours and gone to a three-level order somewhat like ours….”

There is another international aspect to the giving of honours–that of Canadians receiving them from other countries. Last year, for example, 125 Canadians received foreign honours. Gervais explains that a request from a foreign government, made through diplomatic channels, comes to the Chancellery. If the honour comes from a head of state it is generally recommended for approval.

And so what do honours mean to the recipient? We’ll leave the last word to Order of Canada holder and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who on receiving the honour simply said: “Today I felt really proud to be Canadian.”

The Order Of Precedence

Precedence reflects an international protocol that assigns levels of importance to types of honours. Although all are important, a hierarchy exists by common consent.

In Canada’s case, the pre-eminent place is given to the Victoria Cross, followed by the Cross of Valour. Then there are the national orders, led by the Commanders of the Order of Canada, Order of Military Merit, Order of Merit of the Police Forces, Royal Victorian Order, then Officers and Members of these Orders, then all grades of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.

The national orders are followed by eight provincial orders in chronological order of their founding. Most have several levels honouring a wide range of achievements. Then follow the official decorations, then four war and operational services medals, eight special service medals, 36 medals for United Nations service, seven from international commissions or organizations, three commemorative medals, two for long service/good conduct, five exemplary service, a special medal (Queen’s medal for Champion Shot), and 10 other miscellaneous decorations, mostly provincial.

Notwithstanding, there is a special order of precedence for those who received honours prior to 1972. This order is headed by the British Victoria and George crosses, then combines other British honours with Canadian awards.

Nominations are welcomed for several civilian-eligible honours. Submissions go to Governor General of Canada, attention: Honours, Rideau Hall, 1 Sussex Drive, Ottawa K1A 0A1, or phone 1-800-O-Canada, or visit


Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.