Medals and Honours

One of Canada’s more interesting inheritances from the U.K. has been an elaborate system of awardshonours and titles based on the ancient art of British aristocracy. The entire enterprise is sometimes known as the Canadian Honours System, and it remains an important way for the nation to recognize and celebrate the greatness of its most accomplished citizens.

British Nobility

As a casual study of Canadian history will quickly reveal, Canada’s break with Britain was neither neat nor quick, and well into the 20th Century the country governed itself as a semi-independent nation that was simultaneously a loyal colony. This question as to whether Canadians deserved or wanted an independent identity for themselves, or were merely content to be defined by their loyalty to Britain, was very much bound up with the evolution of honours in Canada.

Conrad Black

Canada's 1919 ban on British nobility was a non-issue until 2001, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair (b. 1953) attempted to appoint Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black (b. 1944) to the House of Lords. Black vigorously challenged the Canadian government's right to deny him the honour, but was ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, he was forced to renounce his Canadian citizenship in order to become Lord Black of Crossharbour, earning much media mockery in the process.

In Canada’s early colonial period, Britain actively promoted the idea that its colonies should be highly hierarchical societies, headed by a ruling class of wealthy, well-bred elites. Many of colonial Canada’s early governors and capitalists were thus literal lords, dukes and noblemen imported directly from the U.K., recruited to promote the same sort of elite system abroad as they did so faithfully at home. As the years progressed, prominent Canadian-born officials began to earn enough status to be celebrated with British honours of their own; seven of Canada’s first eight prime ministers were knighted (and one was made a baron), as were dozens of prominent Canadian-born businessmen, senators, bureaucrats, generals and other men of high social standing.

By the dawn of the 20th century, however, some began to feel that Britain was going a bit too far with all of this. Under the administration of British prime minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) knighthoods and peerages were quite brazenly sold to unaccomplished social-climbers, and the whole idea of titles soon became associated with a particularly corrupt sort of elitism inappropriate for an increasingly democratic society. In 1919, the Canadian Parliament passed the so-called Nickle Resolution of parliamentarian William Folger Nickle (1869-1957), which formally requested Britain to cease offering “any title of honour or titular distinction” to Canadian residents. The policy has remained in place ever since, though it was briefly suspended during the Anglophilic administration of R.B. Bennett (1870-1947, served 1930-1935) — who himself died Canada’s most lavishly-titled PM.


Alfreda Attrill

A generous honours system means even a civilian like Alfreda Attrill (1877-1970), who never saw military combat, can earn just as many medals as an accomplished solider.

Perhaps ironically for a country that purports to value modesty as much as it does, the creation, awarding and wearing of medals has long been a prominent aspect of Canadian civic culture, and Canada is actually home to more orders, decorations, ribbons and gilded chains than many old-school European aristocracies.

Broadly speaking, Canadian medals are divided into two distinct ranks: civilian and military. Military medals are mostly self-explanatory: in acknowledgement of service in the country’s armed forces, Canada’s military hierarchy will routinely award its soldiers with special decorations of recognition, with the most elite awards being given for outstanding displays of bravery or heroism on the battlefield.

Civilian medals, on the other hand, have far less specific criteria, and are usually awarded by special government-appointed committees to recognize ordinary Canadian citizens who have “made a difference” in some way. In other words, the winning of medals in Canadian society is often a sort of social indicator of one’s achievements and importance to broader Canadian society, and a particularly accomplished man or woman will likely collect a great deal of them during his or her lifetime. At high society Canadian parties — particularly those that are hosted by the government — wearing lots of medals on one’s outfit remains a common way of displaying a certain kind of status.

Here’s a look at some of the most common and well-known Canadian decorations, listed in the government’s own “order of precedence.”

Victoria Cross The Victoria Cross
The highest Canadian military honour, named after the late Queen Victoria (1819-1901). For decades, the medal was awarded to Britons and colonials who had demonstrated outstanding bravery in times of conflict, including several Canadian soldiers in both world wars. In 1993, a unique Canadian version was created, but none have ever been awarded.
Cross of Valour The Cross of Valour
The civilian equivalent of the V.C., the Valour Cross is awarded to any civilian who displays outstanding bravery or heroism during the course of some more domestic-scale tragedy. Created in 1972, it has been awarded only 19 times — and five of those were posthumous.
Order of Merit Order of Merit / Companions of Honour
The British monarch doesn’t have a lot of powers left, but one of them is awarding these two medals, which are usually given to the most outstanding statesmen of the Commonwealth. Several former Canadian prime ministers have won one or the other (with the Order of Merit being more exclusive), along with accomplished leaders of nations like Australia, India and South Africa.
Order of Canada The Order of Canada
The most iconic and famous Canadian medal, the Order of Canada was created for Canada’s centennial in 1967 as the first “truly Canadian” award. Today, it’s usually given to the highest-ranking Canadian politicians, celebrities, scientists and artists in recognition of their lifetime of service. Most famous Canadians seem to win it almost automatically.
Order of Military Merit The Order of Military Merit
Initially, the Order of Canada was intended to honour both military and civilian achievements alike, but in 1972, it was decided a separate, strictly military order would be more appropriate, and the Order of Military Merit was born. Today, it is usually awarded to Canadian soldiers who have held long and distinguished careers in the armed forces.
Order of St. John The Order of St. John of Jerusalem
High-ranking and prominent, though relatively obscure and seldom seen in practice, the Order of St. John commemorates service to the St. John’s Ambulance Society, which is a private charity in both Canada and the U.K. that has long enjoyed royal patronage. Its investiture ceremonies are elaborate, and still involve a traditional “sword on the shoulder”-style knighting.
Orders of the Provinces The Orders of the Provinces
In recognition of the fact that not all accomplishment is national, beginning in the 1980s, the various provinces of Canada began to create their own “highest honours,” too, usually called “the Order of [Province name]”. These all celebrate outstanding service to the provincial community, and are often a stepping stone to winning one of the higher honours above.

Excluding the provincial orders and the Order of Merit, all of the medals profiled above are formally awarded by the governor general of Canada, who, by virtue of his office, is automatically made the nominal head of the various boards and councils that decide who should receive their honours. Medal-awarding ceremonies tend to be one of the most-high profile activities of any governor general’s career, in fact, and are yet one more example of the tight relationship between modern Canadian awards and historic traditions of British chivalry.


King and King

Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King (1874-1950) meets with King George VI (1895-1952) in 1939, the first time a British monarch visited Canadian soil. One of the grandest Canadian events of the 20th century, practically everyone involved in the summit wore some kind of uniform during the festivities.

During the long reign of Queen Victoria, which spanned the decades between 1837 and 1901, Britain underwent a phase of great obsession with imperial aesthetics, and an unprecedented level of fussiness towards things like imperial ceremonies and traditions in its colonies. British author David Cannadine (b. 1950) would later refer to this as “Ornamentalism” — the idea that the British Empire should be this very glorious, showy place that looked every bit as impressive visually as it was powerful politically. Canada was one of the golden children of the ornamentalist ethos, and to this day there are still many Canadians who retain a strong love of self-consciously lavish displays of Victorian ritual and ceremony.

Steven Point

British Columbia Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point (b. 1951) seen here wearing the "Windsor Uniform." Point is unique for being one the few Canadian lieutenant-governors to bring his office's showy uniform out of retirement.

One of the key principles of Victorian imperial aesthetics was that everyone important should wear splendid-looking uniforms, so that their rank and status was always very visually obvious. Well into the 20th century, it was thus common for certain high-ranking officials within the Canadian government, such as governors general, prime ministers, ambassadors and cabinet ministers — as well as their various aides and retainers — to don fancy uniforms during important ceremonies (which of course were very happening all the time). The most iconic of these was the so-called Windsor uniform, a high-collared black tunic with gold braid that was worn by almost everyone important at one time in Canada’s early years.

Things changed significantly after World War II (1939-1945), however, and as Canadian culture became more egalitarian, suburban and casual, most ceremonies became far more relaxed, and the wearing of uniforms was steadily phased out. Today, it’s only the governor general and provincial lieutenant governors who still occasionally don uniforms for special occasions, and even then, the practice is still rare enough for every instance to be noteworthy. Though some mourn this decline in custom, at a time when politicians don’t even like to be photographed in hats, the idea that anyone would willingly dress up in an 19th-century Gilbert and Sullivan-style getup is perhaps not too unsurprising.

Titles and Forms of Address

Despite the abolishment of British nobility, Canada has still retained a fairly strict and structured system of titles for its political elites, and entire manuals have been written to explain it.

General Georges Vanier

An accomplished soldier, civil servant, diplomat, and governor general, by the time of his death, His Excellency Major-General the Right Honourable Georges-Philéas Vanier PC DSO MC CD (1888-1967) was one of the more grandiosely-titled men in Canadian history.

Canadian politicians and judges of most rank are usually referred to as “The Honourable” on all their official stationary, while prime ministers, governor generals and chief justices of the Supreme Court are given the added title of “The Right Honourable.” Governors general and their wives/husbands are also given the title “His/Her Excellency,” while mayors of cities are known by the rather ostentatious “His/Her Worship.”

In speech, only the “Worship” and “Excellency” titles are usually spoken (as in, “good morning, Your Excellency…”) while most other politicians are just called by their titles, often prefixed with “Mr.” or “Madam” (as in, Minister Jones, “good morning, Minister/Mr. Minister”). Judges are usually just called “Your Honour,” though in some provinces they still do things the British way, and use the title “My Lord/Lady” or the even more old-fashioned “Mr. / Madam Justice [name],” as in “Mr. Justice Jones.”

Lastly, any Canadian who has won a special medal is usually entitled to certain “post-nominals,” which is to say, letters after their names, for instance, “Bob Smith, O.C.” for the Order of Canada. All sorts of other institutions in Canadian society are on this bandwagon as well; lawyers of the Queen’s Counsel rank put “Q.C.“‘s after their name, members of the Privy Council put “P.C.,” and people who are particularly proud of their academic credentials may tack on a “PhD,” “MA,” or even “BA.” As you might imagine, some people have been known to go too far with this.

Quick Facts:

  • To recognize achievement, the government of Canada awards medals to its most accomplished citizens.
  • Two of Canada's highest-ranking awards are the Victoria Cross and the Order of Canada.
  • The Canadian government has historically been rich in elaborate ceremonies and costume, though these traditions are now in decline.
  • For those interested, Canada has an elaborate system of protocols and rules for recognizing the titles, rank, and honours of Canadians of status.