Eight days ago, in Welland, Ont., Stephen Harper made an apparently innocuous announcement that's a harbinger of much more to come: He unveiled the creation of the Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards to recognize 17 people each year from non-profit organizations across Canada. Who can be against volunteering, or recognizing volunteer efforts? No one.
But note the name of the award: the Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards. Here we have something new, the harbinger, as it were, of announcements to come, unless people yell "No."
In the Prime Minister's Office, under officials working with House Leader John Baird, the most publicly partisan of all ministers, a review is under way of the nation's honours system.
The aim is to associate the Prime Minister with more national awards, perhaps at the expense of the Governor-General, with whose office so many awards are now associated. All honours and awards, up to and including (if you can believe it) the Order of Canada, are under review to see which, if any, might be more closely associated with the PMO, and which new ones might be created that are tied to that office and, by definition, to the occupant of that office.
Rideau Hall, for example, already has the Governor-General's Caring Canadian Awards that date back to 1996 when Roméo LeBlanc was governor-general. The award recognizes, according to the Rideau Hall website, "special volunteers whose compassion and charitableness are such a part of the Canadian character." The award is for "unpaid voluntary activities, most often behind the scenes at the community level."
Yet, now we are to have the Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards, created to "recognize Canadians who devote their time, energy and resources to make a difference in the lives of others." The awards are to be administered by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, presided over by a minister, of course. Recipients will be recognized at an awards ceremony in December. Think there'll be any politicians present?
For decades, the office of the Governor-General has been the place where honours and awards are organized, and with which they're associated. Why? Because the office is above politics, represents the entire country and can't be accused of having ulterior motives, let alone political ones.
The Governor-General usually doesn't even sit on the selection committees for the honours and awards, but simply presides over the ceremonies. It's the same in the United Kingdom, where awards and honours are made in the sovereign's name for service to the country, not to the prime minister of the day. The Queen, not the prime minister, hands out the major awards and honours.
But this is the Harper government, controlling all as none before it, eager to find political advantage in everything the government does. Thus it's a logical extension of this controlling urge to want the Prime Minister to be associated with the awards and the honours in the minds of the recipients. And so it's logical, with this objective in mind, to have Mr. Baird, the über-partisan cabinet minister, provide guidance for the internal review.
There's more. For years, the Conservatives have felt that many of the country's most important symbols are tied in the public's mind, fairly or unfairly, with the Liberals. Such symbols would include the flag, medicare, bilingualism, even multiculturalism. Since their election, the Conservatives under Mr. Harper have tried to find institutions with which they could more closely associate their party in the public's mind - the military, say, and the Arctic.
By enfolding awards and medals into the Prime Minister's orbit, there's another chance of creating pan-Canadian institutions that will be remembered by some as having originated with the party and this Prime Minister in particular.
It's creepy, if you think about it, that any prime minister would even think about meddling with the non-partisan honours and awards system just so he and his office (and party) might be more closely associated with it.