Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele forged a path for women in Canadian sports with a combination of pluck and raw talent. The Montreal twins dominated skiing at a time the field was still largely the domain of men.
The pair paid little heed to warnings that downhill skiing was dangerous. They just hit the slopes and scored victory after victory.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, the sisters finished first and second in dozens of international races, and made up the entire Canadian women’s Olympic ski team in 1948. They suffered broken ankles and head gashes but kept going. In doing so, they broke down barriers and inspired generations of Canadian women who followed.
Now, three weeks shy of their 97th birthdays, the identical twins are receiving one of Canada’s highest honours. The Wurtele sisters – Rhoda Wurtele Eaves and Rhona Wurtele Gillis – figure in the newest appointments to the Order of Canada, announced by Governor-General Julie Payette. The recognition is a belated nod to the two women for their “role as trailblazers in winter sports.”
“We were sort of pioneers, I guess,” Ms. Eaves said from her home in Pointe-Claire, near Montreal. But it never occurred to them that they were trailblazers while they were busy racing down mountains. “We were just having fun. We were pretty wild and we weren’t afraid of anything.”
The twins, who also taught thousands of children and adults to ski, were recognized for embodying the motto of the Order of Canada: “They desire a better country.” Other Canadians attained the same honour through a multitude of different paths, each of them unique.
They include choreographers such as Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, and Winnipeg-born actor Len Cariou, a Tony Award winner. Others earned the distinction for their commitment to social justice, such as James Lockyer, the Toronto criminal lawyer who has fought to defend the wrongly convicted.
Eva Aariak, the former premier of Nunavut, was named for her dedication to promoting Inuit culture and languages. Ann-Marie MacDonald, the author and actor, was recognized for her contributions to the arts and advocacy of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights.
And Thomas Dignan, of Thunder Bay, a pioneer in Aboriginal health and the first member of a First Nations to graduate from medical school, was honoured for his dedication to the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.
If some may aspire to one day see their names on the Order of Canada list, others have the prize bestowed on them as an unexpected gift. The Wurtele sisters continue their commitment to public service, speaking recently to the Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal that they had themselves once attended. But their days of gracing the pages of True Picture comic books (“Canada’s Terrific Twins”), like they did in the ’40s, are behind them.
“I nearly fell over when I heard about it,” Ms. Eaves said about the honour, speaking in a clear and forceful voice from her senior’s residence. “We were very surprised. We’re getting kind of old at this point.” But not so old that she has to sit still, however: Ms. Eaves still skis.
In all, Rideau Hall announced 103 new appointments to the Order of Canada.
Companions of the Order
James Arthur of Toronto
Geoffrey E. Hinton of Toronto
Officers of the Order
Jo-ann Archibald Q'um Q'um Xiiem of Chilliwack, B.C.
Vernon Burrows of Ottawa (This is a promotion within the Order.)
Leonard Joseph Cariou of Winnipeg and New York, N.Y.
Levente László Diosady of Toronto
Digvir Jayas of Winnipeg
Suzanne Lacasse of Rouyn-Noranda, Que., and Oslo, Norway
Robert Lacroix of Montreal (This is a promotion within the Order.)
Daniel Lamarre of Montreal
Leroy Little Bear of Lethbridge, Alta.
Ann-Marie MacDonald of Toronto
Christopher Newton of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (This is a promotion within the Order.)
Jean Pelletier of Rosemère, Que.
Rebecca Scott of Canmore, Alta.
Robert Tessier of Saint-Lambert, Que.
Richard Ernest Tremblay of Montreal
Honorary Members of the Order
Kathleen Reichs of Montreal and Charlotte, N.C.
Richard J. Schmeelk of Montreal and New York, N.Y.
Members of the Order
Eva Aariak of Iqaluit, Nvt.
Brent Belzberg of Toronto
Hélène Boisjoly of Montreal
Barbara M. Bowlby of Toronto
Doneta A. P. Brotchie of Winnipeg
Shelley Ann Marie Brown of Saskatoon
John M. Brunton of Toronto
Shirley Cheechoo of M'Chigeeng First Nation, Ont.
Robert Crosbie of St. John’s
Joanne Cuthbertson of Calgary
Kevin J. Dancey of Toronto
Michel de la Chenelière of Montreal
Raymond L. Desjardins of Luskville, Que.
Thomas Dignan of Thunder Bay, Ont.
Ian Robert Dohoo of Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Lyse Doucet of Bathurst, N.B., and London, England
Micheline Dumont of Sherbrooke, Que.
Jean André Élie of Montreal
Darren Entwistle of Vancouver
Ann McCain Evans of Florenceville-Bristol, N.B.
Roxanne Fairweather of Saint John
Ross D. Feldman of Winnipeg
Charles Edgar Fipke of Kelowna, B.C.
Charles Fischer of Calgary
Léopold L. Foulem of Montreal
Ron Foxcroft of Hamilton, Ont.
John Ferguson Godfrey of Toronto
Georges Henri Goguen of Moncton, N.B.
Blake Charles Goldring of Toronto
Serge Gouin of Outremont, Que.
Jean Grand-Maître of Calgary
Daniel Granger of Montreal
Gordon Cecil Gray of Toronto
Alfred Halasa of Montreal
Linda Hasenfratz of Guelph, Ont.
Jay Hennick of Toronto
Michael Higgins of Toronto
Paul John Higgins of Toronto
Robert Hindmarch of Vancouver
Robert Hung-Ngai Ho of Vancouver
John Kirk Howard of Toronto
Austin Hillard Hunt of Kagawong, Ont.
Barbara Jackman of Toronto
Christina Jennings of Toronto
Alexandra F. Johnston of Toronto
Bengt Jörgen of Toronto
Roger Philip Kerans of Calgary
Robert Korneluk of Ottawa
Mary R. L’Abbé of Toronto
Gilbert Laporte of Montreal
Donald Gordon Lawson of Toronto
Daniel Lessard of Saint-Benjamin, Que., and Ottawa
H. Frank Lewis of Charlottetown, P.E.I.
James Lockyer of Toronto
Gloria Macarenko of Vancouver
John McEwen of Toronto
Jefferson Mooney of Vancouver
Raymond Alexander Muzyka of Edmonton
Maxine Noel of Stratford, Ont.
Francis Pang of Fredericton, N.B., and Toronto
Kathleen Pearson of Victoria
Isabelle Peretz of Montreal
Andrew Petter of Burnaby, B.C.
Marshall S. Pynkoski of Toronto
Imant Karlis Raminsh of Coldstream, B.C.
Dominique Rankin of La Conception, Que.
John Rea of Montreal
Michèle Rivet of Montreal
Henri-Paul Rousseau of Montreal
Claudine Roy of Gaspé, Que.
Louis Sabourin of Montreal
André Simard of Saint-Agathe-des-Monts, Que.
Peter D. Simons of Québec City
Pekka Sinervo of Toronto
Arthur Slutsky of Toronto
Heather Stuart of Kingston, Ont.
Camille Henri Thériault of Moncton, N.B.
Charles Maral Tisseyre of Montreal
Denis Vaugeois of Québec City
Elisabeth Walker-Young of Vancouver
Rhoda Wurtele Eaves of Westmount, Que.
Rhona Wurtele Gillis of Westmount, Que.
Gregory Zeschuk of Edmonton
Jeannette Regula Lajeunesse Zingg of Toronto