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U of T scholar Natalie Zemon Davis, who has been awarded the Holberg Prize for outstanding scholarly work in the arts and humanities, social sciences, law or theology, is photogrpahed at her home in Toronto, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
U of T scholar Natalie Zemon Davis, who has been awarded the Holberg Prize for outstanding scholarly work in the arts and humanities, social sciences, law or theology, is photogrpahed at her home in Toronto, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Public Service

The Order of Canada: An accolade that demonstrates why waving the flag just isn’t enough Add to ...

To be a conscientious Canadian (or give a fair impression of one) is a relatively sweat-free activity these days. You may start by rolling your compost bin to the curb on pickup day. Or make a stand for a tolerant society by clicking “like” on the Facebook page for the new gay-friendly Oreo cookie with the rainbow filling.

If you stopped to wonder what all the other kids on the notorious bus ride in New York state were doing, while their thuggish peers verbally assaulted the grandmotherly bus monitor, there was good to be done. You could toss a few dollars to the victim’s vacation-turned-lifetime-retirement fund started online by a well-meaning Toronto nutritionist.

And for a demonstration of patriotism this weekend, don the red and white, and post a “Happy Birthday, Canada” update, once again online. You can manage it between zombie attacks on Minecraft.

Then along comes the Order of Canada, with its exhortations to national service, and celebration of lifetime achievement, to give pause to the flag-waving revelry, and point out that real change requires more. If the Order of Canada celebrates anything, it is effort – the kind given to the benefit of others, often at inconvenience to one’s self. The latest 70 recipients, selected by special committee from a batch of nominations, are named officially by the Governor-General, who has made philanthropy, both of the treasure and talent variety, a platform of his tenure.

The names, released on Friday, include those of politicians, journalists and sport icons – such as former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, and hockey player and coach Pat Quinn, whose careers brought their own heady benefits, but also left their mark on the country.

Created in 1967, the award recognizes brilliant accomplishment that does honour to Canada – arguably the finest example on the latest list being Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the world-acclaimed conductor from Montreal, who at 38 becomes the youngest living Canadian accorded the highest honour, Companion of the Order. (The youngest ever was Terry Fox, at 22.)

The same high honour is given to Ian Binnie, the former Supreme Court member who retired, after a highly regarded 13 years of jurisprudence, from the bench in 2011, as well as Natalie Zemon Davis, a social historian at the University of Toronto who won the prestigious Holberg Prize in 2010.

Recognition is also given to the generosity of philanthropists, such as Winnipeg businessman John Buhler who, having achieved their own personal success, then give back – to hospitals, parks and art endeavours. And tireless community workers such as Carolyn Acker, in Toronto, who started Pathways to Education to help youth living in poverty.

Among the environmentalists recognized is Laure Weridel, 38, a prominent social activist and writer credited with starting the fair trade movement in Quebec. The daughter of farmers, a background she credits with giving her an awareness of environmental issues, she is also a supporter of Quebec Solidaire, a sovereigntist party with a strong environmental platform. Now completing her doctorate in Switzerland, she wrote in an article for the Alternatives Journal last fall: “We need a different mindset, a different way to envision what happiness is and what it means to be wealthy and to progress. The status quo is no longer possible.”

The Order of Canada also pays overdue recognition to writers and scientists, long labouring in obscurity outside their own professional circles. One example of the latter is Paul Hoffman, a geologist from Victoria, who is credited with proving the “snowball earth” theory, which means, in lay terms, what it says: The earth, more than 650-million years ago, was one giant snowball of ice. (Dr. Hoffman is also part of one of the order’s rare sibling combos; sister Abigail, an Olympic athlete and the founder of a hostel for abused women in Toronto, was invested in 1982.)

But the heart of the award springs from its motto: Desiderantes meliorem patriam – “they desire a better country.” Or, as 2012 recipient Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, asks: “What are we all here for, if we don’t do something about it?”

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