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The Order of things: How Canadians are picked for the country’s top honours

A row of Order of Canada medals are seen on a table.


Each of the 11 members received their box in mid-October, signing for the delivery to prove the shipment had landed in the appropriate, security-cleared hands.

Inside was a password-protected iPad, its Internet capabilities disabled so members could only view the uploaded, confidential content. The men and women were to use the device for a sole purpose: to consider which nominees should be appointed to the Order of Canada, the centrepiece of this country's $3-million honours system.

On Nov. 21, after reviewing 300 digitally compiled nominations, the Order advisory council met at Ottawa's Rideau Hall, where they spent the day choosing the 90 names that were announced to the public Monday.

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Since 1967, such lists have been compiled by a group of analysts and then approved by the Governor-General, the Queen's representative in Canada. The Order is tiered, comprising, in descending order, companions, officers and members. What unites the appointees, in the eyes of the council, is their embodiment of the Order's motto: Desiderantes meliorem patriam ("They desire a better country").

The Order has at times gleaned headlines for its controversial choices, with abortion rights crusader Henry Morgentaler chief among them. And although the Order has considerable profile, its inner workings are somewhat of a mystery to Canadians wondering how and why recipients are chosen.

What makes someone worthy of joining the Order? Does it matter if a nominee is male or female, a visible minority, from Montreal or Newfoundland's tiny Tilt Cove? What happens if the council disagrees on a nominee?

And this: Does Canada even need an honours system?

For Governor-General David Johnston, who is a companion of the Order, the answer to the latter is emphatic in the affirmative. "It reinforces the fundamental values of Canadians, the things we admire most," he said in an interview, later adding he has never overruled the council's recommendations.

The 11-member council includes six members there by virtue of other positions they hold: the Privy Council clerk, the Canadian Heritage deputy minister, the Canada Council chair, the Royal Society of Canada president, the chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who serves as chair. The other five members, who are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of those six, must themselves be members of the Order.

Eleven people come with 11 opinions. So while the council unanimously agrees on most nominations, there are times the chair must move for a vote, two former advisory council members said.

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The acting director of orders at Ottawa's Chancellery of Honours, Darcy DeMarsico, confirmed there is sometimes a show of hands, adding: "There is still a consensus element: Every Council member has to be comfortable with the group's recommendation to the Governor-General. If this is not the case, then the file will be given back to the [chancellery analysts] to gather further information and to discuss anew at a future meeting."

Ms. DeMarsico said every nomination is discussed when the council meets in May and November, and that the analysts "don't screen anything out." The former council members, Aldéa Landry and Stephen Toope, said the nomination files typically come with one of four suggestions: appointment as a member, officer or companion, or "not recommended."

"You come to trust the judgment, overall, of the analysts, but with each file, you make your own determination," said Mr. Toope, whose tenure ended before the November meeting, once he was no longer chair of the universities association.

Since the dawn of the Internet, analysts have done extensive research to bolster a nominee's file, which at minimum includes a nomination form and recommendation letters, said historian Christopher McCreery, who has written nine books on the Canadian honour system, including one on the Order of Canada.

The Order's constitution sets out the criteria for the three tiers, but those parameters are open for interpretation. Companions, for one, are recognized for a "lifetime of outstanding achievement and merit of the highest degree, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large."

"Ultimately," Mr. Toope said, "it's a question of judgment."

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After each investiture, the chancellery produces a "gap analysis" detailing, among other things, gender and geographic breakdowns, Governor-General Johnston said. Since the only consideration is merit, Ms. DeMarsico said, the council isn't tasked with rectifying imbalances. Instead, the chancellery encourages institutions and Order appointees to nominate people from certain categories. (Geographically, for example, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia are under-represented.)

Governor-General Johnston said he is "particularly concerned" with the gender imbalance: The Order is currently 31 per cent female. Once a woman is nominated, however, she has a 74 per cent chance of appointment, compared to 60 per cent for a man. "We think that's because a woman has to be so great to be nominated in the first place," Ms. DeMarsico said.

Both Ms. DeMarsico and Governor-General Johnston pointed out that the honours system is apolitical. It is run at arm's-length from the government, nominations are generated spontaneously and elected officials can't be appointed while in office. It's that grassroots quality, Mr. McCreery said, that makes the Canadian honour system unique, compelling and important.

"An honour system is a lot like having a flag, a passport, a country name," he said. "This is the country saying 'thank you.' "


Marie Deschamps: Ms. Deschamps, 61, retired from her job as a Supreme Court justice after a decade, at a youthful 59, saying she wished to find other ways to contribute to society. She is being recognized for her dedication to youth development, as well as for her contributions as a jurist.

Sarah Polley: The 34-year-old who earned fame as a child actor in the TV series Road to Avonlea, is the director of the award-winning Away From Her, based on an Alice Munro short story, and an autobiographical, feature-length documentary, Stories We Tell.

Douglas Coupland: Mr. Coupland, who turned 52 on Monday, is a novelist and influencer of the zeitgeist who coined the term Generation X to describe the low-profile group that followed the baby boomers. He is also a respected visual artist.

Dick Irvin Jr.: Mr. Irvin, 81, is the son of a Montreal Canadiens coach who grew up to be an integral part of Hockey Night in Canada, from the mid-1960s until 1999, with his euphonious voice, his breadth of knowledge and his love of the game. He is also the author of several books on hockey.

Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor: The two musicians became friends in high school but didn't decide to start a band till after university, when their friends were getting real jobs. Their band, Blue Rodeo, has been together more than a quarter-century. Mr. Cuddy is 58; Mr Keelor is 59.

Colm Feore: The 50-year-old actor has played Romeo and Hamlet on stage at Stratford, Pierre Trudeau on television and Glenn Gould in a movie. He has been a bilingual Cyrano de Bergerac and a bilingual officer in Bon Cop, Bad Cop.

Albert Schultz: The founding artistic director of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, Mr. Schultz, 50, has a long list of acting and directing credits.

John Thompson: A member of the Thomson Reuters board of directors, the 70-year-old Mr. Thompson has been a chancellor of the University of Western Ontario (now Western University). He is being recognized for his leadership in information technology and for helping create research partnerships between industry and academia.

Eric Sprott: The investment manager, who was born in 1944, is being honoured for his contributions as a philanthropist in health care, education and international development.

Donald Sobey: The 78-year-old philanthropist and founder of Sobeys Inc. created an annual $50,000 award for artists under 40 who have exhibited their work in a public or commercial art gallery within 18 months of being nominated.

Louis Audet: The 61-year-old president and chief executive officer of Cogeco Cable Inc. of Montreal is being recognized for turning the family business into a leading Quebec telecommunications company and for supporting community groups.

Check here for a full list of the Order of Canada's current officers, companions and members.

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