Friday, 24 September 2010

The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History and Development by Christopher McCreery, Ph.D. - Book Review

The Canadian honours system can evoke remarkable passion in certain circles. There are those who decry its alleged flaws and there are those who celebrate its perceived merits. Common ground is often hard to find; however, until recently, advocates and detractors would have found consensus on at least one issue: the need for a serious historical study of the evolution of the honours system and, more particularly, of its centrepiece – the Order of Canada. Considering Canadian preoccupation with issues pertaining to national identity, it is remarkable that the Canadian honours system, which in its modern form dates from 1967, had escaped the proper attention of historians for almost forty years. Prior to 2005, the only readily available resource on the subject was FJ Blatherwick’s Canadian Orders, Decorations and Medals (now in its fifth edition). Although a useful work of reference and a handy tool for collectors, this book is not without error and is of little value to historians and those seeking to understand the evolution of the system currently in place.

In light of this, the publication in 2005 of two authoritative works on Canadian honours was remarkable, all the more so when one considers that both were authored by the same individual, Christopher McCreery (a young scholar who has since authored works on various other Canadian honours, establishing himself as a respected national authority).

The first of these books, The Canadian Honours System, is a comprehensive, full-colour reference work which also provides a general, but sufficiently detailed, survey of the history of honours in Canada. In this accessible book McCreery is not afraid to criticise the established system and offer considered suggestions for its future direction.

The second book, The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History, and Development, is not only the first proper history of the Order, but also the first major study of Canadian honours. Importantly it is also the first Canadian book, and one of the few books anywhere, to have been honoured by HM The Queen, who graciously consented to write a prefatory message. The combination of these factors is enough to guarantee its noteworthy status, however it is the quality of the book’s research and content that establishes it as a significant contribution to the field of honours.

Christopher McCreery started this book whilst completing his doctoral thesis, which unsurprisingly also focussed upon Canadian honours. Although tackling two weighty projects is a daunting prospect for any student, it enabled McCreery to immerse himself in the broad subject and familiarise himself with all of the major primary and secondary sources. The depth of research is evidenced in the book’s exhaustive bibliography; a cursory glance reveals that a great amount of time has been spent in various archives as well as interviewing and corresponding with a large number of persons who were directly involved in developing the Canadian honours system.

Appropriately for the first major study of Canadian honours, the book starts with a brief account of the concept of honours in pre-European Canada before charting the role of honours through the succeeding eras, up to and including today. Of these periods two in particular will be of greatest interest to the majority of readers: Canada’s awkward relationship with Imperial honours (from approximately 1917-1948) and the passionate discussions surrounding the establishment of a “Canadian” honours system in the years prior to 1967. McCreery provides a clear analysis of the underlying issues that fuelled the debates in both of these periods, explains the merits of the various arguments put forth and reflects on the political motivations of the key players. For McCreery, Prime Minister RB Bennett (later Viscount Bennett of Mickleham, Calgary, and Hopewell) is the father of the Canadian honours system whilst his successor, William Lyon Mackenzie King, is the man who failed to develop Bennett’s legacy and instead actively discouraged and impeded the establishment of national honours (whilst accepting various high-ranking honours for himself). Throughout much of this story Vincent Massey, whose passion for honours bordered upon obsession, emerges as the Churchillian “voice in the wilderness”, the man who was possessed of the solution but whose pleas fell upon deaf ears.

The Order of Canada that was finally established in 1967 was the product of compromise – how very Canadian! And, indeed, the evolution of the Order in the years since in many ways parallels in microcosm the development of Canada itself. McCreery deftly navigates through the debates surrounding the establishment of the Order and charts its haphazard development in the succeeding years. He concludes with useful explanations of the investiture ceremony, the officers of the order, the membership composition (which he has divided by gender, age and region) and even the heraldry of the Order.

The Canadian honours system is far from perfect and many people have called for change. I have personally advocated for the creation of a new single-class Order, limited to 24, to rank ahead of the Order of Canada as the nation’s highest honour, as well as for the expansion of the Order of Canada to five classes, with those of Grand Officer and Grand Cordon ranking ahead of the current highest class of Companion. McCreery also does not shy away from constructive criticism. Although an enthusiastic supporter of Canadian honours, he laments the ludicrous decision, taken in 1998, to group all three classes of the Order of Canada together, ahead of all other Canadian awards aside from the Victoria Cross and Cross of Valour. He is certainly not alone in struggling to understand the logic behind the decision to rank one who has received the lowest class of the Order of Canada, for rendering exemplary service of a primarily local nature, ahead of a former chief of the defence staff who was appointed to the highest class of the Order of Military Merit for thirty-five years of service at the national and international level. He also quite rightly criticises the inflation of annual awards, noting that the number of annual awards of the Order of Canada has doubled since its inception. To ease the burden on the Order of Canada he has called for greater use to be made of the Meritorious Service Decorations and has also suggested the creation of a new Order, for which he has proposed the name of “Legion of Service”.

The Order of Canada: It’s Origins, History and Development ends with an extensive collection of appendices comprising copies of letters patent, the constitution of the order, nomination forms, membership lists and similar items: in short every related document one could possibly need. Combined with fifty pages of full-colour photographs and illustrations, many published for the first time, the completeness of this work is undeniable.

Few books are without error and here too one finds the occasional slip. Prior to her ennoblement, the wife of Sir John A Macdonald (following her husband’s death to become Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe) is incorrectly styled as “Lady Susan Macdonald”, whereas the correct form is “Lady Macdonald”. Similarly, in the Table of Abbreviations the third class of each of the Order of the Bath, Order of the Star of India, Order of St Michael and St George, and Order of the Indian Empire is described as “Commander” rather than “Companion”. But in the wider context such errors are inconsequential and I would be doing this book and its author an injustice were I to describe these as anything other than unfortunate proofing errors.

The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History and Development and The Canadian Honours System are the most important publications to have appeared in the world of Canadian honours and are essential reading for those interested in the subject of honours or national symbols, Canadian or otherwise.

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