Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The New Zealand Royal Honours System -- An Example for Canada? PART TWO

Lessons for Canada

How can the Canadian honours system benefit from the New Zealand experience?

Although Canada was the first Commonwealth realm (outside the United Kingdom) to establish its own honours system, lack of foresight on the part of its administrators has led to a haphazard, and unsatisfactory, evolution. To draw a comparison with architecture, the current system resembles much less the intelligent and aesthetically pleasing design of a single architect but appears more as a house on to which several builders have hastily built a number of uninspiring extensions, some better than others. By contrast, the New Zealand Royal Honours System, as currently constituted, was the product of intelligent design and functions effectively and pleasingly. Fortunately for Canada, many of the key features of the New Zealand System are easily transferable.

Although the political climate renders it unlikely, the Canadian system would be vastly improved were citizens of all of The Queen’s realms made eligible for substantive appointments. Similarly, it seems quite logical to expect all awards in the Canadian honours system to be made in the name of The Queen rather than the Governor General. It is The Queen, after all, who is the Sovereign of every Order and, more generally, the fount of all Canadian honours.

As unlikely as it is that such changes will be made any time soon, given the fractured and unfocussed manner in which the Canadian honours system has evolved, I believe it is useful to suggest other, less politically sensitive reforms, the most urgent of which pertain to the status and structure of the Order of Canada. As Canada’s most prestigious Order, the Order of Canada should rank alongside the Order of Merit or the Order of New Zealand. Yet whilst these last two are single class orders of very restricted membership, hundreds if not thousands of people have received the Order of Canada.  The highest rank of companion is restricted to 165, yet this far exceeds the number of members who may belong to the Order of New Zealand at any one time. Indeed, in Canada, a country with a  population half that of the United Kingdom, there may be more companions of the Order of Canada than the combined total number of UK members of the Order of the Companions of Honour, the Order of Merit, the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Thistle!

Canada requires a premier-ranked honour that distinguishes the truly outstanding from those who are merely very accomplished. Such an honour, be it the highest class of a multi-class order or a new single-class honour, should be limited to a far smaller number than the current limit of 165 companions, a restriction which is far too large for the highest level of a nation’s senior order.

I would also point out that, almost without exception, all of the world’s most prestigious orders are single class. Membership of a multi-class order such as the Order of Canada will rarely endow a recipient with the status that would be attained by membership in a single-class order with a restricted membership.  Whilst those who are interested in honours will appreciate that the class of companion is the highest class of the Order of Canada and is bestowed comparatively rarely, one cannot expect the average citizen to be aware of this fact. Similarly, although the public is aware of the existence of the Order of Canada and is familiar with the lapel pin and the insignia, only a tiny proportion will be able to distinguish the insignia or the lapel pin of a companion from that of a member or an officer.

Members of the public may be aware that a person belongs to the Order of Canada but they are rarely told to which class he or she belongs and this will again lead to the same problem of recognition. By way of illustration let me offer the following scenario: If an average person were to enter a restaurant and observe two persons sitting at a table, both of whom were wearing snowflake lapel pins, that person would probably recognise that they both belonged to the Order of Canada. However if one of those persons was a Companion of the Order of Canada (Canada’s most renowned scientist, philosopher or author for example) and the other was a Member of the Order of Canada (such as a high school principal) the average person would not be able to distinguish one from the other. Furthermore, if informed that one was a Companion and one was a Member this in and of itself might not be sufficient to make the person appreciate that, although both belong to the same Order, the achievements of one are celebrated internationally whilst the achievements of the other, although laudable, had an impact that was limited to a local community..

The solution is surely to create a new single-class honour to rank above the Order of Canada and to be restricted to between 15 and 24. As in New Zealand, this honour would be exclusively bestowed upon the nation’s most revered and cherished individuals. Unfortunately, the existence of the Order of Canada makes the selection of a name for this new honour difficult -- for surely Canada’s premier honour should be so named. There would appear to be two solutions to this quandary. One would be to find an acceptable name that would not appear peculiar when listed above the Order of Canada: the “Order of Confederation” is one possibility (I was thinking of the Order of the Polar Star but Sweden and Mongolia have already claimed that one!). The second, and my preferred, solution is to create a chain or collar, similar to the Royal Victorian Chain, which could be called the “Canadian Chain” or the “Chain of Confederation”.  With time, the existence and purpose of the chain would become common knowledge and it would not be long before members of the public who were introduced to a recipient of the Canadian Chain / Chain of Confederation would immediately recognise that the individual in question was one of Canada’s national treasures.

Another reform which can be implemented by adopting the New Zealand model is the expansion of the Order of Canada from three to five classes (thus replicating the New Zealand Order of Merit). The Order of Canada has already expanded from its original single class of 1967 and there is therefore no logical reason for it to remain at three. The two new classes, which might be named Grand Officer and Grand Companion, would rank above the current highest class of Companion. Neither of these levels need carry any titular distinction; recipients would simply bear the appropriate post-nominal. The creation of two new numerically-restricted classes would enable the Order to be awarded with greater frequency at the lower levels while safeguarding the higher levels for the exceptional (as is done with the Order of the British Empire for example). The Order of Canada is already under pressure as it is currently unable to adequately respond to the need to honour the many Canadians who are deserving of an honour.[1] The Grand Companion and Grand Officer classes could also be used for diplomatic appointments, either substantive or honorary. Canada does not currently have any means of adequately honouring foreign diplomats.

New insignia would be required for each of the two additional classes. In addition to the neck badge, Grand Officers could receive a breast star, whilst Grand Companions could receive a breast star, a sash and a sash badge. The institution of such insignia would serve to distinguish these classes from each other and from the lower classes. Most members of the public would immediately appreciate that a person wearing a neck badge and a star ranks ahead of one who wears merely a neck badge, whilst one who wears a sash ranks above them all.

Members of the Royal Family should be admitted to the Order of Canada as “extra”, rather than “honorary”, members. It seems quite wrong that a past Queen Consort whose daughter is both Queen of Canada and Sovereign of the Order of Canada and who, at the time of her appointment, was colonel-in-chief of Canadian regiments, should have been admitted as an honorary member, as if she were a foreigner with no connection to Canada. The situation is such that currently a future King of Canada would also have to be admitted to the Order as an “honorary” member. I cannot see how such a circumstance can be regarded as acceptable. It would surely bring honour and increased publicity to the Order of Canada, and indeed to Canada itself, were members of the Royal Family to be seen wearing the appropriate insignia on their medal bar, just as some members currently wear New Zealand’s Queen’s Service Order, with its distinctive ribbon.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Canada has its own heraldic authority, a body responsible for dealing with all matters pertaining to coats of arms, be they personal, corporate or civic. New Zealanders have a resident herald, New Zealand Herald Extraordinary, who represents the College of Arms in England however it is Her Majesty's U.K. resident Kings of Arms who act for The Queen as "Queen of New Zealand". Australia does not even have a resident herald. Canada and Antigua and Barbuda are the only Commonwealth realms outside the United Kingdom to have their own independent heralds. Unfortunately, whilst heralds in England and Scotland continue to play a ceremonial role on state occasions and serve as officers for the great orders of chivalry, the activities of the heralds of the Canadian Heraldic Authority have been largely restricted to matters related to coats of arms. I regard this as far too limiting. Having created its own independent heraldic institution, it seems a logical progression for Canada to install the Chief Herald of Canada, or another herald in ordinary, as an officer of the Order of Canada (the “Herald of the Order”). To those who would argue that such a position has no place in a modern order of a modern state, I would merely point out that New Zealand Herald Extraordinary serves as the herald of the New Zealand Order of Merit and this relatively recent appointment has been very well received by the public. As an officer of the Order the herald would participate in investiture ceremonies and could be charged with reading out the citations of those who are to be invested; he or she might also act as custodian of the roll of the Order. The herald, who would wear special insignia, would add a degree of pageantry to investiture ceremonies and this would bring increased prestige and solemnity to the occasions. As the Chief Herald of Canada now wears a ceremonial collar and carries a ceremonial baton and is about to receive tabard, I do not believe it is far-fetched to suggest that the appropriate time has arrived for one of the heralds to participate in ceremonies of the Order of Canada (as well as the State Opening of Parliament!).

The New Zealand Royal Honours System is a sensibly-crafted system that reveals a sound understanding of the nature of honours on the part of those who created it. Its structure is one which enables honours to be used to their best advantage and it is generally regarded as one of the finest models in the Commonwealth. The Canadian system, which is still respected for its pioneering spirit, has failed to realise its full potential. Canadian reform can be achieved relatively easily – it remains to be seen whether those with the power to initiate such reform have also the desire.

[1] Hitherto, the Canadian government has attempted to ease pressure on the Order of Canada by creating the Meritorious Service Decorations. Established in a civil and military division, the Meritorious Service Decorations honour those whose achievements are noteworthy but not yet sufficient to merit investiture in the Order of Canada. While the Order of Canada focuses upon lifetime achievement, the four Meritorious Service Decorations (military cross, military medal, civilian cross, civilian medal) honour either a single achievement or an activity over a specified period.

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