Reflections on the Order of Canada

On 31 December 2016 I received the Order of Canada. Last Thursday I was finally able to attend the ceremony in which I was inducted into that order. The day before, a dark cloud seemed to hover over me. Though I was not depressed, I had become anxious. My shoulders slouched and I felt myself growing inward and cutting off from my family members who had accompanied me to Ottawa. Anxious is not the exact word. It was more like dread. I had become apprehensive and began to question why I had ever agreed to accept the award. Should I have followed the precedent of Morley Callaghan, Mordecai Richler and Claude Ryan and refused the award? What was the source of this reluctance?

I have never felt nervous or anxious about giving lectures or talks no matter the numbers or the status of the people I was addressing. And in this context, I was not even required to say a word – just walk down the aisle in the order in which we had been placed, take my reserved seat, then just walk up to the front of the room when my name was announced and, as I learned, bowing slightly to Julie Payette, the Governor General (she is the Chancellor and Commander of the Order), and then taking a position between an honour guard in uniform and the GG facing the audience. After my citation was read, I was to step forward, face the GG, and the insignia of the Order would be attached by the GG to the lapel of my jacket. I would have my picture taken with the GG and then walk over to sign the roll book and return to my seat. Nothing untoward or onerous.

As I feared from past experiences when participating in ceremonies, I was very uncomfortable. I was also emotionally overcome once, stumbled twice and perhaps was inappropriate in a fourth move. And that is not counting that, when my picture was taken with the GG, my tie was totally askew.

First, when I walked down the aisle and saw my son and three grandchildren sitting next to the aisle, my tears welled up and I could barely suppress crying. And I had forgotten to take a Kleenex to wipe away the excess liquids leaking out of the orifices on my face. Next, I began to get up to walk up to the front before my name was called. Then, after the insignia was pinned to my lapel and I had my picture taken, and after I signed the book, I got up to return to my seat. My minder touched my shoulder and gently but firmly pressed me back to my chair. I got it. It would be disturbing to the next presentation if I moved back to my seat before the next person received his insignia. My fourth faux pas I suspected, but later came to doubt whether it was indeed a faux pas, is that when my picture was being taken with the GG, I put my arm around her. Should you put your arm around a queen or her representative?

I now think that this was OK. Julie was so personable, so affable, so down to earth, even though she had been a former astronaut and was now GG. At dinner that evening, she came over to our table carrying her own wooden fold up chair and sat down beside my wife to chat with us for awhile. If ever there was a ceremony that could be both precise, exacting and formal but not in the least pompous, this must have been an exemplar. The attention to detail was masterly. I even learned a trick. Leave a row of seats empty so that when people returned to their seats in the row in front of where they had been sitting, they would not clumsily have to get by bodies and legs.

The ceremony itself was not ostentatious. It was not like Putin’s fourth inauguration on Monday last week which looked like a coronation. There was formality but no real fanfare, solemnity without splendour, a small degree of pageantry but without any pretence. It was a ritual but one devoid of grandiosity even though the setting in Rideau Hall was stunning. The ceremony was modest and simple with a very relaxed supportive staff.  Though infused with decorum and courtesy, the affair was neither dull nor insignificant. It could not be when one heard the accomplishments read of those who received the award. One felt extremely proud to be a Canadian.

I have always dreaded ceremony. I never attended any of my graduations. In synagogue I fear being asked to receive an aliyah and desperately try to find an excuse since it is such an honour. Once when I accepted, I not only missed a part, but when I returned to my seat, I sat in the wrong row. I become discombobulated during ceremonies. Perhaps participating in the receipt of the Order of Canada may have cured me. It was, in the end, such a pleasurable experience in spite of my stumbles. But perhaps I am as incurable in this failing as in many others.

I did actually learn what the honour was, though I probably err in some respects. (Please correct me.) Orders are societies of merit which recognize outstanding achievement and exceptional service over a long period of time. It used to be recognition for a lifetime of achievement, but now you no longer have to wait until you are, on average, in your seventies to receive such an award. The insignia is the outward symbol of the honour conferred.

Order of Canada

Order of Order.of.Canada.insignia


As can be seen, there is a striped white and red ribbon with the colours of our national flag. The badge and the stylized maple leaf are silver (gilt with a gold maple leaf for Officers of the order and gilt with red enamel for Companions of the Order, the two higher honours). St. Edward’s Crown tops the badge reminding us that we belong to a monarchy. St Edward’s Crown is the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom used since 1911 to crown English and British monarchs at their coronations, reviving a practice dating back to the thirteenth century. A stylized image of this crown is used on insignia throughout the Commonwealth to symbolize the royal authority of the Queen. It is often the reason separatists or republicans refuse to accept the Order of Canada.

The central badge is surrounded by a white enamel hexagonal snowflake, also stylized like the maple leaf, with six equal leaves. The snowflake was chosen as the symbol, not simply because Canada is cold, but because no two snowflakes are the same.

The originals, not the one pinned on my lapel, are also bedecked with precious stones. I had been told that one is expected to wear the miniature of the insignia at all times, but I cannot imagine putting it on my sweats that I usually wear when writing or my casual shirts and slacks when I go out. I have fixed one to my lapel of a dress sports jacket and another to a suit so that I will wear it on formal occasions like a wedding. I do not know why I have such a fear of appearing ostentatious. Perhaps it is because I am afraid that someone will reveal that I do not deserve such an honour. However, I was truly relieved when I read in the booklet that they provided, “Guide for the Wearing of Orders, Decorations and Medals,” that, “Miniatures are worn only for formal evening events,” such as a state dinner or diplomatic reception (p. 8)

Why was I told one thing but read another? The answer resided in my confusion. I had thought the “miniature” was the lapel pin. In fact, there are three, not two versions. The largest is the replica of the original chest insignia. Miniatures are smaller replicas of insignia worn on a smaller ribbon for evening functions in place of the full-sized chest insignia; that was the one pinned on my lapel. Lapel pins are tiny button-sized replicas without the ribbon. I learned that, indeed, you were expected to wear lapel pins daily with civilian dress on the left lapel of a jacket or in a similar position on any other clothing. If they catch me not wearing it, will they ask for it back?

The motto, Desiderantes meliorem patriam, surrounds the stylized maple leaf. This puzzled me. In English it is translated as “they desire a better country.” Not a desire to make Canada great again, but a desire to make it better. The problem is not the motto, but the source. I recognize that this reference is simply to people who make their country a better place. The problem for me is that the quotation is taken from Hebrews 11:16, a very Christian text. My concern is not because the source is Christian. After all, Hebrews comes from a gospel of Israelites who simply accepted Jesus as their lord. The full verse in the King James version reads: “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”

The better country is no longer Zion, but the heavenly country where one presumably goes after one dies. On earth, we are just sojourning. Earth is not our true home. But the whole ceremony, and those who received the awards, indicated the opposite. The accomplishments were a celebration of what had been done to make this earth and our country a better place. In my understanding, Hebrews 11:16 refers to a heavenly-country that people desire rather than an earthly imperfect one that they can improve. Hebrews 11:14 states unequivocally: “For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” Instead, the Order of Canada highlights the tremendous country in which we find ourselves and not that we are on earth simply waiting for an enduring and perfect home after we die. Perhaps my kvetching just demonstrates my picayune scholarly credentials!

There is some evidence that although the award adopts a motto from Hebrews, which has the opposite meaning of the original, there is one dramatic similarity. Though we are given the insignia to wear, it is not ours. We are merely trustees that wear it. If we do not live up to its standards, it can be taken back. As in the Torah where we are only trustees of God’s earth, in the conception of the awards, we are only trustees of the honour. In Hebrews, if people profess to be God’s and that God is theirs but fail to live up to that confession of their faith, they become a disgrace to God. The same is true of the Order of Canada; holders are required to sustain the trust put into them by the Canadian state. That is why the honour was taken away from Garth Drabinsky and Alan Eagleson, Conrad Black and Steve Fonyo because of their criminal convictions, and David Ahenakew for his anti-Semitic remarks.

However, what made the day last Thursday were the people being honoured. What a terrific lot!


Tomorrow: Recipients of the Order of Canada


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