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The establishment of the Order of Canada came just in time for the country’s centennial celebrations in 1967. Honours in Canada had long been a highly controversial topic, one which successive Prime Ministers from Arthur Meighen and William Lyon Mackenzie King through to Louis St-Laurent and John Diefenbaker assiduously avoided. During his time as Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett made full use of the British-Imperial honours system and de-politicized the honours system for the first time in Canadian history. 

RIchard Bedford Bennett | R.B. Bennett | Viscount Bennett | Prime Minister of Canada

The Right Honourable R.B. Bennett, who championed the use of honours to recognize exemplary citizenship. 

The honours lists that Bennett sent onto King George V for approval were the most balanced in Canadian history; in terms of region, gender and profession. The 1932-35 lists saw notable citizens such as Sir Frederick Banting, Sir Ernest MacMillan knighted, novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery, Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton and the young Canadian diplomat Lester B. Pearson all appointed to the Order of the British Empire. It was the first honours list in Commonwealth history in which women made up half of the appointments. 

Charlotte Whitton, women’s rights crusader and child advocate who would go on to become Mayor of Ottawa, was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)  in 1935 by King George V, “in recognition of her contributions as Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Child Welfare.” She would be awarded the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada (SM) in 1967 (later to be converted to Officer of the Order of Canada, OC), “For the important causes she has supported with great vigour and for her contributions as Founder and Director of the Canadian Welfare Council and as the spirited Mayor of Ottawa.”

Lucy Maude Mongomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and numerous other books. Montogmery was made a Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1935 by King George V, “in recognition of her contribution to Literature”

Sir Federick Banting, co-discoverer of Insulin who was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1934, while his compatriot Charles Best was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the same honours list. Banting would be killed in an air accident in 1944, while Best would go on to be recognized in later life as a Companion of the Order of Canada (CC), in 1967 and a Compainon of Honour (CH) in 1976. His Order of Canada citation reads, Professor and Head, Banting and Best Department of Medical Research. Internationally renowned for his contribution to medicine, particularly as co-discoverer of insulin.

Some Notable Canadians Recognized in Bennett's Honours Lists


The idea of creating a Canadian order can be traced back to 1823 and Lord Bathurst, who was then Britain’s colonial secretary. His proposal did not progress past the stage of a rough concept. This attempt was followed nearly fifty years later when Lord Monck, Canada’s first Governor General, made the same suggestion. Monck’s proposal called for three levels: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Lawrence (GCSL), Knight Commander of the Order of St. Lawrence (KCSL) and Companion of the Order of St. Lawrence (CSL). Alas, the Colonial Office was not willing to allow the new Dominion to create such a potent symbol of national autonomy, and thus Canada continued to work within the existing imperial honours system.

The origins of the Order of Canada as we know it today can clearly be traced back to Vincent Massey, whose persistence and ideas played such a central role in the creation of a uniquely Canadian honour which he initially styled the Order of St. Lawrence. The five tiers of Massey’s order were: Grand Commander of the Order of St. Lawrence (GCSL), Grand Officer of the Order of St. Lawrence (GOSL), Companion of the Order of St. Lawrence (CSL), Officer of the Order of St. Lawrence (OSL) and Member of the Order of St. Lawrence (MSL). Massey first broached the subject in 1935 with the newly installed Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, who was very keen on encouraging the creation of Canadian institutions and subsequently brought the subject up with his Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Mackenzie King was not enthusiastic about the prospect of reintroducing honours in Canada, let alone creating an indigenous award. Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister had a phobia when it came to honours. This did not prevent him in later life from accepting the Commonwealth’s premier non-titular award, when he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1947, and a number of foreign honours.

Small Heading
Honours if necessary, but not necessarily honours.
William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Louis St. Laurent, Canadian Prime Minister, Canada Prime Minister

The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, PC, OM, CMG, the proverbial killjoy of Canadian honours – other than for those he himself received! Mackenzie King would be the first Canadian appointed to the highest Canadian/Commonwealth non-titular honour for achievement, the Order of Merit.

In this photo he is receiving the Order of the Oak Crown from the Grand Dutchy of Litchensutein for his contributions to the Second World War. 

Order of Merit

Massey had also proposed a Canadian order called the Order of St. Lawrence, consisting of two levels, Companion and Officer. It was a concept he would later reintroduce, again without success, during the early stages of the Second World War. Throughout the war a special committee made up of senior civil servants, the Awards Coordination Committee (ACC), met regularly to discuss the issue of honours in Canada. While the committee’s task was primarily to develop policy with relation to British awards being bestowed upon Canadians, it would often delve into the subject of creating a Canadian order. To this end, between 1941 and 1946 it submitted no fewer than five different proposals to the Prime Minister. Each was in turn rejected.

Despite the failure of its various proposals the ACC did manage to have the Canada Medal established in 1943. It was a curious award, to say the least, as it was to be awarded to everyone from privates to heads of state. While extensive lists of recipients were composed, the medal was never awarded. 

Lord Alexander, Viscount Alexander, Field Marhsal Alexander of Tunis, Canada Governor General, Governor General of CAnada

Following the end of the Second World War the demand for civilian honours tapered off and the topic of creating a Canadian order was once again put aside. Lord Alexander, Canada’s Governor General from 1946 to 1952, called for the creation of a Order of Canada in 1948, but this too failed, although he did come up with the ribbon design used by the Order of Canada today.

Throughout his time as Governor General, Field Marshal, Viscount Alexander of Tunis was keen to see Canada adopt the symbols of full nationhood. He was to be one of the first Companions of the Order of Canada, however problems with the development of the honorary division of the Order prevented this. 


The subject of honours was again reintroduced in a secret report of the Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences, which was, not coincidentally, chaired by Vincent Massey. This time, Massey proposed a five-level Order of St. Lawrence, based upon a structure similar to the Order of the British Empire and France’s Légion d’honneur. Most significantly, Massey proposed that the honours list for this new order be composed by a nonpartisan committee, quite unlike the practice that had previously been followed in Canada and Britain, where the Prime Minister had a direct influence over the flow of honours. Although the proposal was given to the leaders of the opposition parties, it failed to gain the approval of then Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent, who was in part concerned about sanctioning the creation of an order that bore a name so similar to his own. 

Massey Commission, Royal Commission on the National Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences; Vincent Massey, Hilda Neatby, Norman Mackenzie, Georges-Henri Levesque

Members of the "Massey Commission" (l-r), Arthur Surveyor, Father Georges-Henri Levesque, Vincent Massey, Hilda Neatby, Norman Mackenzie. 

Included in the draft report was a proposal for the creation of The Order of St. Lawrence. This proposal would be suppressed by the government of the day. 

Massey Commission, Royal Commission, Royal Commission on the National Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences

INTO THE 1960's

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s the Department of National Defence developed a variety of proposals for the creation of an Order of Canada. These were based upon the Massey Commission and Alexander proposals, although none met with success.

The adoption of the Maple Leaf flag and establishment of the Order of Canada were really part of a larger project on the part of the government to endow Canada with the requisite symbols of nationhood. Before Lester Pearson became Prime Minister in 1963, he had supported the adoption of a new national flag to replace the Canadian Red Ensign. His interest in creating a Canadian order was piqued by his parliamentary secretary, John Matheson, who shared his interest in both the flag and the order. Pearson was most concerned with the flag issue, and thus the question of establishing a Canadian order was temporarily sidetracked. More than a year after the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag — with tensions still high — Pearson and Matheson discussed the possible structure of a Canadian order. Pearson hoped to have an order established in time for the Centennial of Confederation in July 1967. This left less than fifteen months in which to gain the approval of Cabinet and the Queen, to have the insignia designed and manufactured, and most importantly, to draw up a list of worthy recipients.

Canadian Flag, National Flag of Canada, Canadian Red Ensign, Red Ensign, Parliament, Georges Vanier

Raising of the new National Flag of Canada
Parliament Hill, 15 February 1965. 

In March 1966, Matheson was dispatched to Vincent Massey’s country estate, Batterwood, to discuss the subject. Their deliberations were productive, and upon his return to Ottawa Matheson presented Pearson with a plan for a three-tiered order consisting of Companions, Officers and Associates. Massey still favoured the name the Order of St. Lawrence, while Pearson and Matheson wanted the new honour to be called the Order of Canada. Over the next six months various changes were made to the proposal, and the constitution was developed. The yet-unnamed order was to consist of three levels: Companion, Member & Associate.


The proposal for the establishment of the Order of Canada was presented to Cabinet in November 1966 and the reception was frosty. There was opposition to the order from a number of ministers: some viewed this as elitist and not reflective of the sort of honours system Canada needed; some went so far as to question the need for an honours system at all. Pearson yielded and agreed that the Order of Canada would consist of one level only, and Cabinet finally agreed to allow the plan to go forward.

Pearson was concerned that a single-level order would not reward all those who deserved recognition; after all, his primary motive for proposing the order was to see those who contributed at the local level recognized. Two additions were subsequently made: the Medal of Service, which was in essence a junior level of the Order of Canada; and the Medal of Courage, a separate bravery award that, although part of the Order, was quite an independent entity. The Medal of Service and Medal of Courage were approved by Cabinet on the basis that they were not really part of the Order, but this would prove a mistake: Pearson’s assistants, Gordon Robertson, Jack Hodgson and Michael Pitfield, had cleverly described the medals to seem like minor additions, when in fact they were integral to the structure of the Order. 

Order of Canada 1967, Companion of the Order of Canada; Medal of Service of the Order of Canada; Medal of Courage of the Order of Canada

The original design painting by Bruce Beatty of the Order of Canada insignia, c. 1967.

At this time the Order consisted of the Companions of the Order of Canada and recipients of the Medal of Courage of the Order of Canada and the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada. No awards of the Medal of Courage would ever be made. 

The original insignia would be manufactured by the Crown Jewellers Garrard & Company. 


The Queen approved the creation of the order on 21 March 1967. On April 17th public reaction was favourable, although there were some initial concerns that the order would become a political tool or patronage plum. The Letters Patent, which are the founding documents of the Order, were subsequently approved by The Queen. 



The first honours list was published in the Canada Gazette and released to the public on 7 July 1967. In total, thirty-five Companions and fifty-five Medals of Service were appointed that month. A second list of fifteen Companions and forty-five Medals of Service was issued in December 1967.  

Canada Gazette; Order of Canada
Canada Gazette; ORder of Canada
Canada Gazette; Order of Canada, Seal of the Order of Canada; Canada Seal, Esmond Butler

By late 1967 the first official publication about the Order of Canada was released by the Governor General’s Office. You can click HERE or on the cover to view a PDF of the English edition. You can click HERE for a PDF of the French edition

The first full investiture for newly appointed Companions of the Order and recipients of the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada would take place on 24 November 1967. 

Following the investiture the Government of Canada would hold a formal white tie dinner in the Confederation Room of Parliament's West Block. Details about the inaugural investiture and investiture dinner are covered on the page
First Investiture & Dinner.

Order of Canada booklet; Order of Canada


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