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Who were the dozen or so Canadians who played a leading role in the establishment of the Order of Canada? They ranged from The Queen and Governor General Georges Vanier through to more modest officials such the designer of the Order’s insignia Flight Sergeant Bruce Beatty, the first Registrar of the Order Roger de C. Nantel and the first employee of the Order of Canada Secretariat, Joyce Bryant.

Senior civil servants such as Gordon Robertson, Esmond Butler, Jack Hodgson, Michael Pitfield, Edythe MacDonald and John Halstead would also play key parts in the development of the Order and all the details involved in creating a new national institution. The pied piper of Canadian honours was none other than the first Canadian born Governor General, Vincent Massey. Massey spent much of his career fostering the creation of Canadian institutions and organizations.

Lester Pearson;  Georges Vanier; George Vanier; Canada Prime Minister; Canada Governor General; Governor General; Rideau Hall; Government House Ottawa

Governor General Geroges Vanier & Prime Minsiter Lester Pearson, in the Ballroom at Rideau Hall c. 1965. 

It was certainly no coincidence that Massey placed great effort into lobbying his old friend Lester Pearson for the government to establish a unique Canadian honour. Pearson, the man who pushed for the replacement of the Canadian Red Ensign and adoption of a new Canadian Flag understood well the importance of national symbols. 

Vincent Massey, PC, CH, CC, CD   (1887-1967)
Vincent Massey; Governor General of Canada; Governor General

There has perhaps never been a person in Canadian public life who so persistently sought to encourage the creation of a national honour as did Vincent Massey. Well beyond being covetous of such recognition, Massey was anxious to see that his fellow citizens were recognized for their good works. A keen Canadian nationalist who used his position and personal wealth to encourage the development of the arts and educational institutions, following his service as Canada’s first Minister to Washington DC and then as Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (1935-46), Massey went on to chair the Royal Commission on the National Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences, better known as the Massey Commission. This report not only made proposals related to higher education and the development of the Canadian arts community, but also proposed the establishment of a Canadian order to be known as the Order of St. Lawrence. While this proposal was suppressed by the government, Massey would continue to encourage successive Prime Ministers to take action and establish a national order that would include a non-partisan based model of selecting members. As the first Canadian-born Governor General, Massey undertook a robust program of outreach and involvement in all regions of the country. It was Massey’s persistence and vision that brought about the Order of Canada that we know today, most notably the concept that the distribution of honours “who gets what and why” should not be controlled by politicians. He would be one of the first Companions appointed in 1967, dying little more than a month after his investiture.

Lester B. Pearson, PC, OM, CC, OBE   (1897-1972)
Lester Pearson, Canada Prime Minister; Canadian Prime Minister; House of Commons Ottawa

The Prime Minister who placed his political career on the line to see Canada adopt a new flag, Pearson served from 1963-68 as Canada’s Prime Minister, having previously served as Secretary of State for External Affairs and Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (1958-1963). It was in his role at External Affairs where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on quelling the Suez Crisis. Pearson’s own experience with honours as a soldier in the First World War, diplomat in the Second World War and having himself been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1934, greatly coloured his views on the need for Canada to have its own system to recognize great citizens at the local, national and international levels. Encouraged by his old friend Vincent Massey and a young MP, John Matheson, Pearson pressed forward with plans to establish an Order of Canada. Although his initial desire for a three-leveled order was thwarted by cabinet colleagues, within 5 years of its establishment, the Order of Canada that he envisioned came to take its modern form. 

General Georges Vanier, PC, DSO, MC, CD    (1888-1967)
Georges Vanier; Goveror General of Canada; Governor General

The first French Canadian Governor General since the fall of New France, soldier, diplomat and consummate statesman, Vanier would become the most beloved representative of the Crown the country has ever known. A hero of the First World War, Vanier, along with his wife Pauline, would be inseparable throughout their life lives – serving in diplomatic posts in Britain and France. In 1944 he would be appointed Canada’s first ambassador to France where he and his wife became renowned for their outreach to countless war refugees. Appointed by The Queen in 1959 to become Canada’s Governor General, he would undertake an ambitious program until 1966 when health issues began to severely hamper his physical ability. One of the last instruments that Vanier would sign was the Order-in-Council authorizing the establishment of the Order of Canada, a project he had taken great interest in throughout his lifetime.

Edmond U. Butler, CVO, OC   (1922-1989)
Esmond Butler; Order of Canada; Secretary to the Governor General of Canada

The longest serving Secretary to the Governor General in Canadian history and the first Secretary General of the Order, Butler was a passionate supporter and developer of the modern Canadian honours system. Having served in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, Butler would spend time in Switzerland with United Press International, and then go on to work as Assistant Secretary to Vincent Massey, followed by a brief stint as Assistant Press Secretary to The Queen. In 1959 he was appointed Secretary to Governor General Georges Vanier, a post he would hold until 1985 when he became Canada’s ambassador to Morocco. A man of great dignity and presence, Butler was the institutional memory of Ottawa when it came to not only ceremonies and state events, but also the place of the Crown and role of the Governor General in a changing political landscape. He did much to update and modernize the operation of not only Rideau Hall, but the public program of five successive Governors General. Butler was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1986, having previously been made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1972 in recognition of his service to the Queen and Governor General.

John R. Matheson, OC, CD, QC   (1917-2013)
John Matheson; Order of Canada; Canadian Flag

The man who would article with William Folger Nickle of Nickle Resolution fame, Matheson served with distinction in the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Second World War. A lawyer by training, Matheson would be elected as Liberal MP for Leeds in Ontario from 1961 to 1968, later being appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice. Matheson was keenly interested in flags and honours and did much to focus Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s plan to replace the Canadian Red Ensign with a new flag. As Pearson’s Parliamentary Secretary, following the successful conclusion of the Flag Debate, Matheson encouraged Pearson to press forward with establishing the Order of Canada. Along with Vincent Massey, Esmond Butler and Michael Pitfield, Matheson would help lay the groundwork for the Order throughout 1966-67. He would be appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1993.

P. Michael Pitfield, PC, OC, CVO, QC   (1937-2017)
Michael Pitfield; Clerk of the Privy Council Canada

Born in Montreal, at the age of 16 Pitifled attained an undergraduate degree and would go on to study law at McGill. In 1959 he joined the federal civil service as a young assistant to Minister of Justice Davie Fulton and would hold a number of other similar appointments in the Privy Council Office, becoming Assistant Clerk in 1966. Within PCO, Pitfield was Pearson’s point man on establishing the Order of Canada, and it was he who was charged with fleshing out the details of the Order’s structure with Vincent Massey, Esmond Butler and John Matheson before the proposal was presented to Cabinet. A brilliant administrator, Pitfield succeeded his mentor, Gordon Robertson, as Clerk of the Privy Council in 1975 and would serve in that role until 1978 and again from 1980 to 1982 when he was summoned to the Senate, where he sat as an independent, retiring in 2010. Throughout the constitutional negotiations of the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was a central player. In 1982 he would be appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in recognition of his work on the Constitution and various matters touching on the role of the Crown and Governor General, and in 2012, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was an outspoken advocate of issues touching upon Parkinson’s, from which he suffered.

R. Gordon Robertson, PC, CC  (1917-2013)
Gordon Robertson; Order of Canada; Clerk of the Privy COuncil of Canada

Senior advisor to five different Prime Ministers, Robertson would serve as Clerk of the Privy Council from 1963 to 1975. Having earned a Rhodes Scholarship he first went on to serve as assistant to Mackenzie King and was subsequently appointed as Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. At 36, he remains the youngest person to ever hold the post. A civil servant of immense organizational ability, Robertson did much to guide a succession of Prime Ministers through the maze that is official Ottawa. Robertson was a long serving member of the Advisory Council of the Order, and along with Esmond Butler and Michael Pitfield, was one of the few who was not only involved in the establishment of the Order, but also its administration and long term success. Robertson had the original idea behind the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada, which would become the Officer level of the Order in 1972. Appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1976, he would spend his retirement advising the federal government and a wide variety of organizations on public policy issues. 

Gerhardt Herzberg, PC, CC   (1904-1999)
Gerhadt Herzberg; Order of Canada

One of the first members of the Advisory Council of the Order, Herzberg was at the time President of the Royal Society of Canada. Born in Hamburg Germany, Herzberg would take up a guest professorship at the University of Saskatchewan in 1935 as the situation in his native land began to deteriorate with the Nazi’s consolidating power. He was the world’s foremost molecular spectroscopist and did much to expand our knowledge of the electronic structure and geometry of molecules. In recognition of his contributions to science Herzberg was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968 and would subsequently be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1971. His gravitas and calm demeanour is said to have played an important part in the early deliberations of the Advisory Council – when processes and methods of selection were being developed. 

Robert Taschereau, PC, CC   (1896-1970)
Robert Taschereau; Supreme Court of Canada; Order of Canada

A highly respected Canadian jurist and long-time member of the Supreme Court of Canada, Taschereau had previously enjoyed a brief political career as a member of Quebec’s House of Assembly from 1930 to 1935, before returning to legal practice. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1940, he would briefly serve as Chief Justice from 1963-67. Taschereau was one of the members of the Royal Commission on Spying Activities that had been established following the Gouzenko Affair. Taschereau helped to establish the consensus model that the Advisory Council used to select members of the Order until 2000 when a system of voting was instituted. In recognition of his contributions to Canada and the Supreme Court, he was made a Companion of the Order in December 1967.

Roland Michener; Order of Canada; Rideau Hall Study; Governor General; Governor General of Canada; Chancellor Order of Canada
Roland Michener PC, CC, CMM, OOnt, CD, QC   (1900-1991)

The first Chancellor of the Order, Roland Michener was a popular Governor General who served during a time when there were increasing questions about the role of the Crown and utility of the vice-regal office. Michener did much to articulate the importance of honours and recognizing the great achievements of Canadians from all walks of life. A lawyer by training, Michener was first elected to the House of Commons in 1953, eventually becoming Speaker in 1957 where he would serve until 1962 when he lost his seat in the House of Commons. In 1963 he would be appointed Canada’s High Commissioner to India where he would serve until 1967, when he was appointed Governor General following the untimely death of General Vanier. Along with his wife Norah, Michener undertook a breakneck pace of EXPO 67 and Centennial year engagements. Michener would become the first member of the Order, invested by The Queen at Rideau Hall in July 1967. Throughout his time as Governor General, Michener was a strong proponent of physical fitness, a better understanding of the Crown’s role and would also represent Canada abroad on a number of occasions. One of Canada’s longest serving Governors General, he made an indelible impression on the office.

Edythe MacDonald, QC   (1931-2009)

One of the few women, aside from The Queen and Joyce Bryant (nee Turpin), who was involved in the establishment of the Order of Canada, MacDonald was a trail blazing pioneer in the male dominated stuffy world of official Ottawa in the 1960s. A native of Winnipeg, MacDonald was one of the few women to join the Federal Department of Justice in the late 1950s. There she worked on important legislation, notably changes to the Divorce Act, the Canadian Grains Act and later the Constitution Act, 1982. MacDonald was responsible for drafting the Letters Patent and Constitution of the Order of Canada. In 1982 she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Queen’s Bench where she would preside for more than twenty years as a circuit court judge.

Joyce M. Bryant, CM, BEM   (1922-2017)
Joyce Bryant; Joyce Turpin; Order of Canada

The first employee of the Order of Canada secretariat, Bryant had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, returning to Canada in 1946 where she would take a job with the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General in 1951. A native of Winnipeg Manitoba, aside from a seven-year period working for Vincent Massey following his retirement as Governor General, Bryant would spend her entire career at Rideau Hall. Her efficiency and exemplary service during the war was recognized with the British Empire Medal, and in 1973 she would go on to be made a Member of the Order of Canada. A close friend of Bruce Beatty and Esmond Butler, she would hold a number of Order of Canada anniversary events at her home in Ottawa. Bryant passed away at the age of 95 in November 2017.

Bruce W. Beatty, CM, SOM, CD   (1922-2011)
Bruce Beatty; Order of Canada; Canada honours; Canadian honours

The man responsible for designing the elegant Order of Canada insignia and many of the other orders, decorations and medals that make up the modern Canadian honours system, Beatty served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War and would go on to work for the RCAF’s art section following its conclusion. An avid collector of medals and badges, he gained his expertise in design through handling and studying the myriad of insignia conferred by countries around the globe. Born in Saskatchewan, following his retirement from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in 1970, he would go on to be a reservist and work for the Directorate of Ceremonial arranging parades and important events for the CAF. In 1972 he would join the staff of what would become the Chancellery of Honours where he would remain a fixture, until his death in 2011. Over the course of his lifetime Beatty attended more Order of Canada investiture than any other living person. 

John Halstead, CM   (1922-1998)
John Halstead

Born in Vancouver BC, Halstead would serve with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War in the intelligence branch and would join the Department of External Affairs after demobilization in 1946. There he began a thirty-six year career, focused primarily on Canada’s relationship with Europe. Halstead had the original idea that the Order of Canada insignia should be shaped like a snowflake, not a northern star as had initially been suggested by John Matheson. He would go on to serve as Canada’s Ambassador to NATO and West Germany. Following his retirement from External Affairs he would teach and lecture extensively to students and young Foreign Service officers. In 1996 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada.  

John (Jack) Syner Hodgson, OBE   (1917-1990)
Jack Hodgson; John Hodgson

Lester Pearson’s Principal Secretary, Hodgson also served as a senior aide to John Diefenbaker. A Rhodes Scholar and holder of a doctorate along with a licensate in music, he had risen to the rank of Commander in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. Hodgson would play a role in not only coordinating the establishment of the Order of Canada through the Prime Minister’s Office, insisting on the creation of the now familiar Order of Canada lapel badge worn by members of the Order. Hodgson was also responsible for many of the arrangements surrounding the early manufacture of the Order. Hodgson was also involved with bringing about policies of bilingualism through the Special Secretariat on Bilingualism in the federal government under Pearson. Following Pearson’s retirement, Hodgson went on to serve in a number of senior civil service posts. 

Roger de C. Nantel, LVO, CD   (1931-  )
Roger de C. Nantel; Roger Nantel; ORder of Canada; Canada honours; Canadian honors; Order of Canada

A naval aviator serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, Nantel would spend several years as Aide de Camp to General Georges Vanier and serve as a senior protocol officer during the 1967 Centennial celebrations. In late 1967 he would be appointed the first Registrar of the Order of Canada, a position he would hold until 1986. Along with playing a significant role in the administration of the Order of Canada, Nantel was also instrumental in the work surrounding the creation of the Order of Military Merit and Canadian Decorations for Bravery in 1972. 

Queen Elizabeth II; Queen of Canada; Order of Canada; Canada honours; Canadian honors
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II  (1926-   )

Founding Sovereign of the Order of Canada, the Queen took a deep interest in the establishment of the Order. As Canada’s head of state and the fount of all national honours, the Queen has played a role in the creation of all Canadian orders, decorations, and medals since 1967. It was the Queen who approved the insignia designs and invested the first member of the Order, Governor General Roland Michener.
     Shortly after ascending to the throne, the Queen personally appointed the renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield to the Order of Merit. She has experienced some frustration in not being able to recognize other Canadians with senior honours, such as the refusal of Prime Ministers St-Laurent and Diefenbaker to allow Vincent Massey to be appointed as a Knight of the Order of the Garter in the late 1950s.

Early in the history of the Order, the Queen’s private secretary noted that theregular submission of Order of Canada lists provided an “admirable way for the Queen to keep in touch with the activities of Canadians who have in various ways played an outstanding part in the life of the country.”

     The Queen has returned to Canada twenty-one times since her first tour of the country in 1951. Her Majesty has presided over many momentous events in the life of the country, including the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, Expo ’67 and centennial celebrations in 1967, the patriation of the constitution in 1982, the rededication of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in 2007, and the commemoration of the Royal Canadian Navy’s centennial in 2010.

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