For the century before the Order of Canada was established the various attempts to create a national honour were often accompanied by a rough insignia design. Some of these were highly detailed drawings undertaken by well-known Canadian artists such as Charles Comfort and Alan Beddoe – and less accomplished doodlers including Joyce Bryant, Vincent Massey and John Matheson.
The now familiar snowflake shape of the Order of Canada was taken from the Encyclopedia Americana’s entry on snowflake shapes. This was in turn taken from the seminal work on snow crystals undertaken by Professor Ukichiro Nakaya, a renowned Japanese scientist and the world’s leading expert on snow crystal formation.
Left: Professor Nakaya in the field photographing snowflakes.
Right: One of Nakaya's snow crystal photos -- this is the example that the insignia of the Order of Canada is based upon.
Professor Nakaya in less harsh surroundings.
His lifelong passion for studying snow crystals resulted in the publication of Snow Crystals Natural and Artificial.
Background to the Design
The design of the insignia of the Order was of particular interest to Pearson. In August 1966, John Hodgson, Pearson’s Private Secretary, contacted Flight Sergeant Bruce Beatty from DND’s Directorate of Ceremonial. Beatty was the directorate’s chief artist and already well known for his work. One afternoon, Beatty’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel N.A. Buckingham, arrived and announced ‘The Prime Minister wants to see you.’ Beatty’s reaction was one of disbelief and he responded with a wry ‘Oh sure.’ Within an hour, Beatty was standing in front of the Prime Minister, with no idea why. Pearson soon explained ‘we are going to institute a Canadian Order and you are going to design it.’ Designing the Order of Canada insignia was no easy task: What shape was the insignia to have? What symbols were to be included? Too many symbols would result in a cluttered, ugly design.
The solution to the Order’s shape literally fell from the sky, specifically in the form of Canada’s ubiquitous snow. Both John Matheson and Bruce Beatty came to propose the idea that the Order should be in the shape of a snowflake. Matheson had originally been given the idea by John Halstead, a foreign service officer with the Department of External Affairs. Halstead would rise to become Canada’s Ambassador to NATO and later to West Germany. Somehow, Halstead had learned of Matheson’s involvement in founding the Order of Canada. Following a meeting with the West German Ambassador, the two men began to discuss possible designs, and Matheson outlined his North Star proposal. Halstead pointed out the possible problems (its use by many of the Nordic Countries and NATO being the most obvious) with using a North Star, and then said: ‘Have you ever thought of a snow flake?’ This suggestion struck Matheson as inappropriate: snowflakes are ornate and fragile; although beautiful, a snowflake would not be suitable for an insignia meant to be worn on the breast or around the neck. But he soon began to come around to the idea. The symbolism of the snowflake was ideal. It represented the Canadian climate, and furthermore, every snowflake – like every member of the Order -- is unique.
Before Christmas 1966, Beatty submitted three separate designs to the Prime Minister; Pearson then personally chose the design we have come to know today by quickly pointing to his preferred option. The Prime Minister only commented that the Crown appeared a little small and requested that it be enlarged.
The Order's Insignia in 1967
From Left to Right: Medal of Courage of the Order of Canada (CM); Companion of the Order of Canada (CC); Medal of Service of the Order of Canada (SM).
Beatty decided that the Companion insignia would measure 56 mm across, be white enamel with gold edges and worn around the neck. In the centre would be a red enamelled maple leaf, surrounded by an annulus in red enamel bearing the motto of the Order in gold letters, four small dots and surmounted by a St Edward’s Crown. Made of 18 carat gold, it was a simple yet elegant design. The Medal of Courage and Medal of Service were to be smaller — 34 mm across — but would have the same snowflake shape. These would be worn on the breast like other decorations and medals. The Medal of Courage would be gold in colour, with a simple Maple Leaf in the centre of the insignia surmounted by a Crown. The Medal of Service would be sterling silver, the obverse being identical to the Medal of Courage. The Queen gave Royal approval to the designs on 21 March 1967.
The Order's Insignia in 1972 & Today
In 1972, with the expansion of the Order of Canada and abolition of the Medal of Courage and Medal of Service, new insignia had to be designed. The Medal of Service was considered austere in appearance.
The Companion’s insignia has remained unchanged. Curiously, the title Companion, which is defined as the lowest or the only level of an order, was retained even if it now became the senior level of a three-level order.
The Officer’s insignia is nearly identical, except for a few elements to ensure that it can be distinguished from the Companion’s. The Officer’s insignia is also worn from the neck but it is only 45 mm across. The obverse is enamelled on a sterling gilt frame, and a single gold maple leaf is located in its centre. The reverse displays the word CANADA in raised letters with an inventory number impressed below and silver hallmarks on the lower arm.
The Member’s insignia is worn on the breast and measures 35 mm across. It is fashioned from sterling. The obverse is enamelled, with a silver maple leaf in the centre. The reverse is identical to that of the Officer’s insignia.
A modern set of Order of Canada insignia manufactured by the Royal Canadian Mint. Left to Right: Companion of the Order of Canada (CC); Officer of the Order of Canada (OC); Member of the Order of Canada (CM).
Sovereign's Insignia of the Order
Along with the Companion, Officer and Member insignia, the Medal of Courage of the Order of Canada (1967-72) and the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada (1967-72), there are two other highly significant insignia; the Sovereign’s insignia and the Chancellor’s Chain. The jewel encrusted Sovereign’s insignia was presented to Her Majesty The Queen in 1973 by then Governor General Roland Michener, while the Chancellor’s Chain, which is worn by the Governor General – who serves as Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order, was presented to Governor General Michener in December 1968 by the Master of the Royal Canadian Mint. Full details about the design and creation of these insignia is covered in Fifty Years Honouring Canadians: The Order of Canada, 1967-2017, and The Order of Canada: Genesis of an Honours System.