History, Meaning and Significance

Most countries maintain formal honours systems consisting of three main types of honour: orders, decorations and medals. They reflect the official thanks of a government to those who have served it honourably, often with gallantry or distinction. When one thinks of medals, the image of veterans gathered for Remembrance Day often comes to mind. But while these honours are generally associated with military service, civilian equivalents exist to honour exceptional contributions to the nation in times of war, or for outstanding acts of citizenship. Authorized today by the Governor General on behalf of the Queen of Canada, they are prized acknowledgements of courage, leadership or meritorious conduct. Honours are valued by recipients as tokens of thanks given on behalf of their fellow citizens. They are also treasured by relatives who inherit them, for the way that they link the family to great events in their country's past.

The first organized system of military medals was created by the Romans, who developed a complex hierarchy of military honours ranging from crowns that were presented to senior officers to mark victories in major campaigns, to phalarae or metal disks bearing the Emperor's image, which were awarded to centurions and soldiers for valour in battle. These phalarae are the ancestors of modern military medals.

The Commonwealth tradition of marking major military campaigns or victories with medals goes back to the reign of Elizabeth I. She issued commemorative medals to mark England's victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. At that time and up until the 19th century, medals like these were only presented to the most senior officers engaged in a battle. The modern practice of issuing a campaign medal to participants of all ranks began during the time of Oliver Cromwell, when all members of the Parliamentary army who had participated in the Battle of Dunbar received a medal marking the occasion. The practise would not be repeated until 1815, when a medal was awarded to all members of the British forces who served during the Battle of Waterloo.

The first Commonwealth medal struck for specifically Canadian actions was the Canada General Service Medal (1866-1870), which was awarded to British and Canadian soldiers who served during the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870 and the Red River expedition of 1870. Since that time, Canadians have earned campaign medals and gallantry awards for service in the South African War (1899-1903), the First World War (1914-1918), the Second World War (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).

Today's Canadian orders evolved from medieval orders of knighthood. Canada's senior order is the Order of Canada, instituted in 1967 to recognize Canadians' outstanding achievements or services to Canada and humanity at large. This is primarily a civilian order, although outstanding members of Canada's military community have also become members. The Order of Military Merit, created in 1972, recognizes conspicuous merit and exceptional service by members of the Canadian Forces. Canada's newest order, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, was created during 2000, to honour exceptional service or distinctive merit displayed by members of Canadian police forces.

Most decorations are awarded to individuals for conspicuous acts of gallantry or for exceptional services in a military context. Canada's most senior award of any kind, the Victoria Cross, is probably the best known decoration. Instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 "for most conspicuous bravery or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy" it has been earned by 94 Canadians. Canadians who served in the major conflicts of the 20th century were eligible to receive a number of Commonwealth decorations for gallantry, like the Military Cross, Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross. Since 1967, Canada has evolved a unique honours system that includes decorations for acts of bravery like the Medal of Bravery and Star of Military Valour, and decorations that recognize outstanding military or civilian achievements like the Meritorious Service Cross. Some more junior decorations, like the Canadian Forces Decoration, recognize long service and good conduct.

Medals are usually issued to those who served in a specific theatre of war during clearly defined time frames. Examples of such medals are the Second World War Atlantic Star and the Canadian Korean War Medal. During the last 50 years many Canadians have received United Nations medals for their peacekeeping efforts in global hot spots. Special anniversaries in the life of the nation or of the monarch are often celebrated by awarding commemorative medals to outstanding citizens from all walks of life. Recent examples of these include the Commemorative medal for the 125th Anniversary of Confederation, which was issued in 1992, and the Commemorative medal for the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, which was approved in 2002.

Canadian honours are managed by the Chancellery of Government House, which is part of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General. VAC is able to verify medal entitlement for the First World War, but can only issue or replace lost medals for the Second World War and the Korean War. Veterans Affairs Canada is also responsible for administering the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation, which is awarded to individuals who have "performed commendable service to the veteran community or who represent commendable role models for their fellow veterans." The award is intended primarily for veterans, though in rare circumstances non-veterans may receive the award.

Date modified: