(January 21, 2021) When the Governor General announced 114 new appointments to the Order of Canada in November 2020, it was remarkable how few women and visible minorities made the cut.
The Order of Canada has three tiers—Member, Officer and Companion—with Companion being the top spot.
Of the 114 awards given in 2020, eight were promotions from Officer to Companion. Three were women. Twenty-one people were promoted from Member to Officer. Eight were women. Of the 84 newly minted recipients to the Order, 25 were women. In all, 36 per cent of the 114 recipients honoured in 2020 were women. A tiny minority were Indigenous, Black or a person of colour.
It was a slight increase from the 2019 tally, when 28.6 per cent of the total appointees were women and 5.4 per cent were visible minorities.
The Order of Canada “recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” Since its inception in 1967, more than 7,000 people have received the award.
Of the 514 people awarded the Companion of the Order, the highest honour, since 1967, 77 per cent were men, and almost all those men were white.
Formally awarded by the Governor General, the recipients are recommended by an independent 13-member advisory committee chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Is the lesson to take from these numbers that white men are intrinsically more meritorious, while women and visible minorities are fundamentally perceived as having less merit? Why else would the Order of Canada–created in Canada’s centennial year—be so unrepresentative of Canadian society? Are the number of women and visible minorities nominated less than the number of white men nominated? If so, why? Do women and visible minorities engage in fewer overt efforts to be nominated?
Throughout the 1980s the Canadian satirical weekly Frank, published by Michael Bate, documented with unmitigated glee the extraordinary effort at self-aggrandizement now-Senator Michael Duffy (who it dubbed ‘the Duffster’) exerted to be awarded the Order of Canada.
In October 2020 Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto, told the CBC, and that it’s “not acceptable, in the Canadian context — a country that considers itself to be a land of opportunity, a land of equal opportunity, a land that pays attention to the diverse communities that exist within Canada — that we would see the awards going mainly to men.”
“Our definition of merit is one that is self-reinforcing, about giving the same elite people the same awards. And so, when people say it should be based on merit, they’re not recognizing the fact that the idea of merit itself has been designed by the people in positions of privilege to reinforce their privilege and keep others out,” she said.
In a more disturbing example, in her recent book, A Perfect Nightmare: My Glittering Marriage and How It Almost Cost Me My Life, Karen Gosbee widow of Calgary businessman and philanthropist George Gosbee peels back the veneer of her seemingly fairy tale marriage. In the book, she relates an incident when her husband has pinned her against granite steps in their bedroom and began to choke her. Pretending to hear a noise from their children, she was able to get away, run downstairs and call 911. George became even more angry once he realized the police were on their way
“George began freaking out even more, raving about how he’d never be given an Order of Canada,” Karen Gosbee writes. “Being found out as a domestic abuser would ruin his chances. That’s what he was most concerned about.”