People on the right wing of the political spectrum hurl the phrase “special snowflake” as a nasty slam to mock what they perceive as their fragile, whiny opponents. But in Canada, the term “special snowflake” can have a different application: those distinguished citizens who have been honoured with an Order of Canada, and who proudly wear a small, stylized snowflake pin on their garments as they go about their daily lives.
I’ve worked in journalism, media relations, event planning, and strategic communications throughout my career: when I am working at an event or reception, I’m always scanning shoulders or lapels for snowflakes. Even if I don’t recognize the person wearing the pin, I know that they have made a particularly worthy contribution to this country and need to be treated as an honoured guest. I remember one time turning to a colleague and remarking: “We’ve got a blizzard in here tonight!” In other words, “snowflakes” everywhere.
The Order of Canada was founded 50 years ago as part of Canada’s Centennial celebrations and now has three levels: Member, for “outstanding contributions at the local or regional level or in a special field of activity”, limited to 136 appointments per year; Officer, for “national service or achievement” with only 64 appointment per year; and Companion, the highest level restricted to 165 living office holders at any given time, recognizing “national pre-eminence or international service or achievement.” Up to 15 Companions can be appointment a year and, as of the end of 2016, there were 142 living Companions, including three honorary (non-Canadian) appointments. The youngest person ever appointed to this high honour was Terry Fox, a 22-year-old whose “Marathon of Hope” cross-country run to raise money for cancer was cut short when the cancer that had resulted in a leg amputation returned.
The country’s Governor General — currently the Rt. Hon. David Lloyd Johnston, for whom I had the privilege of working when he was president at the University of Waterloo — serves as the order’s Chancellor and Principal Companion. Over the years I’ve known many artists, academics, business leaders, and community activists who’ve received their “snowflake” — a medal on a ribbon at the formal investiture, and the lapel pin (with a silver maple leaf in the centre for member, gold leaf for officer and red leaf for companion) for everyday use.
Over five decades, rounding on 7,000 Canadians have been appointed for their achievements in one of 18 categories: Business/Finance, Communications, Creative Arts & Design, Education, Environment, Health Care, Heritage, Industry/Natural Resources, Law, Literary Arts, Natural & Applied Sciences, Performing Arts, Philanthropy, Politics, Public Service, Social & Voluntary Service, Social Sciences, and Sport. Those who hold political office or work in the public service cannot be considered for appointment until after they retire.
When the latest list of honorees comes out, journalists across Canada pore through the list to pick out recognizable names to highlight (such as a famous singer or athlete) but also look for the “hometown heroes” — people, usually named as Members, who are well-known for their longtime contributions to the community where they live. Normally only individuals are named but, recently, the order has appointed groups within an individual honour: In 2014, the rock group Rush (Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart) was the first group of individuals named together as an Officer of the Order and in 2017, the five members of the band the Tragically Hip received the same recognition.
Nominations are by appointment and, in theory, anyone in Canada can put forward a name: the governor general’s office is promising an easy online submission form is in development although, for now, you have to download and fill out a four-page PDF. In practice, there are people across the country who, discreetly, are masters at effectively putting forward nominations, whether they work for university alumni offices or professional societies keen to see their members recognized. A nomination requires three references who are “officials of organizations in which the candidate is or has been an active member; members of the Order of Canada; or other persons who are familiar with the candidate’s achievements.” The nominations are then reviewed by an independent advisory council chaired by the Chief Justice of Canada.
Canadian author and historian Christopher McCreery has two books coming out in 2017 on the order. Fifty Years Honouring Canadians, with a forward by L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, a Companion of the order, promises to be an “easily accessible window” and a “richly illustrated history.” The second tome, The Order of Canada: Genesis of an Honours System (Second Edition), is a more-scholarly work first published in 2005; the 2017 edition has a “prefatory message” from Her Majesty the Queen and a forward from “His Excellency The Governor General”.
McCreery has also set up a website about the order’s 50 years that’s chock-full of interesting information. The order’s first female appointee? Contralto Maureen Forrester, part of the inaugural 1967 group. The first honorary (non-Canadian) Companion? South African President Nelson Mandala in 1998.
I’ve always liked the symbolism of the snowflake: individually unique, yes, but makes a greater impact when seen together with others of its kind. As the Rt. Hon. Roland Michener, Governor General and First Chancellor of the Order of Canada put it, “it seems to me that the Order of Canada, which honours distinguished service by Canadians from every region and walk of life, should add to our sense of togetherness by giving recognition and honour to those who have served the whole realm.”
Main photo: Kelley Teahen with the Rt. Hon. General David Johnston, on his last day at the Waterloo campus before assuming the role of Governor General of Canada in 2010. Photo by Jonathan Bielaski, courtesy Waterloo Magazine.