Vancouver Province
for July 21, 2000

The latest Order of Canada awards have been announced and several British Columbians have been included. One name, however, has been notable by its absence – Melvin (Mel) Smith – which tells us a lot about this honour and how it’s dispensed.

There are, of course, many Canadians deserving of recognition and the three stage Order of Canada is our answer to the Honours system in great Britain. Unfortunately it has taken on the odiferous elements of the British system as well as the finer ones.

Many of those so honoured get their Order of Canada because other citizens have written away for the application forms, filled them out, gathered other support around the community, perhaps enlisted the help of the local MP, and in due course to the great surprise and happiness of all the Order is granted. These people no doubt deserve that honour.

But then there is what one might call the political appointment – the awarding of Orders of Canada to those who are known publicly. These orders are granted because the establishment thinks they ought to be. Former Prime Ministers are in and for the highest level just because prime ministers are the top of the house so to speak. Business moguls like Conrad Black get them because they are business moguls. Sports stars, especially French-Canadian ones get them because they are French Canadian sports stars and so it goes. Men like Alan Eagleson get them because amongst other things, they support one of the two major political parties. Some former politicians get Orders after they put on campaigns for them that outdo anything they ever put on to get elected.

But there are many who, despite great public service, don’t get an Order of Canada and one has to wonder why.

I can tell you why. It’s because they have fought the establishment tooth and nail and it’s the establishment that makes the awards.

The response is, of course, look at people like Ken Georgetti, the head of the Canadian Labour Congress and former president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. Surely he’s outside the Canadian esrtablishment!

Not so. And I applaud with all my heart Ken’s receiving of both the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C. Unquestionably he deserved both honours. But, you see, Ken’s dissent has always fallen within the bounds set by the establishment. He is the yin for business’s yang. And when push came to shove and he received that phone call from Brian Mulroney in August 1992, he supported the Charlottetown Accord. That was crucial. No public figure, to my knowledge, that opposed Charlottetown has received an Order of Canada. That referendum result, especially in B.C., was an enormous slap in the face of the establishment and like elephants, they never forget.

Back to Mel Smith, QC. Mel advised four premiers of B.C. over 20 years on matters constitutional. He put together the constitutional papers of 1978 which, as wise and prescient as they were unread, represented by far the best thinking on constitutional questions in the past fifty years. He is a man of unblemished personal rectitude, a family man and a pillar in his church and community. A better Canadian you would never find.

This year he was up for membership in the Order of Canada – I know that from the documentary evidence I have seen – but was rejected. And why do you suppose that such a devoted servant of his province and country would be turned down?

Simple. He made two cardinal errors.

He rejected with passion the Charlottetown Accord and used all his knowledge of constitutional law and precedent to persuade British Columbians to do likewise. And he wrote a book called Our Home Or Native Land which called into question the handling of native affairs in this country. He opposed the natives on the Delgamuukw issue and roundly criticized the Supreme Court’s decision.

Far from being a bigot, Mel Smith not only argued with force against government policy he argued in favour of a liberal settlement that did justice to natives and no injustice to principles we have hitherto held sacred. In short, Mel Smith took his dissent outside the perimeter set by the establishment that runs everything in Canada including its honours system.

In the result, everyone who has received and will receive the Order of Canada obtains an honour tarnished by the limitations placed upon it by those in charge.