Clark: Order of Canada is overlooking wives of former prime ministers

Estimated read time 5 min read

It’s 2024 — and International Women’s Day is this week. Let’s recognize that most of these women have long records of achievement, entirely independent of their marital status.

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Every Canadian is eligible to be nominated for the Order of Canada. These awards, presented by the Governor General, recognize individuals who have helped make their communities, and ultimately their country, a better place.

Since it was founded in 1967, some 8,000 Canadians have been inducted into the Order so far — ranging from astronauts to costume designers, television anchors to choral conductors, former Supreme Court justices to community activists, scientists to entrepreneurs.

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But the people you will not find on the list of Order of Canada recipients are any of the wives of Canada’s former prime ministers.

Why does this matter?

It matters because most of these women have long records of achievement on a wide variety of issues entirely independent of their marital status. They have championed reproductive health access for women and families; fought for equality; helped other countries to establish legal systems that uphold democracy and the rule of law; promoted awareness of animal rights and safety; supported the arts; raised millions of dollars for rare and devastating childhood disease; advocated for literacy programs; campaigned for the empowerment of women in the global South; and de-stigmatized mental health at a time when no one felt brave enough to step forward and admit they were suffering.

It matters because many of them have been nominated — sometimes multiple times over decades — and none has been inducted.

It matters because this raises the question of whether, still in 2024, we define women by who they are married to and not by what they have achieved in their own lives, on their own merits.

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This week, we celebrate International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is “Accelerate Progress.” It is not very progressive if one segment of the pre-eminent Canadian honours system is reinforcing institutionalized bias.

It is not very progressive if we argue that these women — as a group — are not deserving of an award just because they happened to marry a man who went on to become prime minister.

Perhaps there is concern within the Rideau Hall Chancellery of Honours that awarding the Order of Canada to the wives of former prime ministers would be a political hot potato — so officials have not wanted to touch the issue. That would be a cowardly approach, flying in the face of fairness and equality.

The good news is that there is time to fix this. It’s not a fix for the many spouses who have already passed away, given that the Order of Canada cannot be awarded posthumously. And it is not a fix for a recently deceased prime minister, who will now not get to sit proudly in the audience in the event that his wife’s achievements are recognized.

But it is an opportunity to do right by the women who have served their communities and country in various ways entirely removed from the careers of their husbands, and for the spouses who will come after them, should their own achievements merit recognition.

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It is 2024. When we raise our girls, we raise them to believe they can do anything, and that hard work and commitment to public service or community is both noble and the foundation of a successful democratic society. We raise them to believe that their gender, or their marital status, has nothing to do with their ultimate success.

Now, we just need to ensure that our Order of Canada Honours system believes that, too.

Catherine Clark is the daughter of lawyer and author Maureen McTeer and former prime minister Joe Clark. She is the co-founder of The Honest Talk.

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