Colin Kenny: Don’t toss out commemorative medals

It’s not every day that you see a politician make a policy decision that snubs thousands of community leaders in favour of a program that honours a handful of celebrities and elites.

But it seems that’s exactly what Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly has done.

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Since 1967, the Government of Canada has marked special occasions and anniversaries, such as the Queen’s Jubilee, with the issuance of a commemorative medal.

First introduced in 1967 by the government of Lester B. Pearson to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation, commemorative medals were seen as a way to pay tribute to Canadians who had made significant contributions to their communities and to Canada.

And for the past 50 years, successive governments — both Liberal and Conservative — have utilized the occasion as way of thanking community leaders throughout the country.

But sadly, Joly has decided that there will be no medal struck to celebrate our 150th year as a nation.

The minister recently appeared at a Senate question period and I had the opportunity to ask her why there would be no medal for our sesquicentennial (it’s a terrific word for a 150th anniversary).

Her response to me was that in place of a medal, the government will be promoting an “ambassador program which will recognize hard-working Canadians and community leaders.”

She then went on to list a few noteworthy ambassadors who had already been named: “Art McDonald, winner of the Nobel prize for physics, Julie Payette, an amazing astronaut and well-known musician Kardinal Offishal.”

Had I been given an opportunity to ask a followup question, I would have asked the minister why she had decided to forgo paying tribute to everyday Canadians in favour a of a program that celebrates a select few elites.

Now, I have nothing against the Art McDonalds or the Julie Payettes of the world, but their achievements have already been recognized. That is what the system of Canadian honours is for.

Each year, about 150 or so Canadians are appointed to the Order of Canada. Commemorative medals, on the other hand, are awarded to a far larger number. For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, 60,000 medals were given out all across the country. These medals went to folks whose efforts were important but were not likely to win them a Juno or a Nobel Prize.

The people I am referring to have no expectation of receiving a medal for their efforts, but they continue their good work because it’s the right thing to do and because their communities depend on them.

They are the volunteers at soup kitchens and nursing homes. They are members of the military, teachers, firefighters, social workers, hospital workers, community volunteers, police officers, and the list goes on. They are the backbone of our communities.

In essence, these are people that a government that prides itself on fighting for the middle class should want to celebrate.

But instead, the minister has opted for the glitz and glamour of the show-biz approach.

Struggle as I might, I have tried to figure out why she would want to end a tradition as overwhelmingly popular and locally constructive as the commemorative medal. Perhaps it’s that awarding medals to community leaders isn’t as flashy as a photo-op with an astronaut or a celebrity ambassador.

The government should want to play a role in recognizing those people who contribute on a local level to the betterment of our everyday lives.

By doing so, we are sending a message to other members of the community that this is the type of work that is valued.

It’s also important to recognize their contributions once in a while and let them know that their efforts aren’t going unnoticed.

But in one fell swoop, the minister has taken away a pat on the back for 60,000 Canadians.

It’s not too late for the minister to reverse course.

Colin Kenny is a Canadian senator.

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