Less than a third of Canadians appointed to the Order of Canada last year were women — a figure that represents the widest gender imbalance in appointments to the order in years.
Analysis by diversity researcher Andrew Griffith, a former senior government official, shows that 71.4 per cent of appointees in 2019 were men. The low number of women among the 2019 appointees — just 28.6 per cent of the total — and the low number of visible minorities — just 5.4 per cent — show the Order of Canada falling short of representing Canada’s diverse population.
Griffith said there may be a lag effect because the Order of Canada tends to be given in recognition of a lifetime’s body of work — and high-profile women were scarce in many fields until relatively recently. But he said he expected to see progress toward gender parity among Order of Canada recipients mirror the advances experienced by women in the public service.
“It indicates where the country has been because these are previous contributions that are being recognized, and yet it says how far we have to go to ensure that, at the honours level where we recognize Canadians, that we’re actually recognizing a broad, diverse spectrum of Canadians,” he said.
A lack of balance
Griffith looked into Order of Canada appointments since 2013. He said he found that, on average, the gender balance on appointments over the seven-year period was 65.6 per cent male and 34.4 per cent female. The appointments came closest to gender balance in 2015, when 54.4 per cent were men and 45.6 per cent were women.
Over the seven-year period Griffith studied, members of visible minorities made up an average of 4.8 per cent of Order of Canada appointments — well below the 22.3 per cent of the population who identified as visible minority in the 2016 census.
In that same period, Indigenous nominees comprised 4.7 per cent of the appointments — very close to the 4.9 per cent identified as Indigenous in the last census.
More than 7,000 people have been invested in the Order of Canada since it was launched in 1967 as one of the country’s highest civilian honours. Appointments are made by the governor general based on recommendations by an independent advisory council, which reviews nominations and holds confidential discussions before voting on each nominee.
Natalie Babin Dufresne, spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General, said there has been some progress toward gender balance in the Order of Canada in recent years. She noted that just 21 per cent of the appointees in 2000 were women.
Although the number of women nominated to the Order of Canada has remained steady at about 200 a year, out of roughly 500 to 800 total nominations, Babin Dufresne said the success rate for nominations is higher for women — 72 per cent, compared to 58 per cent for men.
“Progress remains slow, and new initiatives continue to be developed to improve this situation so that we can achieve results with the Order of Canada that are comparable to other programs, such as the Sovereign Medal for volunteers, where close to 48 per cent of the recipients are women,” she said in an email.
“Data collection to get a better understanding of historical trending for other diversity groups began during the current mandate, and will offer us some important insights in the coming years to better target our initiatives and efforts to increase representation for all groups, including gender, visible minority and Indigenous representation.”
Babin Dufresne said modernizing the broader Canadian honours system is one of Gov. Gen. Julie Payette’s top priorities.
While there is no mention of diversity representation in the Order of Canada’s constitution and regulations, Babin Dufresne said steps have been taken to boost its diversity, such as new data collection on gender identity, disabilities, visible minority and Indigenous status, and a new, more user-friendly nomination platform.
She also pointed out that all Order of Canada ceremonies are now livestreamed to boost visibility and accessibility.
Babin Dufresne said the best way to improve diversity in a merit-based public program like the Order of Canada is to get more Canadians to nominate more people — which is why her office is working to increase the public profile of all of Canada’s honours programs and to make the nomination process user-friendly.
Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto, said more must be done to make the Order of Canada reflect the country.
“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,” she said.
Kaplan rejected the notion that bringing in quotas could erode the merit-based selection process, arguing that there are plenty of Canadians from all backgrounds who have made extraordinary contributions to Canadian society who aren’t recognized because they don’t fit the “historical template.”
“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.
Rideau Hall said the Order of Canada advisory council makes appointment recommendations based on merit, but also takes factors like diversity into account.
The spring meeting of the advisory council was postponed due to the pandemic so the July appointments were not named. A new group of appointees is to be announced later this year.