The July 1 announcement by the governor-general that Henry Morgentaler is being named a member of the Order of Canada led to an unprecedented debate over the usually ignored award. Newspapers were full of opinion pieces and letters to the editor, talk radio debates were ignited and at least nine OC members returned their medals in protest, exposing Morgentaler as the most divisive OC recipient.

The news leaked before-hand when Campaign Life Coalition learned three days before the announcement was made that Canada’s leading abortion advocate and abortionist would be given Canada’s highest civilian honour. The pro-life group immediately launched into action, working with MPs behind the scenes and providing information to to help raise a storm of protest in the days leading up to the announcement, hoping that the publicity might stall or derail the announcement.

Inexplicably, by June 29, Rideau Hall – the official residence of the governor-general – was diverting calls about Morgentaler’s OC to Mary Ellen Douglas of Campaign Life Coalition. Yet, on Canada Day, Governor-General Michaelle Jean announced that Morgentaler would indeed be made a member of the Order of Canada at a ceremony later this year.

The Order of Canada’s motto is desiderantes meliorum patriam – “they desire a better country.” The OC is the highest civilian honour and recognizes “a lifetime of distinguished service in or to a particular community, group or field of activity.”

Morgentaler’s citation reads: “For his commitment to increased health care options for women, his determined efforts to influence public policy and his leadership in humanist and civil liberties organizations.”

National Post columnist Fr. Raymond de Souza was one of the commentators who noted that the citation could not even mention what public policy Morgentaler influenced and that it wrapped up his support of abortion in the euphemism of “choice.”

For his part, Morgentaler held an unprecedented press conference to laud himself as an OC recipient. He said, “The work I’ve done over the years and the sacrifices and sentence of imprisonment I have suffered, I think that finally now the government has recognized my contribution to Canadian women and I am very proud of it.”


Predictably, Morgentaler’s membership in the OC outraged pro-life and religious groups.

Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, said, “It is dreadful that this honour should even be considered for a man whose only claim to fame is that he is a professional killer of defenceless babies in their mothers’ wombs.”

Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer of CLC, said, “This presentation should be given to people who have made Canada a better place to live and the elimination of thousands of human beings who would have contributed to the future of Canada is a disgrace, not an honour.”

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins issued a pointed letter saying Morgentaler’s inclusion in the OC “debased” and “dishonoured” the award. He said, “Canada glories in the names of Banting and Best and the other medical heroes who selflessly brought healing where there was disease and suffering. Now it honours … (a person) who has brought not healing, but the destruction of the defenceless and immeasurable grief.”

The archbishop instructed his priests to include among the prayer of the faithful an intention: “That the scourge of abortion be lifted from our land, that those who promote it may be brought to a change of heart, that all who are tempted to abortion may be lovingly helped to protect the precious gift of life and that all who have experienced an abortion may be comforted with the healing gift of love.”

COLF – the Catholic Organization for Life and Family – called for repeal of the decision to honour Morgentaler, saying: “Canada has its heroes and they deserve to be recognized; however, it is neither heroic nor admirable to cause the death of unborn children, the most vulnerable of all Canadians.

Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said it “diminished Canada’s highest honour” and expressed his hope that “this tragic decision serve to … renew our commitment to champion the protection of all human life.”

Dr. Charles McVety, president of the Canadian Family Action Coalition, said that “Morgentaler’s conduct is unbecoming a member of the Order of Canada,” pointing to his repeated violations of Canadian law from 1968 through 1988 and his suspended medical licence in 1976 as violations of the Constitution of the Order of Canada, which states that members should not break the law or be disciplined by professional bodies (see sidebar).

Dr. Will Johnston of Physicians for Life said that “to honour Henry Morgentaler with the Order of Canada would be to honour abortion, for he did nothing else of note.”

More than 65 MPs have criticized Morgentaler’s OC. Rod Bruinooge (C, Winnipeg South) said, “Appointees to the Order of Canada should be seen by a clear majority of Canadians as being noble and beyond reproach” – a standard the MP did not find the abortionist reaching. Bruinooge said he now questioned the “very legitimacy” of the award. Bev Shipley (C, Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) said Morgentaler was undeserving because his “activities in Canada are not achievements.” Garry Breitkreuz (C, Yorkton-Melville) said, “This appointment is opposed by millions of Canadians who believe all life is sacrosanct – he should be left to fade into history. This decision completely devalues the Order of Canada.”

Paul Steckle (L, Huron-Bruce) said the decision takes “the Order of Canada to a new low that I couldn’t have imagined.” Dan McTeague (L, Pickering-Scarborough East) condemned the Order of Canada advisory council’s decision as taking sides with a “ social statement” on the abortion issue.

Renewed activism

Hughes told The Interim that while the advisory council of the Order of Canada no doubt sought to provide an official seal of approval on the cause Morgentaler espoused, it ended up setting off a storm of controversy and re-igniting the pro-life movement.

Campaign Life Coalition organized a protest outside Rideau Hall the week following the announcement. Press reports had as many as 1,000 people – many holding signs saying “REVOKE,” “We Desire a Better Country” and “Henry Morgentaler made a killing off our generation, please don’t honour him” – attending the hastily organized event, lining Sussex Drive in front of the prime minister’s and governor-general’s residences.

Spokesperson Angelina Steenstra of Silent No More Awareness said Morgentaler has brought untold pain to countless women and men through abortion and yet he remains “unrepentant.” She added: “This debasing of the Order of Canada award and our nation must end immediately.”

Various groups, including CLC and Ontario’s Family Coalition Party, have launched online petitions. CLC’s petition had more than 2,000 signatures within the first 24 hours and nearly 15,000 names within two weeks.

Campaign Life Coalition is encouraging pro-lifers to call the deputy secretary of the chancellery to request what is formally called a “termination” of Morgentaler’s OC. The Canada Family Action Coalition has formally filed a request that Morgentaler’s membership in the OC be revoked. 4 MY CANADA, an evangelical youth group, has encouraged pro-lifers to call the chancellery every other day to register their dissatisfaction with this award. In Calgary, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform hit the streets with trucks adorned with images of aborted babies. The Interim has been informed that the Prime Minister’s Office has received thousands of letters of opposition to the decision. Many MPs report being inundated with calls, letters and e-mail expressing similar dissatisfaction.

The secretive process

The Interim has also learned that Conservative MPs were alerted to the fact that Morgentaler would receive the Order of Canada late in the eveining in an e-mail from the Prime Minister’s Office on July 27, the Friday of the long weekend before the announcement. The Prime Minister’s Office has been adamant in its statements that it had nothing to do with Morgentaler’s OC. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his “preference” would have been for the award to unite and not divide Canadians, but he did not condemn the decision. He and various spokesmen have reiterated that it was “not a decision of the government” and that the advisory process is “made independently of the government.”

The process itself has become the subject of controversy. Critics point to the secrecy generally surrounding the decision-making process, but more troubling is that the process seems to have been altered to ram Morgentaler’s award through the committee.

The process by which members are chosen is not public, but numerous media outlets reported that generally decisions of the 11-member advisory council are made by unanimous consent. Suzanne Hurtubise, the deputy minister of heritage under Sheila Copps during Jean Chretien’s years in office, confirmed this in an interview with the Globe and Mail. She also indicated that she and then privy council clerk Jocelyn Bourgon opposed the nomination when it was presented previously.

Some reports have suggested that once nominees have been rejected, they are never reconsidered. But the Globe and Mail and National Post both reported that Morgentaler has been nominated by members of the public at least three times over the past 20 years, including as recently as last year. He has not been able to garner the consensus necessary to be recommended to the governor-general for the award.

However, it seems this time, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who chairs the advisory council, rammed the nomination through committee over the objections of two council members and that the final vote was 7-2. The Globe and Mailreported that the two opponents were Kevin Lynch, the clerk of the privy council, and Judith A. LaRocque, deputy minister of Canadian Heritage, but there has been no confirmation of this or that only nine of the 11 members voted. Nor is it clear if the two missing voters (assuming the stories are correct) were absent from the proceedings or abstained from voting.

Other members of the advisory council include Patricia Baird, a geneticist and chair of the 1993 Federal Royal Commission on Reproductive Technology, Yvan Guindon, president of the Royal Society of Canada, actor Tom Jackson, Karen Kain, ballerina and artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Daurene E. Lewis, a leader in Nova Scotia’s black community, L. Jacques Ménard, chairman of BMO Nesbitt Burns, J.E. (Ted) Newall, a retired Canadian businessman, and Bonnie M. Patterson, chair of the board of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

It is unclear how vigorously the government’s two appointees to the council, Lynch and LaRocque, opposed Morgentaler’s nomination or whether they protested McLachlin’s breach of protocol in favour of a straight democratic vote. This is thought to be unprecedented among the more than 5,000 Order of Canada members since 1967.

CLC’s Mary Ellen Douglas said, “Since there’s so many irregularities here, the fact there was no unanimity on the committee, it really should never have gone forward.” She said if ever the governor-general should have ignored the advice of the council, this was such a case. Christopher McCreery, an expert on Canada’s honours system, said the governor-general has the power to “strike a name off” the recommendations list, but is unaware of this ever occurring.

The National Post reported that this third attempt to get Morgentaler the award was put forward by Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics. The Globe and Mail reported that Norman Barwin, president of Canadians for Choice and himself a member of the Order of Canada, nominated Morgentaler in 1988 and again in 2002.

Barwin said he was contacted several months ago and asked if he stood by his original recommendation. No pro-lifer has reported being asked about what he or she thought of Morgentaler’s inclusion in the OC.

In a separate story, the paper reported that American novelist John Irving and oncologist Robert Buckman wrote letters of support for Morgentaler’s OC and that references for the abortionist included the late feminist journalist Doris Anderson. Egan admits she cited previous honours, including an honourary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario and a Couchiching Award for Public Policy Leadership, both in 2005, as evidence that the public was coming to Morgentaler’s line of thinking on abortion.

At the time, pro-life leaders warned that the honours given to Morgentaler could be harbingers of a future Order of Canada.

Campaign Life Coalition is requesting that the government initiate a process to examine how the Order of Canada is awarded in the future. Hughes told The Interim the award cannot be given to partisans in causes that radically divide the country and that to become less elitist and sheltered from public opinion, the advisory council should make its discussions public; if not, it should at least explain what the normal process is, whether it was circumvented in this case and why.