If you look at the early history of Canada’s prime ministers, one common thread is the fact that nearly all have Sir in front of their names.
Some make sense, like Sir John A. MacDonald, the first prime minister. Alexander Mackenzie, the second prime minister, declined to be knighted.
Things get a bit muddy when we look at the next four prime ministers of Canada, all of whom were knighted. Sir John Abbott, Sir John Thompson, Sir Mackenzie Bowtell and Sir Charles Tupper combined served less time than John A. Macdonald did in his first stretch in office. They amount to five years, while John A. Amounts to six years. Tupper only served from May 1, 1896 to July 8, 1896, yet he was also knighted.
The next prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, was definitely deserving of the honour, having spent nearly 50 years in parliament.
The last prime minister to be knighted, Sir Robert Borden, served Canada during the First World War, so it could be argued he deserved it.
At this point, everything changed and its thanks to the Nickle Resolution.
In 1917, Conservative MP William Folger Nickle put forward a motion regarding the honouring of Canadians. This came about after the knighting of Sam Hughes, who was the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence during the war, serving from 1911 to 1916 until he was dismissed. He had been knighted in 1915 but mounting criticism for how he ran the Defense Department during the war would lead to his dismissal.
Prime Minister Borden disagreed with the process by which Canadians received the knighthood honour and in March of 1917 he would draft a policy that stated all names had to be put through the prime minister first, before going to Westminster.
Nickle disagreed with this, feeling that even the granting of hereditary titles was itself against the democratic values of Canada.
Those that disagreed with Nickle stated that he was only doing this out of spite because he had been unsuccessful in getting his father-in-law, Daniel Gordon, the principle of Queen’s University, a knighthood.
Despite these criticisms, Nickle was able to move his resolution the House of Commons, and he called for an address to be made to King George V that no knighthoods be grated to Canadians and that all titles held by Canadians at that point become extinct upon the death of the person.
The House of Commons passed the resolution, although oddly Nickel voted against the version put through. The motion never advanced on to the Senate and no address to the King was ever done.
It seemed, that for a time, the debate was over.
In 1919, it became known that honours were being sold in the United Kingdom and there was a worry that the British government would honour a large number of Canadians for their service in the war by appointing them to the Order of the British Empire.
Nickle once again put forward a motion calling on the King to refrain from conferring titles on subjects in Canada. This time, his resolution included non-hereditary titles. A special committee was created to look at honours and it was concluded that the King should be asked to cease conferring honours, and honours from foreign governments should be banned. In addition, bravery and valour decorations were deemed to be okay, including the Military Cross and Victoria Cross.
The Nickel Resolution was once again adopted by the House of Commons, but again it was not forwarded on to the Senate as it was expected it would be defeated there. Nonetheless, this established a policy that has to this day not been challenged by the Senate of Canada.
Throughout the 1920s, national sentiment grew and and the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King looked at ending the imperial practices of the British government. One matter that changed was the appointing of Canadian governor generals by the British government. It was in the 1920s that King would look at the Nickle Resolution as policy and by the time King was officially out of politics in 1948, it was considered government practice.
King’s dislike of the British honours was exemplified on Feb. 12, 1929 in a speech at the House of Commons.
“If we have no titles, titular distinctions or honours in Canada, let us hold to the principle and have none, let us abolish them altogether, but if the sovereigns or heads of other countries are permitted to bestow honours on Canadians, for my part I think we owe it to our own sovereign to give him the prerogative before all others.”
A motion was put forward to reconsider the Nickle Resolution once again but it was defeated two days later.
While King would be against knighthoods to Canadians, he was not in charge of Canada for the first half of the 1930s. R.B. Bennett was prime minister and he was in favour of knighthoods.
On May 17, 1933, Bennet would tell the House of Commons that the Nickle Resolution was no longer in force, stating,
“It being the considered view of His Majesty’s government in Canada that the motion, with respect to honours, adopted on May 22, 1919 by a majority vote of the members of the Commons House only of the 13th Parliament, is not binding up on His Majesty or His Majesty’s government in Canada or the 17th parliament of Canada.
On Jan. 30, 1934, Bennett would address the House of Commons, once again stating that the Nickle Resolution was long extinct yet it was still influencing the House of Commons.
Later in 1934, Bennet would write a letter to MP J.R. MacNicol, stating,
“So long as I remain a citizen of the British Empire and a loyal subject of the King, I do not propose to do otherwise than assume the prerogative rights of the Sovereign to recognize the services of his subjects.”
From 1933 to 1935 when he was defeated by King, Bennett’s government would send an honours list to the King.
This would result in various knighthoods for prominent Canadians including Lymoon Poore Duff, the Chief Justice of Canada, James MacBrien, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin and Ernest MacMillan, noted composer and conductor.
On March 14, 1934, a vote was called on a private members bill, put forward by Humphrey Mitchell of the Labour Party, requiring the prime minister to end all recommendations to the King for titles. This new resolution, which functioned as a new Nickle Resolution for the 1930s, was defeated 113 to 94.
Unfortunately for those who wanted to be knighted, William Lyon Mackenzie King came back into power in 1935 and he ended the president set by Bennett’s government.
Since this year, the no honours policy of the Canadian government has been in place but all those who received the honour during Bennett’s time in power still keep their title of Sir.
As for Bennett, he would leave Canada in 1938 and move to England. While there, he was made Viscount Bennett of Mickleham in the county of Surrey and of Hopewell and Calgary in Canada.
In 1968, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s government published Regulations Regarding The Acceptance And Wearing By Canadians Of Commonwealth and Foreign Orders, Decorations and Medals. This would set the modern policy that continued the trend of no knighthoods for Canadians.
Since 1935, knighthoods have been incredibly rare even though there is no true law preventing it from happening. One of the best examples of this was at the end of the Second World War when Winston Churchill recommended that Canadian William Stephenson, who served as the spymaster for the entire Western Hemisphere during the Second World War and was stated by Ian Fleming to be the inspiration for James Bond, be knighted for his incredible service to the war effort. Churchill stated that this request was “one dear to my heart” for the gratitude he felt towards Stephenson. King agreed and Stephenson was knighted.
Today in Canada, the Order of Canada, established in 1967, has replaced the issuing of knighthoods and is seen as the equivalent in the country to being knighted in England.
Before I end this episode, I want to look at some of the Canadians who found themselves knighted following 1920 and the change in policies. These people were only Canadian citizens as several people who have had duel Canadian and British citizenship have been knighted.
Ernest MacMillan was called the Musical Knight of Canada and was the pre-eminent musician in Canada from the 1920s to the 1950s. A conductor, composer and performer, he was one of the most celebrated musicians in Canadian history. In 1935, for services to music in Canada, he was knighted by King George V.
James MacBrien was a Canadian soldier who served in the Second Boer War, and the First World War as a General Staff Officer and then a commanding officer. After the war, he was appointed Chief of the General Staff and from 1931 to 1938, he was the commissioner of the RCMP. He would be knighted by King George V.
Frederick Banting was the co-discoverer of insulin who gave the patent away for one dollar rather than collecting royalties. He would be knighted for his service to humanity in the mid-1930s.
Lyman Duff was the longest serving justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, serving from 1933 to 1944 and was so widely respected that an Act of Parliament was used to extend the mandatory retirement age for judges to ensure he would stay on the Supreme Court. In 1934, he was knighted.
Edward Peacock was born in Canada and would go on to become the director of the Bank of England, followed by the director of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Rhodes Trust. In 1934, he would be knighted. During the Second World War he worked between the US and England and was instrumental in recruiting Ian Fleming to British Naval Intelligence.
Charles Saunders was a farmer from Ontario who would develop Marquis wheat, which went to see almost two weeks earlier than regular wheat seeds. It would revolutionize Canadian farming and he would be knighted in 1935, two years prior to his death.
Is it likely to change and will Canadians ever get knighthoods again? Who knows really. I don’t think we will see a Sir Bobby Orr, Sir Chris Hadfield or Dame Anne Murray anytime soon but maybe we will.