Margaret Somerville, who is opposed to abortion and gay marriage, was left off list
—by Henry Aubin
The appointment to the Order of Canada last week of Henry Morgentaler, the highest profile proponent of one side of Canada’s most divisive social, religious and political issue of the last generation, is raising important questions about the Order.
Has the Order taken on a special political agenda? If so, what role does such a bias play when the Order decides which candidates to admit into its august ranks and which to reject?
In dealing with these questions, let’s put aside our personal opinions on abortion and other sensitive issues. Those views are irrelevant to this discussion. The point is to understand what makes the Order tick. It’s the business of you and me and all Canadians to know the answer because the Order is acting on our behalf in choosing – and refusing – to honour certain individuals for their contributions to society.
The Order’s receptiveness to new, taboo-breaking social mores was evident well before the Morgentaler appointment. The Order last year approved the candidacy of Brent Hawkes, a Toronto cleric who performed Canada’s first same-sex marriage. Also last year, the Order appointed writer Jane Vance Rule, lauding her specifically for “populating her novels with homosexual as well as heterosexual characters.” And when it honoured Jean Chrétien, the Order put a curious emphasis on his support for same-sex unions.
Few people, even critics of gay rights, made a fuss. I think most Canadians thought the Order was making an effort to reflect a significant current of public opinion. It’s hard to be against broad-mindedness.
Now, however, it suddenly turns out that the Order is not so broad-minded after all. It has refused admission to Margaret Somerville, the McGill University ethicist who is a leading critic of the social views that the Order welcomes.
An objective observer would say Somerville has unusually strong Order-worthy credentials. She breaks out of the ivory tower at every opportunity to contribute to legal and ethical debates over such issues as stem- cell research, euthanasia, biotechnology, animal research, nuclear-waste management and so on. Whether or not you agree with her, there’s no denying that her calm and logical approach helps sharpen public debate.
Somerville did not, of course, apply for membership – no one ever does – but was nominated two years ago by a faculty member of the Toronto School of Theology, Carol Finlay. Finlay says the Order told her it had turned Somerville down because she’s controversial.
That’s hilarious. Morgentaler is many times more controversial.
It’s hard to know who else the Order might have rebuffed since it keeps names of failed candidates confidential. And the rejection of one person does not make a trend. Still, the Somerville case says a lot about the Order’s tastes. She has been critical of both abortion and gay marriage. In 2006, when the Order was weighing her candidacy, some 15 Ryerson University faculty members turned their backs to her when their school gave her an honourary degree.
“Political correctness operates by shutting down non-politically correct people’s freedom of speech,” she said in a speech in Vancouver in June. “Anyone who challenges the politically correct stance is automatically labelled as intolerant, a bigot or hatemonger.” Or simply barred at the door, as this case suggests.
The contrasting treatments that the Order has accorded Morgentaler and Somerville reflects on more than the intellectual climate in that little organization. It hints at a far broader climate. The Order’s 10-member advisory council, the body that screens candidates and makes recommendations to the governor-general for rubberstamping, is headed by Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin. The Globe and Mail reports she “drove” Morgentaler’s candidacy.
Other members include the acting chair of the Canada Council, the chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the head of the Royal Society of Canada’s academies of arts, humanities and sciences. These are the country’s cultural gatekeepers.
Don’t feel sad for Somerville. She has earned tons of honours around the world and doesn’t need another one. Save your concern for the tarnished prestige of the Order itself. And think about what this says about the intellectual climate in the country’s top court and scholarly bastions.
Henry Aubin, journalist at the Montreal Gazette and author of The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance between Hebrews and Africans in 701 BC, has just published Rise of the Golden Cobra – a novel for young adults, available at selected bookstores and Amazon.com