Backgrounder: The Canadian Gallantry Recognition Framework
Military Valour Decorations (MVDs) are national honours created on 1 January 1993 to recognize acts of valour, self-sacrifice or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. Awards for gallantry in the presence of the enemy recognize active combat with a foe in situations such as war. MVDs include the following decorations:
- Victoria Cross – (VC) – Level 1, The VC, is awarded for the most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty, in the presence of the enemy.
- Star of Military Valour (SMV) – Level 2, The SMV, is awarded for distinguished and valiant service in the presence of the enemy.
- Medal of Military Valour (MMV) – Level 3, The MMV, is awarded for an act of valour or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.
These awards can be awarded for lesser hostile situations short of war if the troops are in “combat” with an organized, armed “enemy” that is recognized as such by the people of Canada. It is important to note that “combat” is not merely the presence of fire. Rather, the fire has to be directed at the troops, with the intent of combat being the destruction of the opposing force as a viable entity. The word “enemy” in this context means a hostile armed force, and includes armed terrorists, armed mutineers, armed rebels, armed rioters and armed pirates.
Canadian Bravery Decorations are used in all other circumstances.
Type of Gallantry Recognized
The Military Valour Decorations cover gallantry in combat in many forms including:
- Specific act of valour in combat;
- Act of valour in saving life under fire; or
- Distinguished service or devotion to duty under fire.
A statistical analysis of the 109 MVDs awarded from 1993 until 2018 revealed that nearly half the awards were for life-saving acts of valour in combat (50 or 45.9%), with specific acts of valour in combat following close behind at 41.3%. In third place were distinguished service or devotion to duty under fire, at 12.8%.
Recommendations and Timelines
Recommendations should be initiated as soon as possible after the incident, while memories are fresh and witnesses are available. Normally a recommendation, which includes a full narrative, together with witness statements, must be initiated within one month of the date on which the deed or action occurred. If this time limit is exceeded, reasons for the delay must accompany the recommendation.
Recommendations are processed through the chain of command from the theatre of operations to Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC). Recommendations must include a minimum of two sworn witness statements and reach the Directorate of Honours and Recognition (DH&R) within two years of the date of the incident cited. In exceptional circumstances, where there are fewer than two witnesses, a statement from one person may be acceptable. It should be accompanied by an explanation of the exceptional circumstances. The circumstances of each case are carefully examined by the Canadian Forces Decorations Advisory Committee (CFDAC) to ensure fair and equal treatment for all.
In addition to the aforementioned two-year limit specific to the MVDs, there is also a broader five-year limit for nominations that is observed as part of the CAF Honours system. This “five year rule” was established by King George VI in 1950, as recommendations for wartime service were still pouring in. His Majesty decreed that consideration would not be given for acts performed more than five years before the nomination, thereby putting an end to Second World War nominations.
This principle has generally been applied since, in considering honours policy issues, proposals for new honours, and individual nominations for honours. In Canada, the five-year limit was reaffirmed in 2005 and now applies to the modern Canadian Honours System. These important limits are in place to ensure that events are judged by the standards of the time, and that they are measured along with contemporary examples, and to ensure that previous decisions are not second-guessed and history is not reinterpreted. These rules are also respected by some of our closest Commonwealth allies such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
In order to preserve the rarity and symbolic value of the decorations, there are numerical limits in place that are identical to the limits used for gallantry decorations during the two World Wars and the Korean conflict. MVD nominations cannot exceed one nomination for every 250 persons under command in an active theatre of operations for a six-month period. This rule preserves the respect for and value of these decorations but can make for difficult choices for military leaders; only ‘the bravest of the brave’– those who willingly and knowingly sacrifice themselves for others, or set an extreme example of devotion to duty – will be recognized.
Military Valour Decorations and the Afghanistan Campaign 2001-2014
During the Afghanistan campaign, nominations for all MVDs were initiated at the unit level in theatre, reviewed by a theatre-level honours and awards committee, supported by the Task Force Commander, then forwarded to CJOC (formerly Canadian Expeditionary Force Command or CEFCOM), where they would be reviewed by the Command’s honours and awards committee. This, in turn, would require the support of the Commander of the Command before being forwarded to DH&R (until August 2006, this was the Honours & Awards Section of the Directorate of History and Heritage or DHH). Staff at DH&R would review every file in detail to ensure the criteria for the proposed award were fully met, that the award was in line with precedents, and that the number of nominations remained within the numerical limits.
The files were then considered by the CFDAC, which sits as the Military Valour Decorations Advisory Committee when assessing MVD files. Besides the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), who acts as Chair, membership of CFDAC includes the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff; the Commanders of the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force; as well as a representative of the Governor General who is a senior official from the Chancellery of Honours. The CDS then conveys the Committee’s recommendations to the Governor General who approves the awards on behalf of Her Majesty through an Instrument of Award.
Although created 25 years ago, MVDs were first used in the context of the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, which resulted from the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 in the United States. 109 MVDs were awarded for gallantry in that long and arduous campaign, the first major combat mission the CAF had been involved in since the Korean conflict.
Soon after the beginning of the campaign, the Honours and Awards authorities formally requested concurrence from the chain of command to process and consider any MVD nominations that might come forward as a result of combat action in Afghanistan, in order to negate a persistent belief in some circles that MVDs could only be awarded in declared wars. It was clear early on that this mission met the basic criteria for the MVDs inasmuch as Canadian troops were in actual combat with their aim being the destruction of the opposing force as a valid fighting entity; and they faced an armed enemy recognized as such by the Canadian people. It was now a matter of someone performing an act meeting the exacting criteria for one of the decorations.
The first awards of the MVDs were announced on 27 October 2006. This first announcement was for four awards, the SMV to Sergeant Tower and the MMV to Sergeant Denine, Master Corporal Fitzgerald and Corporal Lamont. These awards were among the first of many that would recognize valiant, brave and distinguished service by CAF members during the intense combat operations in Afghanistan.
Citations for awards of MVDs are generally short and provide a brief summary of the action. The public citation is meant to be a concise summary of the facts that make it clear to outside observers why the actions of the individual stand out, by describing the measurable impact and consequences of a deed. They usually do not exceed 80 words in English or 105 words in French. Citations do not convey all of the contextual and detailed information – which includes a fully detailed narrative, plans, diagrams, witness statements and classified information as appropriate – that is considered at each of the levels of expert review during the selection process.
Full Review of All 20 SMVs (2012)
Towards the end of the Afghanistan mission, General Walter Natynczyk, then-CDS, ordered a full review in 2012 of all 20 SMVs awarded to ensure that the award process for these decorations had been efficient, fair and consistent throughout the years and rotations, and to ensure that all awards respected the intent and criteria of the decoration. This review was also meant to address concerns that the awarding of decorations was more generous in the later part of the campaign than in its early stages and to address the question as to why no VC had been awarded during the campaign, especially since the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand had all awarded VCs for actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the outset of the review, the chain of command and the CDS in particular made it clear that there was a desire to be fair, but that ‘we would not look for one’ (VC) – simply for the sake of awarding one.
A Review Committee chaired by the Assistant Chief of Military Personnel, with Commodore/ Brigadier-General representatives from the various commands and a representative of the Governor General, reviewed the full nomination files for all 20 SMVs and, after deliberations, reported to the CDS that the process had indeed been fair and consistent and that all awards respected the intent and criteria of the decoration; all 20 SMVs were fully warranted, none of the cases being worthy of higher or lower recognition.
The review found that all the SMVs awarded were for actions that were all clearly in the SMV range, no more, no less. The perception that awards were increasingly generous over time may have in part stemmed from the fact that the early years of Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan mission consisted mainly of service, including training, in the northern part of the country. It is only when the CAF moved to Kandahar province in the summer of 2005 that the basic conditions for the award of the MVDs, ‘in combat’ with an ‘armed enemy,’ were fully met. From that point, a substantial number of troops were in regular and prolonged contact with a recognized armed enemy, resulting in greater potential for eligible gallantry acts. With regards to the lack of award of a VC, the review made it clear that it was simply a matter that no nomination for that campaign met the very high standard for the nation’s highest honour. The CDS was satisfied with the conclusions of the review.
The number of MVDs Canada awarded in that campaign is comparable to historical precedent (Korea in particular, where no VC was awarded to a Canadian) and what our close allies have awarded (such as the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, who have comparable honours systems), considering number of deployed troops and casualties proportionally. Casualties are an indicator of the level of risk and the intensity of the combat.
One must be careful when comparing modern SMV citations with those of VCs from long-past conflicts like the Anglo-Boer War or the First World War. The way the VC has been awarded has evolved significantly over time. The decoration was at that time awarded more freely than in the modern period, because the concept of war has evolved, and also as a result of the creation of a number of intermediate gallantry decorations covering ground which might have earned a VC a century ago.
Modern Victoria Cross Standard
One can get a more accurate representation of the bar set for the award of a modern Victoria Cross by looking at the citations of decorations awarded by our Commonwealth allies: for example, the British VCs awarded since Vietnam, including those awarded for acts that occurred during the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan, a substantial portion of which are posthumous awards. These modern-day examples reveal that in addition to outstanding gallantry, most acts also enabled forward momentum on the battlefield, in situations where the recipient either drew fire unto themselves to relieve others or single-handedly charged the enemy against overwhelming odds. While the actions of Canadian SMV recipients are most brave and impressive, and truly deserving of the SMV they have received, these actions do not reach the extreme element that would make them a VC action.
In the end, what is important to recognize and celebrate is the tremendous gallantry demonstrated by the 20 SMV and 89 MMV recipients during this long and arduous campaign, individuals who are the embodiment of the highest of military virtues and who are the worthy successors to generations of brave Canadians who have shown their mettle in combat in various conflicts around the world in the past 150 years.
Military Valour Decorations: Military Valour Decorations (canada.ca) (PDF 8.1 mb)
Canadian Forces Honours Policy Manual: Canadian Forces Honours Policy Manual - Canada.ca
The Canadian Military and the Victoria Cross: The Canadian military and the Victoria Cross - Canada.ca
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