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Bruce Beatty was the man behind the Order of Canada

Bruce Beatty loved to wear his medals.

Jill Cooper/Canadian Forces/Jill Cooper/Canadian Forces

During the 1950s, Governor-General Vincent Massey urged the federal government to create a distinctively Canadian honours system to replace the British one that had been awarded to Canadians since the 19th century. But two successive prime ministers, Louis St. Laurent and John Diefenbaker, ignored his advice.

After he became prime minister in 1963, Lester B. Pearson was determined to do something about it. The Maple Leaf flag was introduced on Feb. 15, 1965, and in late 1966 he decided he wanted another symbol to promote Canadian nationhood.

So Pearson sent for Flight Sergeant Bruce Beatty of the Royal Canadian Air Force, a graphic designer with the Directorate of Ceremonial at Ottawa's Canadian Forces headquarters.

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"We're going to create a new national order and you're the man who is going to design its insignia," is what he said to Beatty. "But don't tell anyone, not even your commanding officer or your wife."

After giving him the assignment, Pearson didn't have too much more to say, Beatty recalled later. "The only thing he stipulated was that the ribbon was to be the same colours and the same proportion as the Canadian flag, you know: a quarter red, half white, a quarter red. So I went back to the office and I didn't know what hit me, I was just a nervous wreck."

Fortunately, inspiration hit Beatty on a Friday afternoon in November as he was walking from work to the CFHQ warrant officers and sergeants' mess, then located in the old Beaver Barracks, for happy hour.

"It started to snow a little bit, just the odd snowflake coming. And I was trying to think of some design for [the order]to be Canadian. And snowflakes, I should base it on a snowflake, you know, you can't be any more Canadian than that," he told Army News.

Just before Christmas, Beatty went back to see Pearson with three designs. The one picked received royal approval from the Queen on March 21, 1967.

The prime minister seemed happy, Beatty said in 1999. "He said that the crown seemed a little too small, so I said I could make it bigger."

Now one of Canada's best-known national symbols, Beatty's design consists of a white, enameled, hexagonal snowflake with six equal leaves. The badge's centre has a disc bearing the Maple Leaf on a white enamel background, surrounded by a red enamel ring (annulus) bearing the motto of the order. St. Edward's Crown sits on top of the annulus.

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"The symbolism of the snowflake was ideal. It represented the Canadian climate, and furthermore, every snowflake - like every recipient of the order - is unique," wrote Christopher McCreery in his 2005 book The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History, and Development.

Beatty, who died in Ottawa on March 21 of pneumonia at 88, spent the next three decades designing almost every single medal created by the federal government.

His medals, described as a "happy marriage of tradition and modernity," have been awarded to almost 100,000 people, including Canadian Forces members, civilians, police officers, firefighters and the RCMP. Known for his versatility, he also designed the Order of British Columbia and hundreds of official crests, badges, logos and coats of arms.

Working for Rideau Hall's Chancellery of Honours from 1972 to the mid-2000s, and then on contract, Beatty was a meticulous craftsman who took great pains over his designs.

Joyce Bryant of Ottawa worked with Beatty at the Chancellery for 25 years. "We were very close friends. He had a lovely sense of humour, very dry. He knew absolutely everything about badges and honours."

McCreery, an expert on official honours who works as chief of staff to the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, first met Beatty in 2002 when he was writing his book.

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"He was one of the most knowledgeable people in the world [on]medal design," McCreery said. "Bruce mixed tradition and modern Canadian symbols into a unique style that now defines the Canadian honours system."

Bruce Wilbur Beatty was born on July 6, 1922, in Melfort, Sask. He was from an early age passionately interested in medals and military insignia, his father having served in Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) during the First World War.

"I used to put [his medals]on at every chance, and go parading around the house," Beatty told the Canadian Forces Sentinel magazine in 1967. Art was another early interest.

Beatty joined the RCAF in 1941 and trained as an air observer. After the war, he decided to make the air force his career and re-mustered to graphic artist in 1948.

By 1958, about 56,000 men and women were wearing air force blue. Beatty was one of a group of RCAF public affairs officers, photographers and graphic artists who told the story to the Canadian public, in words, photographs and graphic art.

After designing the Order of Canada, Beatty's next assignment was to design the Canadian Centennial Medal, established to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967.

He received the medal himself, not just once like the other recipients - but three times.

"First, I got one from the RCAF," he related in 1999. "Then the master of the Royal Canadian Mint gave me one and finally Governor-General Roland Michener presented me with a third medal."

When the RCAF, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Navy were unified in 1968, Beatty spent the next few years redesigning a wide variety of squadron crests, army badges and other insignia.

After retiring from the Canadian Forces in 1970, he remained in uniform with the army cadets. He was soon commissioned as a captain and served seven years with the cadet corps of Ottawa's 30 Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery.

Hired by the Chancellery of Honours in 1972, his first decade there was very busy. His first year he designed Canada's new gallantry decorations: the Medal of Bravery, the Star of Courage and the Cross of Valour.

Medal after medal followed, including the Order of Military Merit, the Korea Voluntary Service Medal, the Somalia Medal and the Gulf and Kuwait Medal.

Over all, he designed almost two dozen official medals and decorations.

After the federal government "Canadianized" the Victoria Cross in 1993, Beatty helped make modifications to its design, including adding Canadian flora and changing the motto from "For Valour" to "Pro Valore."

He himself was made a member of the Order of Canada on May 24, 1990. In 1999, he relayed the story of how he finally received it 24 years after he designed it. Someone at Rideau Hall got in touch with Buckingham Palace, and said that Beatty deserved to be made a member of the Royal Victorian Order, which is awarded by the Queen for service rendered to the Royal Family.

"That person was told, 'Why don't you give him the Order of Canada, he designed it, didn't he?' And that's how I got it," Beatty said.

His citation said: "An accomplished graphic artist, he is the creative force behind all of the symbolic representations which make up our Canadian honours system, beginning with the beautiful snowflake design of the Order of Canada. His vast knowledge of honours and their history has firmly established him as an authority in the field, and he continues his life's work, of incalculable importance to the development of our national honours system, unabated."

In fact, Beatty's personal group of 12 medals - he wore miniature versions on his dinner jacket, complete with black tie, at formal dinners - included three he designed himself besides the Order of Canada: the Centennial Medal, the Canada 125 Medal and the Special Service Medal. He also had the Order of St. John.

Beatty was present for every single investiture of the Order, from 1967 to the spring of 2010. Before the recipients and their guests would assemble in Rideau Hall's ballroom, he would double-check the list of names and medals. Then, standing just behind the governor-general, he would place the various insignia carefully on a cushion. Next, a military aide-de-camp would pick up the cushion and bring it to the governor-general.

A trivial job, perhaps, but Beatty's dignified bearing, coupled with his immaculate turnout, made him a central figure at investitures for four decades. "He was always very punctilious in his dress," said his wife, Nelly, whom he married when he worked at the RCAF's No. 1 Air Division headquarters, in Metz, France, in the early 1960s. "He knew what to wear and people would turn to him for advice, from all over the country, on what to wear and how to wear their medals. He was military to the last extreme."

Over all, he attended almost 300 investitures, including the Order of St. John, the three bravery decorations and the Order of Military Merit. He worked for nine governors-general, starting with Georges Vanier in 1966, to the incumbent, David Johnston. But he always maintained he really worked for his "true boss," the Queen.

A staunch monarchist, Beatty met the Queen many times during her visits to Canada. During one royal visit it was decided that Prince Philip's medals needed new ribbons, so Beatty took them home and did the job.

He also designed every royal visit lapel pin for 59 years, starting in 1951 when the then Princess Elizabeth visited Canada for the first time, a year before she acceded to the throne.

Gordon Macpherson, Niagara Herald Extraordinary of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, knew Beatty since the 1960s. "Bruce was an outstanding artist and there was no one, in my opinion, that comes even close to his expertise as a designer of medals and decorations," he said.

Major Carl Gauthier of the Directorate of Honours and Recognition first met Beattie in 1997. "We immediately struck a friendship. Of course, as a keen student of honours, I was deeply interested in his work and knowledge and he generously shared his experience and wisdom with me over many hours of conversation."

The two men spent a lot of time together at various conferences. "During downtime, we would go medals hunting. I remember one time in Winnipeg, I think we walked half way across the city to find a particular coin shop and when we got there, it was closed. Once I was back home, he sent me a few medals for my collection with a note that the next time he went for a walk with me, he would bring his Rollerblades!"

Beatty had the highest standards when it came to wearing medals, Gauthier said. "He was particularly upset at the proliferation of unofficial medals, which he called 'popcorn medals.' He said, 'If it doesn't come from the Queen, then it is not real.'"

He loved designing, but what came after often left him frustrated. His particular nemeses were the federal bureaucrats who had little or no knowledge of honours and disliked Canada's monarchy and its symbols.

"Sometimes, politics got in the way of design and he was pressured to delete the Queen's effigy, cipher or crown from [his]designs," Gauthier said.

But as a loyal subject, Beatty did his best to make sure his sovereign had her proper place on his medals. A founding member of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada, he was made a fellow of the society in 1977.

Beatty kept designing medals until 2000, including the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal, awarded to 72,000 serving and retired military personnel.

His personal collection included medals from almost every country in the world. His oldest was one awarded to the British officers responsible for the capture and defence of Gibraltar in 1704-05.

He also had Imperial Germany's highest decoration, the Pour le Mérite, nicknamed the Blue Max. That particular one had been awarded to Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Their youngest brother, Bolko, gave it to Beatty in the 1960s.

One of his more curious medals was the one struck by Germany during the First World War for the occupation of Paris. That one, obviously, was never issued.

Beatty leaves Nelly, his wife of 59 years, and sons Gordon, Ian and Billy.

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