‘It’s really a privilege to be able to do what we do,’ says Honours and Recognition director

Article / January 17, 2017 / Project number: 16-0042

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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This is the first in a series of stories describing the work of the Directorate of Honours and Recognition (DH&R), which administers the various processes related to the awarding of medals and other honours to the Canadian Armed Forces members.  Here, we meet DH&R director Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier, who shares the story of his journey from a youth spent as a collector of military honours to becoming a key figure in the process of creating them.

Ottawa, Ontario — “The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. At the same time a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it, it is of less value. There must, therefore, be heart-burnings and disappointments on the border line.”

These words, spoken by the former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in 1944, adorn the office door of Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier, who leads the team responsible for much of the work that goes into creating and handing out the honours given to extraordinary members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF): the Directorate of Honours and Recognition (DH&R).

Churchill’s words cut right to the heart of the fundamental challenge that comes with the job, said LCol Gauthier.

“There’s always a very fine line you have to walk between not recognizing enough, making the honours look unattainable, and recognizing too much, diluting their value. They have to be seen as something that is respectable, that is worthy of working for and having, but also attainable. If you recognize too much it’s going to be the other way. If everybody’s got it, what’s the point?”

Such challenges are not particularly daunting to LCol Gauthier, however. He is in the enviable position, after all, of having made a career out of what began as his hobby. As a boy in Mont-Joli, Quebec, he was urged by a family friend to consider becoming an Air Cadet.

“And, of course, me knowing nothing at the time, he talked about Air Cadets and I was afraid they wanted to ship me off to war or something. I was horrified,” he recalled with a laugh. “But of course they brought me over one night and I just fell in love. I was about 13. I really immersed myself in the cadet world and that program did wonders for me as far as leadership and learning.”

The cadet experience, and particularly a commanding officer, Major (Retired) Francois Dornier, who has a penchant for history, set LCol Gauthier on the path to DH&R.

“While I was in the Air Cadets, I started to collect badges and things. Later on I enrolled in the CAF as a Cadet Instructor while I was in college and university. While I was going to summer camp in Bagotville we’d stop by Quebec City and this is where I found that one could collect medals; you could buy these things.”

As LCol Gauthier neared completion of a history degree at the Université du Québec à Rimouski years later, he found there was already a need for his expertise at the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 3 Wing in Bagotville, Quebec.

“They had just created the Wing Heritage Officers positions across the Wings and the Commander in Bagotville really wanted to open up a museum, which had been a long-term project. I had been involved peripherally before but now they wanted to actually open it to the public. They called me two weeks before I’d finished my degree so I said, ‘Give me two weeks and I’ll be there.’”

The result was the Air Defence Museum in Bagotville, which opened in 1997. LCol Gauthier brought the same personal touch to it as he does to DH&R today.

“I went there and opened up the museum and managed it for about five years. I did guided tours on base and public affairs-type work. And of course I had a small collection of medals and the museum being very young, we had very little in terms of a collection. So I put up my own collection, about 200 pieces, in the museum for people to see.”

LCol Gauthier’s knowledge and passion came to wider attention when officials from the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH) visited for an inspection.  The museum received official recognition from the Department of National Defence in 1997 and shortly after, the doors of DH&R were opened to LCol Gauthier.

“Essentially they called me up and they said the director had left and the Major was leaving and they said, ‘Would you like to come up and work for us?’ So after five years in Bagotville, I moved to Ottawa and came here. It’s been 14 years and now I’m the director and I get to be in the lucky position that my hobby became my job.”

An equally passionate soldier and collector, LCol Gauthier wasted little time in driving change to make military honours more desirable to both groups when he joined DH&R in 2002. Most campaign medals introduced since the Korean War, he explained, were issued without the individual recipient’s name; a practice LCol Gauthier lobbied successfully to change.

“As a collector, of course, if you find a medal in a flea market and it’s got no name, you’ll never know whose it was,” he said. “But if you find a First World War or a Korean War medal, there’s a service number, a name, a rank, and a unit. Then you can find who the person is behind the medal. The side effect is collectors of the future will perpetuate the stories of these people who have served by being able to research them.”

“The first thing, and really the essential part, is to make it significant for the recipient,” he added, “and for the families. They put it above the fireplace and their sons and daughters and grandchildren will be able to say, ‘These are granddad’s medals.’ It’s really a privilege to be able to do what we do.”

In the next installment, we’ll look at the complex process of creating or altering military honours and the purpose they serve.

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