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Former prime minister Jean Chrétien displays his Order of Canada medal after being invested as Companion to the Order during a February 2008 ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Queen Elizabeth has appointed former prime minister Jean Chrétien to the Order of Merit, placing him in the exclusive ranks of such figures as Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

The award, founded in 1902 by King Edward VII, is given to "individuals of exceptional distinction in the arts, learning, sciences and other areas such as public service," according to a news release from the press secretary of the Queen.

The order is restricted to 24 members as well as additional foreign recipients, the official website of the British Monarchy said.

"There are very few foreign recipients, although those given the order have included Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Gen. [Dwight D.]  Eisenhower, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Nelson Mandela," the website said.

Former prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester B. Pearson also received the honour. 

The award is considered a personal gift from the Queen.

"She had a very personal affinity for Chrétien," Mel Cappe, who was Clerk of the Privy Council under Chrétien and was also the high commissioner in London, told Reuters.

The actual presentation is not expected to be made for several months.

Chrétien, who led the Liberal party  to victory in 1993 and remained prime minister for 10 years, was made a companion of the Order of Canada last year.

He was cited for his 40-year political career, in which he held a dozen cabinet posts, including justice minister during the patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights in 1982.

With files from The Canadian Press