Veterans groups differ on law banning wearing of war medals

With Remembrance Day on the horizon, Canadians are looking to express appreciation for the country's veterans, perhaps hoping to don war medals earned by their deceased relatives. But last week, many Canadians learned that a little-known law actually forbids that gesture of respect and commemoration.
The family members of this Korean war veteran, shown at a wreath-laying ceremony with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in July 2011, could be charged with a criminal offence if they were to wear his military medals. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

With Remembrance Day on the horizon, Canadians are looking to express appreciation for the country’s veterans, perhaps hoping to don war medals earned by their deceased relatives.

But last week, many Canadians learned that a little-known law actually forbids that gesture of respect and commemoration.

Article 419 of the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits "the wearing of orders, decorations and medals by anyone other than the individual who was awarded the honour."

Jeff Rose-Martland, executive director of the Canadian veterans group Our Duty, says his constituency generally opposes the idea of people wearing the medal of a living veteran.

"But when it comes to deceased veterans, it’s been pretty universal, amongst the veterans I’ve spoken with, that yes, a family member should be able to wear them to show remembrance and respect," he says.

The families of veterans aren't getting support on the medal issue from the official Opposition in Ottawa. NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer told CBC News Nov. 8 that he is not in favour of changing the law to allow relatives to wear the medals of deceased veterans. He said once the line is moved, it's difficult to know where to stop.

"When she passes away, who then wears them? Will it be her children? And then will it be the grandchildren?" Stoffer said.

"What happens in the end, if you speak to many elderly veterans or current day veterans, it may end up diminishing the value of the medals because the person who earned them is not actually wearing them."

Stoffer suggested the medals could be put in a small display case and carried at Remembrance Day services instead of being worn.

The law came to light after Our Duty announced a campaign called Veterans Among Us, which sought to raise awareness of Canada’s 800,000 veterans.

While fielding questions about war medals, Our Duty learned of the 91-year-old statute prohibiting someone else from wearing of medals received by living or dead veterans. The organization promptly issued a release advising its constituents not to wear the medals of family members, as the act would be a criminal offence.

Introduced in 1920, the statute was largely intended to deter people from impersonating returning war veterans, who were entitled to benefits and incentives (like jobs) in the years after service. The statute does not set out a specific penalty, but for summary conviction offences, the penalty is a maximum of six months imprisonment or a $5,000 fine or both.


Should a veterans' families be allowed to wear their medals? Have your say.

Commonwealth nations like Great Britain and Australia have similar restrictions on wearing the medals of a living veteran — the consequences are fines or up to six months in jail. But both countries relax the law if the veteran is deceased, with the proviso that relatives wear the medals on the right side of the body; this distinguishes them from the original soldier, who would have worn medals on the left.

"That shows that they’re not your medals," says Rose-Martland. "You’re wearing them on behalf of somebody else."

Our Duty would like to have the Canadian law amended. Over the last few decades, there have been backbench motions to change the statute, but they were quickly voted down.

Rose-Martland says there is resistance from groups like the Royal Canadian Legion, Canada’s largest veterans group, which has more than 500,000 members.

The legion denies this.

"I don’t know where somebody got the idea that we’re against [people wearing their relatives’ war medals] – all we’re doing is obeying the law," says Bob Butt, director of communications for the Dominion Command of the Royal Canadian Legion.

"Until we get a resolution through the [legion’s internal] resolution process that passes dominion convention, the legion is not mandated to do anything about the law. Until we’re mandated, we don’t take any action."

The number of people who are actually prosecuted for this offence is exceedingly low.

According to Justice Canada, there were no charges for 2009-10, the last year for which it has statistical data. In 2008-09, there were four charges, all of which were eventually stayed or withdrawn; in 2007-08, there were eight charges, two of which led to convictions and six either stayed or withdrawn.

"Although it is unlikely a widow would be charged with an offence for wearing her late husband’s medals, it is up to provincial Crowns to make decisions about charges," Carole Saindon, a media relations officer at the Canadian Department of Justice, said in an email. "Such determinations require consideration of whether this would be in the public interest."

Rose-Martland says he doesn’t personally know of anyone who has been punished for this offence, but he has heard from families that have been reprimanded by other veterans.

"I have spoken to civilians who have worn the medals at remembrance ceremonies and so on, and they’ve gotten grief from people present who were legion members, and were told basically to take [the medals] off or complaints would be filed with the nearest police force," he says.

Ultimately, Rose-Martland is concerned that this old law stands in the way of giving veterans their proper due.

"We’re coming up on a hundred years past the end of World War I. We don’t have any Great War veterans left, the World War II veterans are passing, and within a few years we’re going to have a large amount of medals that were awarded to Canadians, including the Victoria Cross, that no one can display," he says.

"When the family members can’t display them, they sit in people’s houses, and nobody gets to see them and gets to learn that aspect of our history."