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Politicians should earn honorifics

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CALGARY -- Honorific titles are used in many cultures and have been for centuries. Some of the most common in the English language include Mr., Mrs. or even Ms. But there are other honorific terms that are reserved mainly for politicians that perhaps deserve a rethink, given the recent misadventures of more than a few in Canada.

In Canada, senators, Supreme or Federal Court judges and privy councillors are allowed to use the honorific of Honourable.

The trio of senators who have been suspended without pay -- Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau -- all retain their honorific titles of the Honourable Senator, while under suspension. Stripped of their salaries, offices and budgets, it seems oddly Canadian to allow them to retain these clearly meaningless titles.

Not to be outdone, two British lords have recently also been suspended for offering undercover reporters preferential access to Parliament. They are still known as lords. Just like our own convicted felon Lord Black of Crossharbour, who is currently on leave from the same august institution.

One of the most particularly egregious honorifics currently in use is His/Her Worship for mayor. The term "His Worship Rob Ford" just smells bad, given this man's behaviour. The word worship actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon word weorthscipe, meaning to attribute worth to an object. It morphed into the English word worship and was used to connote admiration and respect for a city or town's first and leading citizen. Although His Worship Naheed Nenshi arguably still works, at least in Calgary, why do we even need such terms in the 21st century?

Some groups have always eschewed honorifics. The Quakers, or more properly the Religious Society of Friends, believed strongly in an egalitarian existence. Therefore, they used no honorifics and instead greeted each other with the ubiquitous and gender-neutral term "friend." Other political movements, such as communism (comrade) and the French Revolution (citizen), also used alternative and more egalitarian terms.

Other countries are already moving to do away with honorifics. Several MPs in both houses of the Australian province of Victoria decided to dump their "Honourable" titles in 2003. Queen Victoria had given the upper house members their titles in the 1850s, but many felt they were simply a "vestige of a bygone era." The Green Party members of the New South Wales upper house have done the same thing.

The president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, is also joining the honorific-free party. Wanting to distance himself from colonial honorifics, he requested that the Lalit Narayan Mishra University not use the traditional honorifics for his position such as His Excellency and Honourable. Instead, the more common Indian title Sri was to be used. He also requested no special chair be provided for him.

Even Iceland is thinking about these things. An MP from the recently formed and quite wonderfully named Pirate Party wants to address his colleagues as simply "mister" or "miss/us/" as opposed to the more common "Honourable." His reasoning? Respect is not automatic.

So should we in Canada also move to do away with honorific titles completely? Should there be no more "Honourables" or "Worships" at all? Well, I think it's fair to say the Canadian public may have reached a tipping point in 2013 and is ready to do so, at least with politicians. But the terms could still have some relevance and with it, some legs, if used in other ways.

For example, Canada does have some people of which we are rightly very proud. Many members of the Order of Canada have proved themselves worthy of respect through a lifetime of work. Both our favourite troubadour-astronaut Chris Hadfield and our most recent Nobel laureate in literature, Alice Munro, immediately come to mind as potential "Honourables."

Perhaps we just need to rethink how we use the term and its automatic usage for some. Just because people reach a certain level of power does not mean they will continue to act honourably -- or that they even acted honourably to get there.


Lee Tunstall is an adjunct assistant professor in the faculty of arts at the University of Calgary and holds a PhD in history, University of Cambridge.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A17

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