Some family members of Alphonse Gerwing, who died in November 2007, say they willÂ return his Order of Canada medal. HisÂ nephew and a sister have saidÂ thatÂ a similar award made to Dr. Henry Morgentaler tarnishes the one given to their relative.Â Al Gerwing was one of my high school teachers and remained aÂ friend and mentorÂ until his death from cancer at age 84. I believe that theseÂ family members areÂ being presumptuous in wanting to return the award that AlÂ received.
Many of us, if we were lucky, had one teacher who recognized something in us that we did not see in ourselves and who challenged us to set goals and pursue dreams that would otherwise have languished. Al was that one teacher for me. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan and for three yearsÂ attended St. Peterâ€™s College, a boyâ€™s high school at a Benedictine monastery near Humboldt, Saskatchewan. Al taught us English literature and did it extremely well.Â He was not actually a monkÂ but had offered his services so that the monastery could spare someone else to serve in a Brazilian mission.Â Al was also the driving force behind a series of musical performances at our school, includingÂ Pirates of Penzance and The Sound of Music. He chose as his cast boys with the best voices and he recruited girls from a high school academy down the road, as well as people from the local community â€“ many of who had not previously recognized their own talent.
Al was later to leave the school and he taught in a number of towns in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta before he retired.Â When heÂ visited the Benedictine mission in Brazil, he was immensely moved by the poverty of the people. That drove him to work tirelessly on behalf of social justice for the rest of his life. One of his continuing efforts was raising money to helpÂ Brazilian street children. HeÂ established the Alphonse Gerwing Foundation to ensure that his work would live after him. He received the Order of Canada in 1989 for his humanitarian work and it was a recognition that was well deserved.
I last saw Al in July 2007 when my wife and I visited with him in Lake Lenore, Saskatchewan, the small town where he had been born and to which he retired. He wrote to us not long after to say that he was ill and hoped that God would take him soon, preferably in his sleep. He died a few months later.
I donâ€™t know how it was decidedÂ that Alâ€™s Order of Canada medal should be returned.Â Al never married so there was no immediate family to make such a decision, but at least one relative has expressed his displeasure withÂ what has happened. Jim Gerwing,Â a former Benedictine monk at the monastery near Humboldt, wrote a letter to The Globe and Mail on July 23. â€œThe Order of Canada was not given to the Gerwing family,â€ he said, â€œand they have absolutely no right to return it simply because they disagree with the fact that Henry Morgentaler is also a recipient. Canada should not accept the return of such an honour unless it is explicitly written into the deceased person’s will.â€
The Gerwings are a largeÂ family of staunch Catholics and likely thatÂ provided their motive to return the medal. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was sharply critical of Dr. Morgentalerâ€™s receiving the award and various individual bishops have called upon people to make their displeasure known to the Governor-General, who is nominally in charge of the selection. Several recipients have returned their medals.Â One wonders how they can all be so judgemental about a womanâ€™s right to choose when the church continues to insist that it is sinful for peopleÂ to plan the size of their families by using what the Catholic hierarchy describes as â€œartificialâ€ methods of birth control, including condoms and the pill. As recently as July 25, the Vatican responded dismissively to an open letter from 50 Roman Catholic groups who said the Church’s ban on contraception has been “catastrophic” and shouldÂ be lifted.
I donâ€™t knowÂ what, if anything, Al Gerwing would have said about Dr. Morgentalerâ€™s receiving the Order of Canada. When I was a candidate for political office and later a Member of Parliament, Al talked to me about abortion. We were not able to agree entirely,Â but we did agree that it is essential to support women and families in every way possible â€“ including the provision of adequate child care, housing, increased minimum wages and improved maternity and paternity leaves. Al continued to be a modest financial donor to my campaigns, even though he had by then given away most of his money, including that in his RRSPs. We remained dear friends to the end.