In the US and Ontario it’s often called the key to the city. In Winnipeg it’s referred to as honourary citizenship. In Calgary, the equivalent is the White Hat ceremony. But in BC the highest honour a municipality can bestow upon a citizen is freedom.
According to Wikipedia, the practice is derived “from the medieval practice of granting respected citizens freedom from serfdom,” and is also used in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
A section of BC’s community charter entitled “Freedom of the municipality” reads: “A council may, by unanimous vote, confer freedom of the municipality on a distinguished person or a unit of the armed forces of Canada or another nation.” (There doesn’t appear to be an equivalent honour available to regional districts.)
Since 1947, at least 65 people in West Kootenay/Boundary — 52 men and 13 women — have received freedom of the city or village, along with three armed forces units (find a complete list at bottom). Although the honour isn’t usually awarded posthumously, fewer than ten of them are still alive.
Freedom comes with a few perks, although lamentably, freedom from taxes isn’t one of them. The community charter says a recipient “is deemed to be an elector of the municipality and is eligible to be registered as such and to vote in an election for mayor or council and despite any other enactment, if the person is a Canadian citizen, is deemed to be qualified to be nominated, be elected and hold office on the council.”
The first provision means you can vote in that place even if you don’t live there; the second provision doesn’t mean as much, since BC has no residency requirements for holding office.
Although it’s not mentioned in the charter, traditionally if you hold freedom, your name also appears at the top of the voters’ list and you are invited to all city events as a VIP.
Probably the most practical reward is free parking — although locally only Trail and Nelson have meters. In 1980, Grand Forks did away with its meters just in time to deprive former MLA and newly-named freewoman Lois Haggen of her parking privileges.
The most freedom-happy municipality by far, and the first to confer the honour locally, is Nelson, where during the city’s silver jubilee in 1947 all eight living former mayors received the honour. Subsequently four more mayors were similarly awarded. In all, Nelson has presented the award 32 times, most recently to longtime museum curator and archivist Shawn Lamb in 2009.
Grand Forks has the second-highest number of recipients, 15, most of whom have been honoured since 1997, followed by Trail with 11, although no new ones have been named there since 1994. Trail has a gallery of some of its freemen in the lobby at city hall.
Six local municipalities — Castlegar, Greenwood, Montrose, Salmo, Slocan, and Warfield — don’t appear to have ever awarded freedom of the municipality, but definitive lists don’t always exist.
Silverton, New Denver, and Midway have each only done so once. The same appears to be the case for Rossland, which recognized champion alpine skier Nancy Greene in 1967. The following year she was also presented with the freedom of North Vancouver.
Greene is one of quite a few people to receive the freedom of multiple places. Lawyer and MLA Jim Lorimer was a freeman of both Burnaby (1990) and Grand Forks. Former premier W.A.C. Bennett received the freedom of Kelowna (1952), Trail (1966), Vancouver (1965), and Victoria (1970).
But the single most freedom-decorated British Columbian appears to be former Lt.-Gov. George Pearkes, who was a freeman of Nelson (1961), Victoria (1965) North Vancouver (1966), Vancouver (1968) and Burnaby (1968). His grandson is Nelson lawyer Tim Pearkes.
Nelson also honoured two other lieutenant governors — Frank Ross (1960) and John Nicholson (1972).
There are some interesting anomalies. Former federal external affairs minister Howard Green was a freeman of Trail (1961) and Vancouver (1972), but not Kaslo, where he was born. Scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki is a freeman of Vancouver (2015) but not Slocan, where he spent his childhood. Midway has honoured Carl Thomet (1977), but not Jim McMynn, who served as mayor from the village’s incorporation in 1967 until 2005.
Politicians — and men, generally — dominate the lists, but more recent recipients have come from all walks of life. They are historians, newspaper editors, minor sports coaches, and general community builders.
As for the military units, the 44th Field Engineers received the freedom of Trail (1989), Nelson (2002), and Grand Forks (2005). The Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps No. 81 Hampton Gray VC was honoured in Nelson (1979) and the 408 Squadron in Nakusp (1990).
Dick Dar: local businessman (1997)
Libby Nelson: former mayor (2002)
GRAND FORKS (15)
Jim Lorimer: lawyer, former MLA
Stanley Orris: newspaper publisher (1979)
Lois Haggen: former MLA (1980)
Erna Gobbett: music teacher (1985)
Sugi Sugimoto: former mayor (1997)
Jim and Alice Glanville: local historians (1999)
John Verigin Sr.: Doukhobor leader (1999)
Richard Reid: art gallery curator (2003)
44th Field Engineers (2005)
Jock and Betty Ann MacKay: community builders (September 2011)
Madeleine McDougall: centenarian (February 2012)
Eli and Dorothy Popoff: community builders (September 2014)
Flora Green (Sept. 14, 1968)
Clarence White (Sept. 14, 1968)
Roy Green: former mayor, SS Moyie curator (1974)
Jack Morris: former mayor, SS Moyie curator (Jan. 22, 1991)
Carl Thomet: historian, village councillor (June 12, 1977)
408 Squadron (Sept. 14, 1990)
Rosemarie Johnson: former mayor (July 1, 2008)
John J. Malone: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
James A. McDonald: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
Charles F. McHardy: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
Ludger H. Choquette: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
Robert D. Barnes: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
John P. Morgan: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
Sidney H. Smythe: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
Norman C. Stibbs: former mayor (Jan. 27, 1947)
Tom Waters: former mayor (1950)
Joe Kary: former mayor (Aug. 12, 1958)
Wes Black: former MLA (Oct. 12, 1955)
Frank Ross: lieutenant governor (May 24, 1960)
George Pearkes: lieutenant governor (Aug. 31, 1961)
Boyd C. Affleck: surveyor, alderman (July 29, 1966)
Dr. Neil E. Morrison (Aug. 1, 1966)
Amy Ferguson: choir leader (Aug. 3, 1966)
Tom Shorthouse: former mayor (Dec. 12, 1966)
John R. Nicholson: lieutenant governor (Oct. 6, 1972)
Reeve Harper: city administrator (June 30, 1973)
Louis Maglio: former mayor (Dec. 4, 1978)
Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps No. 81 Hampton Gray V.C. (March 12, 1979)
Ernie Gare Sr.: athletic instructor (March 25, 1980)
Harry Proctor: Nelson Daily News editor, hospital administrator (March 9, 1982)
Burnie Fetterley: museum curator (Nov. 19, 1984)
Walter Wait: athletic organizer (Jan. 14, 1985)
Mickey Thomas (Nov. 7, 1988)
Joan Reichardt: home support administrator (Oct. 5, 1992)
Doug Ormond: city administrator (Dec. 1, 1996)
Fritz Farenholtz: community builder (March 13, 2000)
Bob Allen (Aug. 13, 2001)
44th Field Engineers (May 11, 2002)
Shawn Lamb: museum curator/archivist (Dec. 1, 2009)
James Draper: former mayor (Nov. 6, 1968)
Nancy Greene: championship alpine skier (1967)
Randolph Harding: former MLA and mayor (1992)
Howard Green: external affairs minister (May 1, 1961)
Bill Kirkpatrick: Cominco chairman (June 1, 1961)
W.A.C. Bennett: premier (June 9, 1966)
Bill Curran: Trail Daily Times publisher/editor (May 25, 1967)
Ralph Diamond: Cominco executive (1978)
Marc Marcolin: Cominco executive (1981)
Chuck Lakes: former mayor (1988)
44th Field Squadron (1989)
Andy Bilesky: little league coach (1990)
Dave Glover: radio announcer (1993)
Willi Krause: track and field coach (1994)
Castlegar, Greenwood, Montrose, Salmo, Slocan, and Warfield don’t appear to have awarded anyone with freedom of their municipalities.