The first award was conceived and inaugurated in 1937 by the Lord Tweedsmuir, a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction; he created the Governor General's Literary Award with two award categories. Successive governors general have followed suit, establishing an award for whichever endeavour they personally found important. Only Adrienne Clarkson created three Governor General's Awards: the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, the Governor General's Northern Medal, and the Governor General's Medal in Architecture (though this was effectively a continuation of the Massey Medal, first established in 1950).
Inaugurated in 1937 for 1936 publications in two categories, the Governor General's Literary Awards have become one of Canada's most prestigious prizes. Since 1987 there are fourteen awards, recognizing both French and English language work in seven categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children's literature (one each for text and illustration), and translation. The program was created by the Lord Tweedsmuir--John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Initially there were only two awards, for fiction and non-fiction books, and the program honoured only English-language works before 1959 (although the awards were occasionally won by English translations of works originally published in French). The Stephen Leacock Award for humor literature, while administered separately from the Governor General's Awards and presented to the winners at a separate ceremony, made its initial announcements of award winners as part of the Governor General's Awards announcements in this era.
In 1957, the awards were put under the administration of the Canada Council for the Arts and a cash prize began to be granted to the winner. By 1980, the council began to announce the finalists for the awards a month before they were presented, in order to attract more media attention, and, in 2007, the cash prize was increased to $25,000.
Prior to Adrienne Clarkson's time as governor general, the collection of Governor General's Literary Award-winning books at Rideau Hall was lacking more than 25 per cent of the full collection. Clarkson made an effort to obtain from fairs and second hand shops the missing copies for the governor general's study and, when she left the viceregal office in 2005, the complete collection of winning books to date had been amassed. It reached 552 books by late 2006 and was moved to Rideau Hall's library. Today it forms the only complete collection of Governor General's Literary Award winners in existence.
The Governor General's Medals in Architecture have been presented since 1982, continuing the tradition of the Massey Medals, which had been awarded between 1950 and 1970. Up to twelve medals are awarded every two years, with no distinction among the medals awarded. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada administers the competition.
The Governor General's Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case have been presented since their creation by Governor General Edward Schreyer in 1979, and honour the promotion of equality for girls and women in Canada. Five awards are given annually to candidates chosen from across the country, in addition to one award to a Canadian youth. The awards are administered by Status of Women Canada and may be presented to persons of either sex; in 2008, Ben Barry became the first man to win the award.
The Governor General's Performing Arts Awards are the foremost honours presented for excellence in the performing arts, in the categories of dance, classical music, popular music, film, broadcasting, and theatre. They were initiated in 1992 by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and the first recipients were William Hutt, Gweneth Lloyd, Dominique Michel, Mercedes Palomino, Oscar Peterson, Léopold Simoneau, Norman Jewison, and Gilles Maheu and CARBONE 14. Initially, the award came with a $15,000 prize from the Canada Council; today's winners receive $25,000 and a medallion struck by the Royal Canadian Mint. In addition, two complementary awards are given: The Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts, recognizing the voluntary services to the performing arts by an individual or group, and the National Arts Centre Award, which recognizes an individual artist's or company's work during the past performance year. There is also a mentorship program that connects award recipients with artists in their early to mid-career. Since 2008, the National Film Board of Canada has produced short films about each of the laureates, which are screened at the awards ceremony and streamed online.
Governor General Roméo LeBlanc and Canada's National History Society created the Governor General's History Awards in 1996 to honour excellence in the teaching of Canadian history. The society then, working with other Canadian history organizations (including the Begbie Society, Canadian Historical Association, Canadian Museums Association, and Historica-Dominion Institute), expanded the scope of the awards beyond simply school teachers to include others who taught history in other ways and venues. There are now five specific awards within the Governor General's History Awards: the Governor General's History Awards for Excellence in Teaching, the Governor General's History Award for Scholarly Research (Sir John A. Macdonald Prize), the Governor General's History Award for Popular Media (Pierre Berton Award), the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Museums, and the Governor General's History Awards for Excellence in Community Programming.
Six prizes are awarded annually to visual and media artists for distinguished career achievement in fine arts (painting, drawing, photography, print-making and sculpture, including installation and other three-dimensional work), applied arts (architecture and fine crafts), independent film and video, or audio and new media. One prize is awarded annually for outstanding contributions to the visual or media arts in a volunteer or professional capacity. The value of each award is $15,000. An independent peer jury of senior visual and media arts professionals selects the winners.
Conceived in 2006 by Jean-Daniel Lafond, husband of Governor General Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General's Award in Celebration of the Nation's Table was created to recognize Canadians--as individuals or in groups--who improved the "quality, variety and sustainability of all elements and ingredients of our nation's table." Jean and Lafond consulted with many across Canada involved in the production of food products, as well as chefs, organizers of culinary festivals, sommeliers, and more.
The award has six categories: Creativity and Innovation, recognizing those who contributed original, forward-thinking ideas, products, or techniques related to food or drink; Education and Awareness, recognizing those who helped give a broader profile to the "nation's table"; Leadership, recognizing those who led others to form stronger communities connected to the food and beverage industries; Mentorship and Inspiration, recognizing role models in the food and beverage industries; Stewardship and Sustainability, recognizing those who were at the forefront of developing and/or practicing safeguards around the environment, food security, and health; and Youth, recognizing young Canadians who have demonstrated a potential to improve the quality, variety, awareness, and sustainability of the food and beverage industries.
An advisory committee of food and beverage experts reviews nominations. Recipients receive a lapel pin and a framed certificate bearing the heraldic shield of the Governor General's Award in Celebration of the Nation's Table.