The glamorous young couple are sure to receive a warm welcome, despite the grumbling of anti-monarchists that accompanies every royal tour.
The visit of Prince William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, continues a long tradition of royal tours of Canada. That Canada was chosen as the destination for their first official visit as a couple reflects the country’s importance within the Commonwealth. In fact, this importance has made Canada a frequent destination for British royalty.
The first visit to Canada by a member of the British royal family occurred in 1786, when another Prince William, the third son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, sailed to Canada as a naval officer on the frigate HMS Pegasus. He celebrated his 21st birthday off the coast of Newfoundland. Over the next two years he also visited Halifax and Quebec City. (He reigned as William IV, 1830-1837.) William’s younger brother, Prince Edward, visited Canada in 1791, sailing down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City in command of the 7th Royal Fusiliers Regiment.
The first woman of the royal family to tour Canada was Princess Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria (who never visited Canada). Princess Louise’s husband, the Marquis of Lorne, was appointed Governor-General in 1878. Keeping the vice-regal job all in the family, Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, was also appointed Canada’s Governor-General, holding the position 1911-1916.
In 1939, King George VI became the first reigning monarch to come to Canada. He and Queen Elizabeth spent a month touring the country. The visit began two days behind schedule after an Atlantic sailing marked by heavy seas, dense fog and icebergs. As they sailed up the St. Lawrence, crowds along the riverbanks waved and cheered. It was during this visit that the first royal “walkabouts” occurred, beginning spontaneously in response to the warm welcome; today walkabouts are built into the painstakingly constructed schedule of each tour.
The difficulties of crossing the Atlantic made royal visits uncommon, but the advent of trans-Atlantic flight allowed more frequent and more extensive tours. The first royal visit involving air travel was made by then-Princess Elizabeth, visiting on behalf of her ailing father, George VI, in October 1951. She flew to make up time after her departure was delayed by the king’s illness. George VI died on February 6, 1952 and Elizabeth ascended the throne. In 1953, the Canadian Royal Style and Titles Act officially entitled her Queen of Canada. She has visited Canada 22 times as the reigning monarch.
Official royal visits involve a range of activities, most an opportunity to showcase the heritage or culture of the country receiving them. In Canada, those activities have included concerts, balls, investitures, garden parties, parades, dog sledding, sleigh riding, square dancing, skiing in the Rockies, hockey games and seeing Niagara Falls on board the Maid of the Mist. In 1976, the royal family attended the Montreal Olympics to watch Princess Anne compete as a member of the British equestrian team.
Amid all the more fun royal duties, there is always official business; three such events are of particular historic importance. In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II became the first sovereign to open the Canadian Parliament (she also opened Parliament in 1977). In 1982, she participated in the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. The only other reigning monarch to enact royal orders while on Canadian soil was George VI, who gave royal assent to nine bills as the King of Canada, acknowledging Canada as a fully sovereign independent nation, not a nation subordinate to the Empire. The distinction was noted in the king’s speech when he expressed his desire to give his “Canadian people a deeper conception of their unity as a nation.”
We’re still having a bit of an issue with the concept of unity, and with the idea of having a monarchy. Canada’s connection to the monarchy today is both cheered and jeered, as likely to excite as to generate criticism. Some love the pageantry and tradition of the monarchy. Anti-monarchists question the financial cost of a royal “firm” that seems without a purpose. Regardless of one’s point of view, the British monarchy is a connection to Canada’s history. The monarchical system, British and French, has given much to Canada, including the intellectual, literary and cultural framework of our society.
For more on royal tours, visit The Canadian Encyclopedia