This summer’s visit to Canada of Prince William and his bride, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, continues a long tradition of royal visits to this country. That Canada was chosen as the destination for their first official visit as a couple reflects Canada’s importance within the Commonwealth — an importance that 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 later 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 visit 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, a position he held from 1911 to 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, they are built into the painstakingly constructed schedule of every tour.
The difficulties of crossing the Atlantic made royal visits uncommon, but the advent of trans-Atlantic flight allowed more frequent and more extensive visits. 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 Feb. 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.
Amidst the more fun royal duties, there is always official business and three such events are of particular historic importance. In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II became the first sovereign to open the Canadian parliament. In 1982, she was present during 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.”
Today, we still struggle a bit with the concept of unity, and with the idea of having a monarchy. Canada’s connection to the monarchy at this point in history 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.
Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is the associate editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.