The Queen and Canada: A love story that's still going strong after all these years

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This piece originally appeared in Issue 803/804 of HELLO! Canada

For most Canadians, the Queen is the only monarch we’ve ever known. We've looked up to her with admiration and affection and warmly embraced her on every one of her 23 tours of our country. It’s a love that's strongly reciprocated: she's visited our fair nation more than any other country outside the U.K., and while she may never again grace us with her presence in person, the memories of her past visits will stay with us forever.

A fellow Canadian

"She doesn't come across as being a visitor from a foreign country; she's one of us," says Robert Finch, dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada. "In the speeches she's made on Canadian soil, she is speaking as Queen of Canada, a fellow Canadian" – as evidenced in 2010, when, upon arrival in Halifax, she declared, "It's very good to be home."

The Queen and Prince Philip in Ottawa in 1984
The Queen and Prince Philip in Ottawa in 1984

The Queen and Prince Philip were thrilled by the crowds that turned out to see them during their 1984 visit to Ottawa. Photo: © Getty Images

And those who've had the honour of meeting her uniformly report the petite monarch – always impeccably clad in a dress or skirt suit accessorized with her signature jaunty hats, gloves and handbags – is intent on making every person feel special.

After speaking with the Queen three times, Robert is still in awe.

"I think she has to be probably the most proficient person when it comes to small talk," he says. "Think about how many people she's met in these 70 years. She has to be up to speed on so many things to be able to engage in conversation. She's easily able to strike up conversation and put people at ease."

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon wholeheartedly agrees.

"I always found the Queen to be very friendly and warm. She likes to know who you are and ask questions about where you're from. She makes you feel very comfortable and it's easy to talk to her,” the governor general tells Hello!, adding that, after her appointment last July, Her Majesty gave her a lovely piece of advice.

"She said to 'be gentle with yourself and do the work.' It was a really beautiful comment from her. I think she was telling me about how she's approached her 70 years in service to her country."

Oh, Canada!

For the Queen's first visit in 1951, less than a year before she ascended the throne, a staggering 500,000 people thronged into the streets of Toronto to greet Princess Elizabeth and her handsome husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Indeed, the royal couple was showered with public affection during the early years of her reign.

The Queen and Prince Philip in Toronto in 1951
The Queen and Prince Philip in Toronto in 1951

The Queen – then Princess Elizabeth – and Prince Philip wave to crowds gathered in Toronto's Riverdale Park on their 1951 tour of Canada. Photo: © PA Images via Getty Images

"The Queen and Philip, in those days, were the magic that Charles and Diana became in their early relationship," the late reporter Bruce Levett (who covered the royal tour in 1959) is quoted as saying in the book Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family in Canada.

"I remember the small towns with the people cheering and waving flags as the train pulled slowly through."

And the novelty never wore off. In 2002, more than 50 years after the Queen first set a dainty foot on Canadian soil, she and Philip arrived to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. Newspaper reports marvelled that the pair were "cheered at every stop." One paper noted that "many that got a close look at the Queen and Philip shouted out screams of delight."

Jean Chretien with the Queen in 2002
Jean Chretien with the Queen in 2002

The Queen got a kick out of former prime minister Jean Chrétien's sense of humour during her 2002 visit and made a point of speaking to him in French as a sign of respect. Photo: © PA Images via Getty Images

By 2005, when she visited Alberta and Saskatchewan, interest in catching a glimpse of the beloved monarch had not waned over the years. According to reporter Michelle MacAfee at the time, "She drew large crowds wherever she went, young and old, from all cultures, and those lucky enough to be treated to some polite chit-chat had the same kind of afterglow others reserve for encounters with movie stars or pro athletes."

Magical moments

Two of the Queen's most remarkable traits are her stamina and grace. On her 10-day tour to Canada in 1957, she and Philip reportedly glad-handed an astonishing 10,000 people. Despite this, the Queen ensures she gives her undivided attention to each and every person who crosses her path.

Speaking to Hello! ahead of her last visit to Canada in 2010, Fred Chartrand, a photojournalist who covered several royal tours, recounted his first "up-close-and-personal" encounter at a cocktail reception on the royal yacht Britannia.

The Queen with Mi'kmaq leaders in Halifax in 2010
The Queen with Mi'kmaq leaders in Halifax in 2010

The Queen met with Mi'kmaq leaders on her visit to Halifax in 2010. Photo: © Chris Jackson-Pool/Getty Images

"The Queen made the rounds, chatting with other guests," he said. "I was introduced and she asked how I was and about my experience of being in Iran during the hostage crisis in 1981. She was genuinely concerned about how it was for me when I had been arrested and held in jail while working for the Canadian Press. I was most impressed by her almost motherly concern."

First Nations Chief Leonard Pelletier, who also remembered the Queen as "motherly," told Hello! he cherished the day, in 1973, when he was introduced at the Fort William First Nation reserve in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"It was a sunny day," he recalled. "There [was everyone from] little kids to dignitaries in the crowd. Having her at that ceremony was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even people at other reserves around the country are proud of that day."

The Queen and David Johnston
The Queen and David Johnston

Former governor general David Johnston visited London for a celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada's Confederation in 2017. Photo: © Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool /Getty Images

Former governor general David Johnston, meanwhile, fondly recalls the time he caught a glimpse of Her Majesty's more playful side. Her last visit to Canada, in June 2010, came just a few weeks after then prime minister Stephen Harper had recommended David’s appointment as governor general to the Queen and she had accepted it – but it had yet to be announced.

"We were at the Royal York Hotel with many, many people," remembers David, "and as my wife and I came through the receiving line to greet the Queen, she smiled at both of us and said, in a very light whisper, 'I look forward to seeing you soon.' She and her husband were the only people in that room that knew about my appointment. It was just so characteristic of her to have that wonderful smile on her face, keeping the secret but also letting us know that we were enormously welcome."

Grace under pressure

The Queen has long been famous for her flawless manners and ability to remain calm in the eye of any storm. It's not surprising, then, that in Canada she has shown herself to be unflappable under the most adverse of circumstances. A royal visit to Quebec City in 1964 was one such example.

The monarch's arrival angered the separatist movement in the province and the visit resulted in a swirl of protests. Still, the visit had its high points from the Queen's perspective: she was said to have been "stage-struck" upon meeting Canadian actor Lorne Greene. At the time, Lorne starred in the popular TV western Bonanza, which the Royal Family – like many Canadians – reportedly sat down to watch every Sunday night.

While it likely wasn't quite the same thrill for her to be meeting a room full of journalists, photographer Dave Chidley was struck by the way Her Majesty personally acknowledged everyone she encountered at a media cocktail party in Calgary.

"She was very gracious and made sure she circulated the room and greeted everyone," he recalled. "I was quite impressed with the time and effort that she took to do that. I'm sure for someone who spends their entire life shaking hands and greeting people, having a couple of hours with [the media] isn't high on the list – but she certainly seemed to be quite genuine."

Rock-star reception

If there’s one thing that's become clear over the years, it's that the love Canadians feel for their Queen sometimes knows no limits. During her 1959 visit, 1,900 members of Montreal's high society – decked out in their finest attire – attended a ball in her honour at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and wound up causing a stampede.

The Queen receiving flowers in Victoria in 1983
The Queen receiving flowers in Victoria in 1983

Erin Johnson, then four years old, presents the Queen with a posy of flowers outside City Hall in Victoria, B.C. in 1983. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

The affair started as an elegant banquet dinner, but then the orchestra played its first tune, a foxtrot, and the mayor took the Queen out for a turn on the dance floor. The crowd became increasingly restless, eager to get a glimpse of the Queen, who dazzled in a formal ball gown and sparkling jewels.

After the first dance, Prince Philip and the Queen proceeded to sail around the floor, and the spectacle proved too much for the guests to resist. A massive crowd soon assembled on the dance floor, threatening to close in, and Mounties were forced to form a human barricade around the royal couple to keep them safe.

During the mayhem that ensued, socialites knocked over chairs and one lady fell to the floor, taking the table's china with her.

"These people are supposed to be the leaders of society in Montreal and they acted like bobby-soxers trying to get a look at Elvis Presley," one Royal Canadian Air Force officer's wife was quoted as saying.

Still, the Queen appeared unfazed, smiling politely as she and her dashing husband calmly exited the ballroom, as if they had just enjoyed a perfectly normal night out.

The Queen unveiling her statue in Winnipeg
The Queen unveiling her statue in Winnipeg

The Queen unveils a statue of herself in the garden of Government House in Winnipeg during her 2010 visit. Photo: John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images

On another occasion, in 1967, amid a Canada Day crowd of more than 50,000 on Parliament Hill, six-year-old John Brack successfully squirmed his way through security and made it all the way onto the platform where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were seated. Energetically waving a maple leaf flag, the youngster approached Her Majesty.

"Hello, Queen," he said, and then turned his attention to Philip, grinning and saying, "Hello, Duke."

The prince replied jovially, "Hello, Sonny!"

Brian Mulroney and the Queen in 1984
Brian Mulroney and the Queen in 1984

The Queen had a great time with former prime minister Brian Mulroney on her 1984 visit to Canada. Photo John Shelley Collection/Avalon/Getty Images

The Queen, meanwhile, smiled from ear to ear, apparently tickled by the young boy’s enthusiasm. Little John’s parents were in the crowd, but they missed the incident and didn't believe their son's claims that he'd shaken hands with the Queen until they saw footage on the news that night!

Canadian pride

Everybody who crosses the Queen's path is clearly inspired by the personal exchange, as well as by the sense of community she instils in the country.

"There are very few people that can bring out such a diverse and enormous crowd as she can," says Robert. "There would be [fans of] all different ages, from war veterans to little girls and boys to babies. You’d have English and French and other languages, different ethnicities, people with different political beliefs, from different socio-economic backgrounds. But they’re all there to see the Queen. It’s so refreshing to be able to have somebody that can unite and bring people together in celebration, even for that brief period, to set aside differences and relish in the moment."

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