On Monday, Prince Harry arrived on Vancouver Island where he reunited with his wife, Meghan, and their son, Archie. The announcement by the couple earlier this month that they intend on staying for a prolonged period in Canada to raise their infant son has caught Canadians by surprise. Still, many have sympathized with the young family’s stated desire to escape the prying eyes of professional royal-watchers. On the other hand, the couple could have chosen Los Angeles (where actress Meghan’s mother lives) or beautiful Sydney or, for a true escape, the Bahamas (both Australia and the islands are part of the commonwealth). So why British Columbia?
While the lives of the royals are beset with difficulties and privileges that make some people resentful, Canadians have a long-standing affection and sympathy for Diana’s son.
Practically, British Columbia has it all — hiking trails, natural beauty, mild winters and beautiful green cities that provide an easy pull for many. Celebrity culture and paparazzi culture are also less intense then either the United Kingdom or the United States. (And Harry lost no time warning British news outlets that “action will be taken” if they buy and/or publish any photographs taken by photographers in Canada.) But perhaps most importantly, the region has a history of welcoming Harry — and his mother. So while the lives of the royals are beset with difficulties mixed in with privileges that make some people uncomfortable and even resentful, Canadians have a long-standing affection and sympathy for Diana’s son. They may even see that the Duchess of Sussex has a lot in common with her socially progressive mother-in-law — one of Meghan’s first stops following the royal bombshell was a women’s shelter in Vancouver.
Clearly, the couple has enjoyed their visits. At the end of 2019, the family stayed in Canada for the holidays. One can almost imagine them cozying up in Salish sweaters and drinking endless cups of coffee out of reusable thermoses. (And imagine we must, because there are tellingly no paparazzi shots from that vacation.) Thousands of miles from Buckingham Palace, it is a relatively safe country for Harry and Meghan with a heritage of support. It is a country where new immigrants have to declare an oath to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors…”
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But to truly understand more about why the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have chosen Canada as (one) of their new homes, it’s helpful to look back a bit further at the complicated history between Canada and the crown.
Eighty years ago, Canadians experienced an extended visit from Harry’s great-grandparents, Queen Elizabeth (better remembered today as the “Queen Mother”) and King George VI. It was the summer of 1939 and the couple was visiting Canada to elicit widespread support for an impending war against Germany. Canada’s Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King doted on them and accompanied them every day of their journey across Canada, writing in his diary that he was prepared to lay down his life at their feet. Lester Pearson, writing for the London Daily Mail, offered insight into the mayhem this caused at the ground level, “Everything from old Indian forts to the latest skyscrapers are being boomed as worthy of Royal notice. Committees are being organized; etiquette books are being studied; dresses and costumes are being inspected with a view to their suitability…”
The tour successfully turned quiet supporters into full-blown revelers. In the Canadian prairie town of Melville, Saskatchewan, some 60,000 well-wishers gathered for the royal train arriving at 10 p.m., when the town itself only had 4,000 residents. When the royal tour passed into the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt hosted them at Hyde Park for a hot dog picnic, and he took them around for an exhilarating ride in his hand-operated car. The royal couple had a good time, but it was not without tension and a gut-wrenching fear of rejection. The war effort required overseas help, and the royal couple was fortunate to have roused up sentimentality to secure aid for themselves in the traumatic months and years that lie ahead.
Since then, Canadian enthusiasm for ”royal visits” has been tempered with a healthy dose of pragmatism. In the autumn of 1951, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh received a tumultuous welcome in Toronto with tens of thousands of schoolchildren waving Union Jacks in their honor, but thousands more sang “The Maple Leaf Forever” in different parts of the country. Most Canadians back then did not have difficulty seeing themselves as both Canadian nationalists and British subjects; the questionable compatibility of these identities would happen later. In 1952, Queen Elizabeth II became the Queen of Canada, a title bestowed by the Canadian Parliament, and she remains the longest-serving current head of state. In spite of a political dressing-down over the Suez Crisis in 1956, in which Canadian Prime Minister Louis St Laurent chastised British politicians, Canadians generally have forgiven the British for international misconduct and continue to extend invitations to visit. Indeed, in 1956, Canadian historian Frank Underhill said during a lecture at Duke University that it was perfectly possible for Canadians to be “’British’ with a Small ‘b’.”
Subsequent official visits had to keep costs in mind. In 1959, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip toured the country over 45 days and decided to redirect spending that would have gone into frivolous gifts to aid Canadians in a worthy cause — to this goal the Queen Elizabeth II Foundation was created with a federal grant of $1.5 million to support research in diseases afflicting children. The royal couple still sailed off in their yacht with token gifts comprising of jewelry and “practical” items made out of silver and gold.
If there were opportunities to associate with leaders of the First Nations tribes, the royal couple did not concern themselves with an outward show of appreciation. At one point in Ottawa, the Queen simply walked by a First Nations man from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory who had presented royal officials with a gift of a wampum that was 200 years old.
But the Canada that Harry and Meghan will now explore has changed a lot in the past 50 years. The official presence of the royals in Canada eventually grew limited, with good reason; in 1964 when the Queen visited, she received jeers and boos from a crowd in Quebec. The following year Canada’s new flag, the Maple Leaf, sent the message that Canadians had their own independent identity. The British had rapidly lost most of their empire, and even Lester Pearson, speaking as prime minister in 1967, proudly stated that Canadians no longer had to wear a “union jacket.”
But even as Canada has become more politically independent, its feeling of warmth toward the distant royals has remained strong.
A happy milieu settled in among Canadians — a celebrative atmosphere most evocatively conjured by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sliding down the bannister at Rideau Hall, the official residence of the governor general and monarch, in 1968. He also did a playful pirouette behind the Queen’s back in 1977 in Buckingham Palace — but Canadians were mixed on how they felt about that.
But even as Canada has become more politically independent, its feeling of warmth toward the distant royals has remained strong. Prince Charles and the adored Princess Diana visited Canada in the 1980s, specifically British Columbia in 1986; and in 1991 a young Prince Harry and Prince William arrived in Canada with their parents, their first official visit, during which their mother broke protocol by hugging them vigorously instead of sticking to formalities.
Harry especially has shown an affection for the region. Official visits by members of the royal family are frequent — so too were “unofficial” ones — discretely conducted by Prince Harry during his courtship of Meghan while she carried out her acting career in Toronto.
While Queen Elizabeth II certainly was surprised to hear of their transatlantic ambitions, a move to Canada actually makes a lot of sense. Will Harry and Meghan be able to live a truly private life? That remains to be seen, as Harry’s brush with the paparazzi on Vancouver Island makes clear. But they certainly will be setting themselves up for a chance at a more balanced one.