It's 1959 at the rail station in Galt, Ont., and a boy not quite four waits an eternity to get a glimpse of a woman waving from a train. She is the Queen. It's her third visit to Canada, her second since her coronation in 1953. She's wearing a checked dress, he's sure of it all these years later. He thinks her beautiful, like Dale Evans, who is the cowgirl of his hero Roy Rogers, and who is also partial to red gingham, and to horses.
It's Sunday Oct. 6, 2002, outside Christ Church Cathedral on the Victoria leg of her 12-day tour. Queen Elizabeth II is still making memories on this, her 21st Canadian visit. She's a grandmother of 76 years of age, celebrating, tolerating, surviving her 50th anniversary as Queen and - John Manley notwithstanding - a half century as Canada's head of state. The little boy has aged some, too. He, among other members of the media, ransacks his vocabulary for the right colour to describe today's coat and hat. Spawning salmon? Dusty rose? "Coral," decree those with fashion sense.
At her side is the Anglican bishop of B.C., Right Rev. Barry Jenks, who carries a staff and wears on his head a peaked mitre. The two resemble living chess pieces in mid-move: bishop to queen, to car. The rules of the game - laid out months ago with the precision of a military campaign - call for a quick getaway to a luncheon at the Fairmont Empress hotel. As in chess, however, the Queen goes where she will. She heads to the barricades. She chats and smiles and gathers flowers - a pattern she follows throughout the tour, spending far more time at the task than Canadian organizers could have dared to hope. She is abetted at times by her 81-year-old husband, the Duke of Edinburgh - as spry and subversive as ever - who sets about freeing children from barriers so they can scamper to greet her.
It's a small enough thing, her unplanned walkabout in Victoria, yet it warms the noonday chill for hundreds of people, among them Christine Woolcott, who is 62, and Katie Holness, who is eight. In the 10 seconds it takes for her to gather in Katie's bouquet, carefully selected from a local grocery, Elizabeth leaves a shy Grade 3 girl feeling that her dahlias were indeed fit for a queen. Nearby, Woolcott, "a dyed-in-the-wool Constitutional Monarchist," stammers "Your Majesty" as the Queen glides past. She had more to say, Woolcott later admits, but "my words disappeared."
Individually, there is little substance to such memories and yet, collectively, they endure. Every stop, every word, adds a page to the national scrapbook, a fragment to a shared remembrance. "You are constantly redefining your national identity, what it means to be Canadian," the Queen says at a luncheon in Vancouver, "something of particular importance to my family." For more than 50 years, she's piled memory upon memory, relentlessly building a case that the monarchy - with all its idiosyncrasies, anachronism and dysfunction - remains a relevant part of that identity.
And so Iqaluit is now blessed with a newly paved Queen Elizabeth II Way - royal visits, like elections, being a boon to the asphalt industry. Expect a jump in membership of the Manitoba corgi association after the Queen stopped on a Winnipeg street to lavish attention on her favourite breed of dog. Some 335 sq. km of central Ontario wilderness now bear the name Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park. How silly would that look in a republic?
At each stop, the accompanying British media - rather like corgis, actually - pray that royalty, or the hand of fate, will toss them a bone. Something, anything, beyond the relentless barrage of flowers, cute children and unveilings. Thus, Nunavut, in the breathless reportage of the BBC, is embraced as "one of the remotest corners of the Queen's realm." Second, perhaps, only to "frigid" Winnipeg, where a broken-down boat on the Red River becomes an infinitely superior story to the dreary prospect of the Queen viewing in St. Boniface a plaque she'd unveiled in 1984. Yup, still there. In the Toronto area, the news for the British media is Canadian journalists themselves, criticizing the local events.
Still, barring disaster, or the trampling of a corgi between this writing and the Queen's departure for home from Ottawa on Oct. 15, this tour is defined by the slightly zany dropping of the Royal Rubber at a Sunday night hockey game in Vancouver.
"We need it," a relieved Alan Hamilton, correspondent for the Times, says of the puck drop, a rare creative flash on the agenda. "I mean, 76-year-old woman in hat exits car, enters church, just doesn't do," he says, peering at the ice from the press box high inside General Motors Place. "Do you call this a pitch," he asks, "or a rink?" The game's fine points may have eluded him, but the story Hamilton files to his London paper captures its essence in a perfect opening paragraph: "As Canada's head of state, the Queen is obliged to observe that country's established religion. So they took her to an ice hockey game."
Later that night, former hockey great and CBC legend Howie Meeker bursts into a news conference squealing "Ya-hoo." He pronounces his walk down the ice with the Queen, and his visit to the royal box, "the biggest thing that's ever happened in my life" - until an innate sense of self-preservation causes him to downgrade the event to "second-best," after his marriage. Wayne Gretzky and Cassie Campbell, captain of the gold-winning Olympic women's hockey team, are almost as effusive about their centre-ice brush with royalty. Premier Gordon Campbell, in a brief moment of weakness, hints at the underlying absurdity of an event that, after all, has a conclusion as inevitable as gravity. "The puck went right from her hand down to the ice," he notes. "It was perfect." And so perfectly bloodless was the game, under Her Majesty's watchful gaze, that a Vancouver radio sportscaster would later complain: "Both teams played like they were queens."
It was left, oddly enough, to John Manley, the blandly earnest deputy prime minister and finance minister, to come closest this tour to earning a game misconduct. His comment, the day of the Queen's arrival in Canada, that he'd prefer "an entirely Canadian institution" replace the monarchy after the Queen's reign, was another welcome bone for media on both sides of the pond.
Manley, in advance of his weekend role as the Queen's escort in the national capital, offered an apology of sorts for becoming "a distraction from her visit." Yet, he persisted in expressing a concern that must unsettle all but the most blinkered monarchist. "It is possible to concurrently have a great deal of respect for Queen Elizabeth and also to wonder about the future of the institution after her reign ends."
That nagging worry may be one reason why the Queen shows little inclination to surrender the throne to her son and heir, Prince Charles. For more than 50 years she has cultivated memories here and in other corners of a shrinking realm. If she looks fondly upon each bouquet during this Golden Jubilee tour, it is because she realizes better than most there is nothing innately perennial about the monarchy.
THE ROYAL MOTORCADE departs the Victoria cathedral, leaving Christine Woolcott to savour the memory. "I think the monarchy represents a very cohesive force," she says. Consider this crowd, she points out: "I didn't know a soul here and now it seems I have all these friends." She turns with a start to find she's all but alone. "Oh," she cries, "they've all left me. They've all gone!"
That's the question in a nutshell, isn't it? Will the crowds still be there when Elizabeth is gone?
See also Monarchism.
Maclean's October 21, 2002