Canada offers the royals a reset after Caribbean tour fiasco

The royals know from recent experience that a bad start can ruin the whole trip
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall as they arrive in St. John's to begin a three-day Canadian tour, May 17, 2022. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall as they arrive in St. John’s to begin a three-day Canadian tour, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Two years of pandemic caused such a backlog of royal tours that the Windsors are seemingly everywhere as they make up for lost time by marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. But tours are complex, guided by the competing interests of royals, hosts, local communities and the media. Already there have been some notable stumbles, especially the ill-fated visit in March to the Caribbean by Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. 

Now, it’s Canada’s turn, as Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, dash more than 3,000 kilometres across the country in three days. This tour, with its roundtable discussions and community events, is unlikely to generate the spectacular photo ops that marked the Cambridges’ tour—they climbed Mayan pyramids, and scuba dived in a barrier reef.

The good weather did help draw crowds to the few public events, including a visit on Wednesday to the National War Memorial in Ottawa, where the couple abandoned a rigidly timed schedule to meet local residents and collect bouquets of tulips on a a mini walkabout. Cecile Dumont arrived at 7 a.m. to get a selfie with Charles. “I love him, really I do,” said the Quebec City resident.

When they arrived at the ByWard Market to meet vendors to talk about how they fared during the pandemic (and sample their offering), the crowds spilled into the streets for a glimpse of royalty.

Still, with its carefully calibrated, low-key “listen and learn” vibe, this visit is unlikely to generate as many caustic comments about culturally insensitive royals. It appears designed to yield that outcome.

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It helps that Canada enjoys more frequent royal trips than other Commonwealth nations, which may see a visit every decade or so. This tour is Charles’s 19th, meaning he’s come roughly every 2.5 years for a half-century. Coming on a regular basis allows them to go to places and do things that wouldn’t normally be deemed “royal visit-worthy,” such as a discussion on sustainability financing slated this week in Ottawa.

Still, it doesn’t take much to push a tour off balance.

“Day One matters far more than Day Five,” says royal biographer Robert Hardman, who has been on more than 80 tours. In 2009, the media labelled the first joint Canadian tour by Charles and Camilla a disappointment largely because of its first day, when a combination of miserable November weather and choice of locale (a small Newfoundland town named Cupids) resulted in sparse crowds greeting the couple. It all made for an uncomfortably stark contrast to the summer throngs that met Charles and Diana on their first visit in 1983. 

The current tour is taking place in the warmth of May. The first day in St. John’s is organized to offer photo opportunities to the press, including a walkabout in the picturesque Quidi Vidi village northeast of the Newfoundland capital. Unlike the Cambridges’s trip, which back-loaded important events, this one begins with perhaps the most sensitive issue for the host nation: the damage inflicted on Indigenous peoples by the government policies, especially the horrors of the residential school system. In his speech at the official greeting on Tuesday, Charles said: “I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to discuss with the Governor General the vital process of reconciliation in this countrynot a one-off act, of course, but an ongoing commitment to healing, respect and understanding. 

“I know that our visit here this week comes at an important momentwith Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across Canada committing to reflect honestly and openly on the past and to forge a new relationship for the future.” 

Immediately afterward, the prince and Camilla took part in a moment of reflection and prayer with Indigenous leaders in the Heart Garden at Government House, which is dedicated to the memory of children who suffered in the residential school system. It was the first in a series of Indigenous-focused events on the tour. 

That first day is crucial because narratives are hard to dislodge once set, which the Cambridges found out when their week-long Caribbean tour stumbled on well-known concerns and issues. William and Kate hadn’t even arrived in Belize when protests by Indigenous peoples prompted organizers to change the site of their first event. As days passed, media attention increasingly shifted from tour engagements to historical and social questions, including reparations for slavery, colonialism, racism and the ongoing Windrush scandal, in which the British government wrongly detained, denied benefits to and deported British subjects of Caribbean heritage. In Jamaica, Prime Minister Andrew Holness upended a photo op with the couple by bluntly saying he wants his nation to “move on” from being a monarchy—that is, to ditch William’s grandmother as the country’s head of state. 

By the time William addressed the issues of slavery and republicanism in two major speeches near the end of the tour, the visit was deemed an out-of-touch effort designed to promote the monarchy and Britain, observes Berthelsen, who helped organize royal tours going back to 1978 in his former roles as a private secretary to the lieutenant-governor of Ontario, and as a policy and program officer at Rideau Hall.

In contrast, Ottawa made it clear from the first press release that this tour was at the invitation of Canada, with Canadian goals and aspirations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General Mary Simon buttressed that messaging with supporting statements of welcome. In the countdown to the tour, the royal social media accounts have been dominated by information about Canadian tours, past and present. 

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The overly formal, performative tours of the past are gone, notes Berthelsen. The focus now is on the shared concerns of Canada and the royals: environmental issues; works of royal charities and organizations; and, especially, issues important to Indigenous communities. Before the royals arrived, Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said that, when she meets Charles in Ottawa, she will ask that he or the Queen issue an apology and offer reparations on behalf of the Crown for the trauma inflicted in residential schools. “There’s so much healing that is needed,” she told CBC News. (The royal visit comes just after the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury offered his own apology in Saskatchewan and before Pope Francis is expected to do the same in July.)

On the third day of the visit, Charles is scheduled to meet with leaders of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Dettah, N.W.T.. He will then talk with members of local communities about how climate change is affecting winter ice roads and contributing to coastal erosion, while Camilla visits a school to learn how it is preserving Wıìlıìdeh, a dialect of the Tlicho language. 

Nothing goes completely to plan on any royal tour. During William and Kate’s 2016 trip to British Columbia and Yukon, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs announced he wouldn’t attend a reconciliation ceremony because of daily tragedies that Indigenous peoples were enduring. Then there was the 2002 visit by the Queen that got sideswiped by then-deputy prime minister John Manley; a few days before officially escorting her in Ottawa, Manley told reporters that he opposed the monarchy. 

One way Canada minimizes the risk of glaring embarrassment is by sending the royals only to provinces or territories where they are welcome, and where there is agreement between Ottawa and local authorities about the tour’s stops, explains Berthelsen. That policy was established after the Queen’s 1964 trip to Quebec, which took place at the federal government’s instigation, but saw nationalist protesters shout “Elizabeth, go home” and turn their backs to her. 

At the end of their own brief whistle-stop tour, Charles and Camilla fly back to Britain on a RCAF plane, knowing that they’ve successfully crossed off the Canadian portion of their to-do list, at least for this Platinum Jubilee year.

This post was updated to include details of the royal couple’s appearances in Ottawa