CBC Digital Archives

Royal Tour rolls through Winnipeg

In the spring of 1939, a new King and his gracious Queen captured the hearts of Canadians. As war loomed overseas, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the country by train to meet their subjects and bolster the bonds of Empire. From small-town whistle stops to bustling cities, eager crowds cheered, sang and waited for hours, eager for a glimpse of royalty. CBC mobilized a crew of 100 to cover the tour, producing a rich radio archive of that royal spring.

The 1939 royal tour wasn't the first time a member of the Royal Family graced Canadian shores, but you'd never know it by listening to this clip. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived in Canada in May 1939, they were treated like rock stars - travelling in a specially outfitted train, followed by mobs of reporters and being welcomed by cheering crowds. This early CBC Radio clip chronicles the scene as the couple arrives at the Manitoba legislature in front of a crowd of thousands.
• The royal couple's month-long tour began in Quebec City on May 17, 1939. The King and Queen travelled across Canada in a special "royal train" assembled from the best of the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railways fleets.

• They used two customized convertible McLaughlin-Buicks to tour the streets of towns and cities.

• Canada had hosted members of the Royal Family before (starting in 1861) but the 1939 tour marked the first time that the events could be broadcast live across the country.

• It was also the first time a reigning monarch, King George VI, had visited Canada. The importance of the trip was magnified during the Winnipeg leg, since it took place on Victoria Day.

• Despite a record rainfall, more than 100,000 Manitobans (plus several thousand Americans) lined the streets of Winnipeg to welcome the royal couple.

• The Winnipeg Free Press was dominated by gushing stories about the royal couple. One detailed the Queen's remarkable beauty, while another called the Winnipeg reception "The greatest welcome ever given a man and woman in the history of the west."

• Despite the rain, the King reportedly requested that the roof of their car be lowered so that the crowd could see them.

• CBC Radio, which was only two years old at the time, was also excited about the tour. The service committed 100 staff to cover the visit (two English and two French teams) and purchased a wealth of new equipment including remote amplifiers and custom made microphones.

• Over the course of six weeks, journalists travelled 11,000 kilometres and produced 91 broadcasts about the tour.

• Much of the equipment would be put to good use later in the year, when Canada joined the war effort and CBC reporters were sent to Europe.

• One of the unstated motives for the royal visit was to shore up support for Great Britain, which was on the brink of war. With this in mind, the couple also took the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., for a few days.

• Prime Minister Mackenzie King welcomed the King and Queen when they arrived in Quebec City and travelled with them for the entire trip.

• The royal couple departed for Britain on June 15 from Halifax Harbour accompanied by British and Canadian warships, and the Bluenose - which was one of many smaller ships that served as informal escorts.

• The couple stopped for a visit to Newfoundland, then not part of Canada, before heading home.

• Queen Elizabeth was the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, the current (2007) monarch. Later in life she would become known as the Queen Mother. She died in 2002 at the age of 102.

• Over the years, the 1939 royal visit to Winnipeg became the subject of a widely circulated anecdote regarding the CBC live broadcast. According to the story, the announcer covering the arrival of the King and Queen at City Hall became confused by the presence of Prime Minister King, Winnipeg's mayor John Queen and his wife, Mrs. Queen. As a result, his coverage becomes muddled and ends with him cursing in frustration.

• Though several dramatizations of the event have aired on the CBC since, there is no record of this incident ever happening - either in the CBC Radio archives or in newspaper reports of the day. In all likelihood, the "King/Queen" anecdote is either an apocryphal one, or it occurred on a private regional station.

Also on May 24:
1603: Samuel de Champlain first lands in what would become Quebec, at Tadoussac, Lower Canada.
1932: Parliament passes a bill establishing the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, which became the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Nov. 1936.
2000: What is termed Canada's worst e. coli outbreak becomes public knowledge. Seven people die and 2,300 are sickened after drinking contaminated water in the southwestern Ontario community of Walkerton.

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: May 24, 1939
Speaker: John Bracken
Duration: 14:12
Photo: Image of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Mackenzie King meeting John Bracken courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (PA#211030)

Last updated: March 4, 2014

Page consulted on March 4, 2014

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