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80 years ago, Canada rolled out the red carpet for the royal tour

The red carpet that had been rolled over cement was a clue Canada was eager to impress its royal guests.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth's month-long visit kicked off on May 17, 1939

King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, arrive in Quebec City on May 17, 1939, at the start of their month-long royal tour in Canada. (Library and Archives Canada/C-035115)

The red carpet that had been rolled over concrete was a clue Canada was eager to impress its royal guests.

"We may expect at any moment now to see the King and Queen come down this short gangway and be greeted by the royal salute," a CBC Radio announcer told listeners on May 17, 1939.

King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, were about to disembark from the ship Empress of Australia in Quebec City and formally kick off their highly anticipated royal tour — the first such by a reigning monarch in Canada.

Trumpeters were standing by to sound a welcome to the sovereign and his wife at the start of their Canadian adventure, along with a group of Mounties who had symmetrically assembled on either side of the gangway.

'His foot is on Canadian soil'

"Here comes the King down the gangway, followed by the Queen," the announcer excitedly told listeners, as loud cheers could be heard in the background.

"The King saluting the prime minister, his foot is on Canadian soil and the royal tour has begun."

After dodging icebergs and sailing through fog, the royal couple's ship finally arrives at Wolfe's Cove in Quebec. 5:28

'Canada herself is news'

King George VI delivers a radio broadcast to the British Empire on May 24, 1939. (National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-122957)

The royal couple's Canadian exploits were being closely covered by the British media from the start of their journey.

"The front pages of the newspapers are reserved for the daily events of the tour," said correspondent Graham Spry, when describing to CBC Radio listeners the extensive press coverage taking place overseas.

A Canadian in London describes how the British press is covering the 1939 Royal Tour in Canada. 4:16

And that also meant lots of exposure for Canada.

"The royal visit, in word and in picture, is the predominant interest of every newspaper," Spry said.

"But not only their majesties, not only their tour and the welcome accorded them, but Canada herself is news."

Spry said the Canadian coverage was inescapable for the readers of British newspapers — in part because of a lack of other news.

"Happily, no untoward event in Europe has competed for the British public's attention," he said.

'Most expectant' crowds

The King and Queen meet Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa on May 19, 1939. (National Film Board of Canada/Photothèque/ Library and Archives Canada/C-065499)

After starting out in Quebec City, the royal tour progressed to Montreal and eventually to Ottawa.

While in the Canadian capital, the King and Queen unveiled the National War Memorial and afterward spent half an hour meeting veterans of the First World War.

The King and Queen unveil the National War Memorial in Ottawa on May 21, 1939. (National Film Board of Canada/Photothèque/Library and Archives Canada/C-002179)

According to CBC Radio's reporting, some veterans in the front row crouched down so the people behind them could see the royal couple.

After unveiling the National War Memorial in Ottawa during the 1939 Royal Tour, the King and Queen unexpectedly venture into the surrounding crowd of veterans. 9:04
"They are all lined up here, looking most expectant," an announcer told CBC Radio listeners.

Bulletproof glass? 'They don't need it'

After unveiling the war memorial in Ottawa, the King and Queen go on a walkabout and chat with veterans of the First World War. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-211015)

At one point, the muffled voice of a veteran could be heard on the radio broadcast, before the announcer repeated the remarks.

"[He] says for me to tell you there's no bulletproof glass around, they don't need it with the veterans here. And I don't think they do," the announcer said.

"These veterans are taking a great pride in their King and Queen who have come to them so graciously today and have mingled so long among them." 

'A wealth of affection'

The King and Queen visit the Botanical Gardens in Halifax on June 15, 1939. (National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-112663)

The King and Queen's tour would take them through Ontario and the Prairie provinces and out to British Columbia over the four weeks that followed. Their itinerary would also include a visit to the United States, before wrapping up their tour in Halifax. 

Their time in North America also took them to Newfoundland, which was not yet a Canadian province.

The Queen offered some kind words to Canadians ahead of their departure.

"I cannot leave Canada without saying a word of farewell to you all and thanking you for the wealth of affection that you have offered us throughout these unforgettable weeks," she said during a lunch.

On the last day of the 1939 Royal Tour, the Queen tells Canadians the visit has been a "rare delight" for her. 4:27

For the Queen, her visit to Canada had "given me memories that the passage of time will never dim."

With a looming war in Europe, the tour would be the last of its kind for Canadians to see for some time. 

The visit took the royal couple to Winnipeg. (Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

The King never returned to Canada during his lifetime. His wife, however, would return many times in the years that followed his death — though none of those visits would be as lengthy as the one she made with her late husband.