Prince William and Kate in Canada: Why their royal visit is more than just the photo ops

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's upcoming visit to Canada will serve up a week of splendid photo ops showcasing the royals, but it is also an attempt to put a more modern glow on a monarchy some see as anything but.

Week-long tour by Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will include focus on environmental, Indigenous issues

Prince William and his wife, Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, along with their children Prince George and Princess Charlotte, will arrive Saturday for a week-long tour of B.C. and Yukon. (Chris Jeff/Associated Press )

The visit that begins when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge land in Victoria on Saturday with their young children will serve up a week of splendid photo ops showcasing the photogenic young royals, along with the rich environmental and First Nations heritage in British Columbia and Yukon.

But the tour that takes Prince William and Kate from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to the Great Bear Rainforest and a street party in Whitehorse is also a carefully crafted exercise in trying to bolster Canadian ties with the House of Windsor and put a more modern glow on an institution some see as anything but.

"It's about projecting a new, bright and promising image of the monarchy," says London-based royal biographer and correspondent Katie Nicholl, author of Kate: The Future Queen.

The visit marks the first time William and Kate are doing an official tour with both their children along: three-year-old Prince George, who is third in line for the throne behind his grandfather Prince Charles and his father, and one-year-old Princess Charlotte, who has rarely been seen in public.

It also comes five years after William and Kate made their first visit together to Canada. That trip included stops in Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and the Northwest Territories and was widely considered a success for the newlyweds.

Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, relax after competing against each other in a dragon boat race at Dalvay-by-the-Sea, P.E.I., on July 4, 2011. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

"The Canadians are very fond of the monarchy," says Nicholl. "I'd go so far as to say they adore William and Kate, but I think the arrival of George and Charlotte will take things to a completely new level."

Cementing a relationship

As much as the trip may be about sending out that "bright and promising image," it is also building on the past.

"Having these very high profile tours cements the personal relationship between Canada and the monarchy," says Toronto-based royal historian and author Carolyn Harris.

"It's renewing the Royal Family's personal relationship with Canada, as there's been longstanding debates about the future of the Commonwealth realms after the end of the Queen's reign."

For those who vigorously support the monarchy, the visit is more than welcome.

"We hope it makes Canadians pay attention to the fact we are a constitutional monarchy," says Robert Finch, dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada. "A royal tour is always the best reminder."

And even a group that wants to see Canada's constitutional ties with the monarchy cut welcomes that reminder, seeing it as an opportunity to spur debate on the topic.

"We have no objections at all to royal visits," says Tom Freda, co-founder of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, which would like Canada have a head of state who is democratically selected here.

"But there's a difference between celebrity interest and who we think we should have as our independent head of state." 

Opportunities to see William and Kate along with their children Prince George and Princess Charlotte in public are rare. One came in June 2016 in London during Trooping the Colour, the official birthday celebration for Queen Elizabeth, who turned 90 this year. (Tim Ireland/Associated Press)

For their part, William and Kate see the trip as a chance "to deepen their relationship with a country that they will visit many times over the course of their lives," says a post on the Royal Family's website.

"They want to help the people of British Columbia and Yukon to celebrate what makes Canada great and to showcase some amazing places to the rest of the world."

While William and Kate — and their children when they appear — will be the focus of the tour, the trip itself is very much a product of the federal, B.C. and Yukon governments, which played leading roles in crafting the itinerary.

'A mildly supportive position'

The federal government "is carrying on a mildly supportive position on the Crown," says John Fraser, author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty.

"No one from the Royal Family comes through without the request from the government, so clearly they think it's a good idea."

For this tour, the Department of Heritage says it worked closely with the governments of Yukon and British Columbia, along with Kensington Palace.

Prince George gets in on the action during play group event at Government House in Wellington, New Zealand on April 9, 2014, when the young royal made his first international trip accompanying his parents on their visit Down Under. (Marty Melville/ Reuters)

In an email Friday afternoon, the department said, "A good example of why certain activities are chosen would be the inclusion of the Great Bear Rainforest in the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy project," something that will be officially endorsed during William and Kate's visit there Monday.

"This is clearly something important to Her Majesty. Canada is a member of the Commonwealth and the government of Canada has policies on conservation and the environment; and British Columbia and our Indigenous leaders are the custodians of this forest."

Observers also see the potential for synergy between the royals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will be on hand as William and Kate are officially welcomed to Canada on Saturday at the B.C. Legislature. Trudeau will also take part in various events during the visit.

"They're young stars. We have a young prime minister with a young family. I think that's part of the chemistry there," says Fraser, founder of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.

William, as a future king, might also think it's a good idea to have a closer look at what's going on in Canada.

"There's a lot to learn for a modern monarch out of Canada, really, in its progressive ways," says Mark Borkowski, a British public relations expert who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Everything seems to be very modern in Canada in terms of how it looks at things."

'Modern leader'

Borkowski, who describes Trudeau as a "modern leader," points to the Canadian government's initiatives around marijuana and the environment.

"It shows just the power of the Canadian lobby to get [William] there, because they're A-listers really."

Some of that A-list attention will be directed toward First Nations communities and Indigenous issues, a regular component of royal visits, and something that is a focus of the federal government particularly in the wake of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge greet Aboriginal dancers in Yellowknife, N.W.T., on July 5, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"For me, the most useful thing the Royal Family does is deal with our systemic wound on First Nations," says Fraser, who says those communities trust the concept of the Crown more than the concept of the Canadian government.

The federal government has also positioned the visit in connection with the run-up to a Canadian milestone next year.. 

"On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, this tour provides an opportunity to learn about the amazing things Canadians are doing for each other, their community and country," the Department of Heritage says.

But some observers expect other royals will be on hand for the big celebrations in 2017

"There'll be another visit I suspect by Prince Charles [next] year for the sesquicentennial and that will be more symbolic," says Fraser.

"But in terms of the young couple, I think it's just the start of a series of visits. That's what they're supposed to be doing. They're supposed to be coming regularly. His granny is the head of state whether people like it or not."

Tour dates released by the Department of Canadian Heritage are: 

   Sept. 24: Victoria.
    Sept. 25: Vancouver.
    Sept. 26: Bella Bella, B.C.
    Sept. 27: Victoria and Kelowna, B.C.; Whitehorse, Yukon.
    Sept. 28: Whitehorse and Carcross, Yukon.
    Sept. 29: Victoria.
    Sept. 30: Haida Gwaii, B.C.
    Oct. 1: Victoria.

CBC will have live coverage on and a live special on News Network hosted by Peter Mansbridge on Saturday from 6:30 p.m. ET to 9 p.m. ET. 


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.