How Prince Edward and Sophie forged deep ties with Canada

In a royal world where big headlines can easily scream of scandal, the seven-day visit that the Earl and Countess of Wessex wrapped up Monday was decidedly more low-key but showed how they have made significant links in Canada.

Earl and Countess of Wessex completed seven-day 'working visit' on Monday

The cameras may follow royalty nearly everywhere they go, but Sophie, Countess of Wessex, was firmly focused on her time with wheelchair basketball athlete Brandon Wagner in Toronto on Monday. (Janet Davison/CBC)

Brandon Wagner was already riding high after arriving back in Canada on the weekend with the gold medal he won with his wheelchair basketball teammates at the London Paralympic Games.

Then he met royalty.

"I still am pinching myself — am I dreaming?" he wondered Monday after spending several minutes chatting with Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, as they toured the head office of the Toronto 2015 Pan/ParaPan Am Games.

Prince Edward, left, Sophie, Countess of Wessex and Nunavut Commissioner Edna Elias attend a ceremony in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Sept. 3, 2012. (Aaron Watson/Canadian Press)

"It's a surreal experience, but I guess it kind of elevates all the hard work you put in."

And that was probably the point.

In a royal world where big headlines can easily scream of scandal — witness topless Kate and naked Harry — the seven-day Canadian visit that Edward and Sophie wrapped up on Monday was decidedly more low-key.

As a "working visit" rather than an "official visit," it didn't have the high profile of some royal trips, and certainly there was nary a scandal in sight from a royal couple who have particularly close ties to Edward's parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, but seem to toil at times out of the limelight.

The visit by Edward and Sophie did, however, further forge the deep ties they have been making with groups and organizations across Canada.

33 visits to Canada

Edward is no fly-by-night guest. This was his 33rd time here — his mother's official visit tally over her 60 years on the throne only numbers 22. And while they were here, Edward and Sophie, visiting for her ninth time, were hardly sitting around: they participated in 50 events in Ontario and Nunavut.

"They seem to have a very close relationship with Canada," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royalty expert who noted this trip seemed to garner more national attention than previous working visits.

Prince Edward, standing second from right, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, standing second from left, pose with officals form the Pan/ParaPan Am Toronto 2015 Games in Toronto on Monday. (Janet Davison/CBC)

"Prince Edward is the only member of the Royal Family besides the Queen to have a Canadian private secretary so they've become very close to Canadian institutions and they have a broad range of interests," said Harris, who has a blog, the Royal Historian.

The couple's private secretary, Christopher Carnegie, and his wife Tania, who serves as Sophie's lady-in-waiting in Canada, set the events in motion that led to Wagner, the paralympic gold medallist, meeting the royals.

The Carnegies approached Toronto 2015 officials earlier this year, recalled Louise Lutgens, senior vice-president of community and cultural affairs for the Games organizing committee, and "explained to us and educated us essentially on the commitment and passion that the Earl and Countess of Wessex have to Canada, their commitment to the parasport movement and their belief in how it can advance communities."

Toronto 2015 saw a "huge opportunity" in the royal involvement, said Lutgens, who said Edward and Sophie encouraged the young athletes they met Monday as the organization launched its youth advisory council.

The royals "inspired 34 people to think and look differently at paralympic sport today," said Lutgens.

"That's not an event that happens every day. Those 34 people are connected to thousands of other young people so the networks and awareness that that will bring — I think that's [a] huge success, and if that required a royal visit to make that happen, it's wonderful."

Shouldn't you be wearing your medal?

Wagner certainly left feeling inspired after his royal encounter.

Edward had come along to meet Wagner first, and joked he should have been wearing his gold medal, but the earl also showed serious interest in the athlete's accomplishments. Sophie followed a little later, and spent several minutes talking with the Burlington, Ont., resident.

"She was very engaging," Wagner said. "You could tell that she is very knowledgeable in sport and … business too, how the games were operated."

Carole Thompson, a gold Duke of Edinburgh award recipient in 1981, flew from Halifax to Toronto for the award ceremony presided over by Prince Edward on Monday. (Janet Davison/CBC)

For groups that hosted Edward and Sophie over the past week, that intense interest they showed in their activities — along with their charm — was deeply rewarding.

Sophie spent part of Saturday in Ontario's Niagara region, where she has been colonel-in-chief of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment since 2005.

Lt.-Col. Allan Stoyka, the regiment's commanding officer, said he particularly appreciated the time Sophie took speaking with some of the 1,000 or so members of the public who had come out to observe a regimental ceremony in Queenston Heights.

"She has a very easy-going style of meeting people, very calm and confident, and I was very happy that she at least spent some time with the people who spent time out of their personal day to come see her as well."

That event took place on the former battlefield for the War of 1812's Battle of Queenston Heights and saw the regiment receive its remaining battle honours for that conflict 200 years ago.

Battle honours and family honours

"To have [the] royal visit tied with battle honours," said Stoyka, "you really couldn't put much more into ... the connection to the past, the legacy of the past with the War of 1812."

But the visit wasn't focused solely on looking back. Later Saturday, Sophie spent about two hours at a barbecue for 900 regiment members and friends.

"She really wanted to meet the children and the spouses and the parents for some of the younger soldiers as well," said Stoyka.

Edward ended the public portion of the working visit Monday with an appearance that involved an organization with a longer-standing royal link: the Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

The earl has assumed much of the responsibility for the youth award his father launched in 1956. At Monday's award ceremony at the Design Exchange in downtown Toronto, he praised recipients for their "fantastic" efforts and noted the sense of "pride and satisfaction" they could share after completing the activities needed for the award, including community service, personal skills development and physical recreation.

Carole Thompson, a gold Duke of Edinburgh award recipient in 1981 and president of the Nova Scotia division of the awards, flew from Halifax for the ceremony.

"The award has absolutely changed my life because it has led me in directions I would never have gone in otherwise," she said, noting that her involvement as a soccer coach in the award process helped transform her from an introverted teenager into someone capable of taking on managerial roles.

"It forces you to think outside the box. Things you might have thought you couldn't do you try and then you find you can actually do them and accomplish things you hadn't thought you could."

'That much more rewarding'

Thompson said Edward will do a "fine job" carrying on his father's tradition with the award.

"He's well-known, liked, regarded, respected internationally."

She had a chance to speak personally with Edward after the ceremony.

"It's just a little bit revitalizing and it just makes the volunteer efforts that I'm putting in that much more rewarding."

Cristina Olteanu says meeting Prince Edward will motivate her 'to continue giving back to the community.' (Janet Davison/CBC)

That feeling was echoed by Cristina Olteanu of Richmond Hill, Ont., who received her gold Duke of Edinburgh award from Edward on Monday.

Meeting him and speaking with him after the ceremony "really motivated me to continue giving back to the community," she said.

"Perhaps I will meet him again one day."

Given the track record Edward and Sophie have coming to Canada, there's a decent chance that might happen.