Prince Philip's love affair with Canada

Prince Philip has had a few health scares recently, but Queen Elizabeth's husband's short visit to Toronto, which begins today, reflects his stamina, longtime military interests and maybe even a love affair with a country he's visited over 70 times.

The Duke of Edinburgh, 91, will present colours to Royal Canadian Regiment battalion

When precision military parachutists drop out of the sky over downtown Toronto tomorrow, they'll be taking advantage of a rare opportunity to demonstrate their tactical prowess for their royal colonel-in-chief.

The new colour for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment replaces a colour damaged seven years ago. (Department of National Defence)

Prince Philip's short visit to Canada — without his wife, the Queen — to present a ceremonial flag to the Royal Canadian Regiment's 3rd Battalion also comes as something of a surprise.

At 91, and having had a few health scares in the past 18 months, overseas travel might not necessarily have been a given for the Duke of Edinburgh, who is the longest-serving consort to a monarch in British history.

"During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations [last year], the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh remained in the United Kingdom while their children and grandchildren toured the world," notes Toronto-based royal historian and blogger Carolyn Harris. "So I think a foreign visit from the Duke of Edinburgh at 91 was unexpected."

But when you take into account Philip's feisty personality, dedication to his role and some of the interests he's shown over the years, his return to Canada — he's made more than 70 visits or stopovers since 1950 — may not be a complete surprise.

The trip, which begins when Philip lands in Toronto today, is billed as a private working visit and is apparently only for a few days. The brevity, however, is not unprecedented.

"There have been visits related to his charitable patronages, fundraising dinners for the World Wildlife Fund Canada or presenting Duke of Edinburgh awards or holding Commonwealth Study conferences to address issues throughout the Commonwealth," says Harris. "So it's interesting that he has been a very constant presence in Canada in the past 60 years."

Praising Canadian innovators

Politics and the prince

The Duke of Edinburgh has kept his eye on Canadian politics, and unlike his wife, he's occasionally had something to say publicly.

"When there was hostility to the monarchy coming out of French Canada," says royal historian Carolyn Harris, "Prince Philip spoke quite frankly that if there was going to be a break between Canada and the monarchy, to let it be an amicable one."

At that point, in 1976, Philip made one of the controversial quips he's become known for.

"It was at the end of those comments that he made the remark 'We don’t come here for our health, we can think of other ways of spending our time,'" says Harris.

She argues that the remark, often considered one of Philip's verbal faux pas, has been taken out of context.

"It was within the context of him talking about how the monarchy was there to serve the people and would be there as long as the people wanted.

"In his position as the Queen's consort, Prince Philip's been able to speak much more frankly whereas the Queen as an impartial constitutional monarch cannot comment publicly about Canadian politics."

Harris says Philip's longstanding interest in Canada and its military forces was on display as early as 1951, when he accompanied Elizabeth, then heir to the throne and standing in for her ailing father, King George VI, on their first visit to the country.

In a speech during that visit, Philip "commented that he admired that Canada had preserved its independence being so close to a powerful neighbour such as the United States, and that Canada had developed a distinct culture and had its own scientific innovators and cultural innovators," says Harris.

She dates Philip’s "admiration" for the Canadian Forces to the Second World War.

Philip, who gave up a naval career at age 29 to support his wife, put his own wartime experience front and centre in his 1951 speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

"In the British Isles, the Canadian army will always be remembered for the security they gave when invasion threatened and the gallantry displaying in the fighting in Italy and North Europe. I can speak from personal experience as I was serving in a destroyer off the beaches at Sicily when the Canadian division landed there in 1943."

Philip was made colonel-in-chief of the Royal Canadian Regiment on Dec. 8, 1953, taking on a role that had been vacant for more than a decade. He presented the 3rd Battalion's first colours on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1973.

That flag was ripped when its display case was damaged seven years ago. For the soldiers who will watch Philip present the new heavy silk tapestry at Queen’s Park on Saturday, his visit is significant.

'Never pass a fault'

"For us, as a regiment, to have a member of the Royal Family come to do this for us is important," says Lt.-Col. David Quick, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion.

"Although we don’t see him very much and he has a ton of activities that he's involved with … it's not lost on those soldiers that His Royal Highness is coming here for a very short time [for] them."

Lt.-Col. David Quick, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, says Prince Philip embodies the qualities that are reflected in the battalion's slogan: 'Never pass a fault.' (Department of National Defence)

Philip, Quick suggests, also embodies the qualities that are reflected in the battalion's slogan: "Never pass a fault."

"From what I understand, certainly what the popular media reports, that's exactly the kind of man the Duke of Edinburgh is. So I'm really excited to meet a guy that's lived his whole life in the same manner as this regiment believes in."

Quick says the regiment is deeply focused on tradition, but he also takes great pride in the modern military skills the battalion will put on display Saturday as part of a celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812's Battle of York.

More than 350 members of the battalion will travel from their Petawawa base to Toronto for the presentation by Philip, a military parade and other events, some of which will take place near where the regiment was formed in 1883.

'Cool juxtaposition'

In addition to precision parachutists, rappellers will demonstrate their skills off office buildings near Queen’s Park. Weapons systems will also be on display, all of it creating what Quick calls a "cool juxtaposition" between past and present.

Harris expects Philip will be intrigued by everything on display.

"He's always had a strong interest in technology, so it's likely the Duke of Edinburgh will be asking plenty of questions about the military technology that he sees."

Ninian Mellamphy, a longtime royal watcher and professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., considers that Philip's energy and commitment are to be admired, but he does wonder why Philip, as a naval man, became colonel-in-chief of an infantry regiment.

He also sees a form of "ironic nostalgia" in Canadian regiments having Royal Family members in such roles.

"It's a nice compliment to [Philip], but it doesn't really tell you too much about the confidence of the regiment in its own Canadianness. I often wonder then how someone like Prince Philip — he’s a pretty cynical and ironic and aware type of person — I wonder what he thinks of his whole particular role there."

Maj. Tim Kenney keeps Prince Philip up to date on the regiment's activities. (Department of National Defence)

Maj. Tim Kenney, the officer commanding of the Duke of Edinburgh's Company within the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, keeps Philip up to date on the regiment's activities and will act as his special equerry — or aide — on Saturday.

Kenney hasn't met Philip, but is honoured by his role, and considers that the Duke embodies the regimental motto of pro patria, or "for country."

"In addition to the positive role model that he is for all public servants writ large, he has a very long and a very esteemed history of public service and I think that type of dedication and that type of integrity … is something to be emulated by all of us who serve."

'Yes sir, No sir'

The famously outspoken Philip can generally be counted on for quips — sometimes creating controversy — but Kenney doesn't let on that he's expecting any particular jocularity along the way on Saturday.

"I expect that I will have the opportunity to answer him 'Yes sir,' 'No sir,' as he desires."

Robert Finch, chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, says Philip's visit is a testament to his dedication to Canada, and to his stamina.

"I really thought that his age and recent health concerns would have made such a visit impossible," Finch said in an email.

"But how wrong I was. And I bet he gets a kick out of people talking about his health and age, [and] probably says to himself, 'I'll show them.'"


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