Royal visit 2014: How Camilla found her niche

When Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, spends time at a credit union in Winnipeg today, the visit will be symbolic of how she has carefully carved out a role for herself in the Royal Family since marrying Prince Charles in 2005.

Duchess of Cornwall taking on more solo events, focusing on charitable interests

Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, undertook several engagements on her own during the four-day Canadian visit she and Prince Charles made this week. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Credit unions don't instantly leap to mind as the kind of places members of the Royal Family might frequent.

Yet this afternoon in Winnipeg, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is expected to do just that, to hear about programs and services offered by the Assiniboine Credit Union at its branch in the city's lower-income North End.

"Many people ... might be surprised that a Royal Family member is interested in a financial institution. But our financial institution is one that makes a difference in communities so we're thrilled that she has taken that interest," says Margaret Day, chair of the Assiniboine Credit Union's board.

"I'm hoping that she'll see that we are serving the under-served by having a branch there, that we're helping a community stay alive and vibrant​."

Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, chats with residents at Prince Edward Home, a long-term care facility for seniors, in Charlottetown on May 20, 2014. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Camilla's visit to the credit union comes on the final day of this four-day whirlwind Canadian visit that she and her husband, Prince Charles, began Sunday in Halifax.

It can also be seen as symbolic of the role she is carving out for herself in the Royal Family, reflecting the kind of initiatives she wants to support and the careful way she has gained acceptance from a public that was anything but warm toward her before her marriage to Charles in 2005.

"She's adapted to her role very well, and one of the most striking examples of how she has grown into the role is the number of independent engagements she carries out," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger.

Charles will be elsewhere while Camilla is to be at the credit union, one of several carefully staged solo engagements she has on her agenda for this visit.

In Dartmouth, N.S., on Monday, Camilla went to Alice Housing, an organization that supports women and children fleeing domestic abuse. On Tuesday in Charlottetown, she spent time with seniors at Prince Edward Home, as well as students at Immanuel Christian School.

That members of the Royal Family have interests in community groups is nothing new. Charles himself is focusing attention during this visit on a wide range of issues and initiatives under the umbrella of his Prince's Charities Canada.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, chats with Darla MacPhee, during a visit to the Northbrook Community Centre in Dartmouth on May 19, 2014. MacPhee has been the recipient of services from Alice Housing, an organization that assists women and children as they leave domestic violence. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But in carving out her own interests, Camilla has found her own way to make her mark — or "niches within niches," as Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty magazine, puts it.

That is not always an easy role when it comes to royal charity work.

"What you have to do is you have to try to find something that someone else in the Royal Family hasn't already nabbed," says Seward.

One such interest predates Camilla's official entry into the Royal Family.

"Both Camilla's mother and grandmother died from complications of osteoporosis, so that was one of her earliest patronages, to encourage research and care for those suffering from that illness," says Harris.

Community focus

Other interests have followed, ranging from literacy and animal welfare to support for sexual assault victims, and arts and heritage, including being the patron of Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ont., where her great-great-great-grandfather Allan MacNab lived.

"There's a strong emphasis on community and community cohesion in a number of her philanthropic interests," says Harris, which could help explain her interest in credit unions.

Last year, Camilla joined the London Mutual Credit Union. "She said she wanted to highlight the practical help the credit unions offer their communities in difficult economic times," the Daily Telegraph noted in a report that examined her support for the Archbishop of Canterbury's "crusade" against high-interest payday lenders.

The Duchess of Cornwall greets children while touring a military family centre on May 19, 2014, in Halifax. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Day says the Assiniboine Credit Union has a "very strong social mandate," and the organization is pleased to be able to show Camilla a branch in an under-served community like the North End, a place where other financial institutions had pulled out.

"With all the banks leaving over a 10-year period, people didn't have a main financial institution to go to, so what that meant was that people either had to travel out of the North End to get to a bank or a credit union, or they were using things like pawn shops or payday lenders to meet their financial needs, and that's not a healthy way to save money or to manage your finances at all," says Day.

Today, this credit union branch is thriving, and has several partner agencies in the community, including a daycare centre across the street.

The branch is "very well used and people are really, really thankful that we're meeting that need in the North End," says Day.

Rare transformation

Camilla's evolution within in the Royal Family comes with relatively little precedent. Few royal mistresses successfully make the transformation to royal consort. In this case, she also had to contend with the shadow of Charles's first wife, Diana, who died in 1997, a year after their divorce was finalized.

Seward says Camilla has moved cautiously into her role.

"She was very aware that she couldn't be too pushy … because she knows that she had a very hard act to follow and she wasn't popular," notes Seward.

"She had to ease into her role very, very gently and I think she has done that brilliantly; or it has been done brilliantly for her."

Harris says the acceptance that Charles's sons, William and Harry, have shown for Camilla has also "helped the public get to know her and accept her." Camilla's granddaughter was a bridesmaid at Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011.

In Charles's previous life, there was a sense at times that Diana outshone him, but with Camilla, the relationship seems to be one more of equals.

"With Charles and Camilla there's a sense that they complement each other rather than one outshining the other," says Harris.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, meets with an Ood during her visit to the set of the BBC drama series Doctor Who in Cardiff, Wales, on July 3, 2013. (Arthur Edwards/Arthur Edwards)

"We see them genuinely enjoying a lot of the royal engagements they've undertaken together," Harris adds, noting for example the time they visited the set of the British TV show Doctor Who last year in Wales.

Camilla's positive spirit may have also helped Prince Charles, Seward suggests. "His glass is half-empty and hers is half-full."

Those who have met Camilla have found her warm and welcoming.

"She was very enjoyable to be around," says Jennifer Carhart, principal of Hazen White St. Francis School in Saint John, N.B., which hosted the couple in 2012.

The school's cooking club made an elaborate meal for the royal couple to try, and Camilla doubled back to sample more of the fare. She wanted the kids to send her a recipe "because she loved it so much," Carhart recalls, and Charles had to turn back to her and "say 'Come on, dear, we need to get going. You'll stay here and talk all day.'"

Echoes of Queen Mother

Seward says Camilla shows an "old-fashioned courtesy" and has echoes of the late Queen Mother about her.

"She doesn't think, 'Oh, I'm a superstar, you must all look at me and go away you horrid little pressmen,' she doesn't think like that. She thinks … 'I am honoured to be here as a guest of these charming, friendly people in this beautiful country.' That's how she thinks."

Seward says it's been difficult for Camilla, someone who is a "terribly polite" and "gentle woman."

"She's going into a hostile environment really, isn't she, because especially North Americans, have not been historically keen on her."

That's meant she's had to work just a little bit harder "and you can sort of tell."

But she's done it her own way, and isn't influenced by anyone, Seward suggests.

"She doesn't have the arrogance of some of the other members of the Royal Family. I think she is just a genuinely good person."