Canada·Analysis

A royal visit at a time of reckoning: Will Prince Charles and Camilla connect with Canadians?

What Prince Charles and Camilla say and do over the next three days will be under scrutiny, as the couple make their first visit to Canada in five years and carry out the first official royal visit since a greater societal reckoning with our past and our institutions has taken hold.

3-day tour kicks off Tuesday in St. John's, before the couple travels to Ottawa, N.W.T.

Preparations underway on eve of royal visit to Canada

1 month ago
Duration 2:01
Prince Charles and Camilla are set to kick off their three-day royal tour across Canada in St. John’s on Tuesday, which will include a moment of reflection and prayer dedicated to victims of residential schools at a garden outside Government House.

Kyle Empringham doesn't follow the royals and wasn't initially aware there was a royal visit to Canada coming up this week.

Still, after he found out, the co-founder of The Starfish Canada, a group that supports young people in their environmental careers, saw potential for some "optimistic skepticism" about what might flow environmentally from the visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, that kicks off Tuesday in St. John's.

Environmental issues are on the agenda during the three-day trip, including when Charles meets with local experts to discuss the impact of climate change in the Northwest Territories, and Indigenous-led efforts to address it.

Empringham, who co-founded Starfish as a 20-year-old in 2010, said he was glad to hear that Charles is visiting the North, and that he would be engaging with Indigenous communities. 

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visit Canada House in London, England, last Thursday, ahead of their three-day visit to Canada that kicks off Tuesday in St. John's. (Hannah McKay/The Associated Press)

"Then next thing I'd want to hear is … the actionable pieces; that it's not just a visit for a photo," Empringham said in an interview.

"I would be excited to hear that there are actionable items that are going to move forward, or maybe move forward quicker than what's comfortable. Those are the things that often we don't hear enough of."

Prince Charles and Camilla arrive at Canada House in London last Thursday. (Hannah McKay/AFP/Getty Images)

What Prince Charles and Camilla say and do over the next three days will be under scrutiny, as the couple make their first visit to Canada in five years, carrying out the first official visit by a member of the Royal Family to the country since a greater societal reckoning with our past and our institutions has taken hold.

CBC readers have also told us they are interested in seeing how the royals will deal with current issues, such as Indigenous concerns, the environment and the relevance of the institution in the future — along with how Charles himself will handle all that.

Time to reflect

Underlying this, however, is also the extent to which Canadians spend much time even thinking about the monarchy.

"Honestly, I don't think they give it much of a thought," said Nathan Tidridge, vice-president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.

"At moments like a royal visit or the Platinum Jubilee, I think it kind of bubbles to the surface. But typically, it's kind of a perennial conversation: Do we need the institution?"

But Canadians may be thinking more about it this week, and as attention focuses in early June on the Platinum Jubilee, marking Queen Elizabeth's 70 years as monarch.

"It's these kinds of markers that happen that cause people to reflect," said Tidridge. 

Prince Charles, accompanied by Camilla, signs a guest book at Canada House. (Hannah McKay/Getty Images)

"We're also at a very critical time, I think, in the world. We're talking about colonialism, we're talking about systemic racism, we're talking about all these really, really important issues and problems in our society. And the Crown, as that pre-eminent symbol, is implicated in them."

That's because the Crown is "reflecting our society," said Tidridge.

"The Crown is an inanimate object, right," he said. "Sometimes it's easy to just pick on the system, not talk about the society itself. This is an opportunity to do that."

'Showcase the evolution of our country'

This week's trip will take Charles and Camilla from St. John's to Ottawa and then to Yellowknife on Thursday.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon has said she is looking forward to welcoming the couple.

"This visit is a chance for us to showcase the evolution of our country, our diverse and inclusive society, as well as the resilience of Indigenous communities," she said in a statement as the visit was announced.

Prince Charles greets people during his visit to Canada House. (Hannah McKay/The Associated Press)

Nicholas Kaizer, a 28-year-old high school teacher in Halifax who describes himself as pro-monarchy and an environmentalist, says he's excited at the prospect of the visit.

Kaizer is hoping "to see an honest reflection on the part of the Prince of Wales on the people he's meeting and the cultures he's experiencing and the legacy they are a witness to."

"I do not want the monarchy to exist in a time capsule; to pretend things are always fine and have been," he said.

"If Canada is going to move forward, and move forward with a monarchical system — and I think it should — that system needs to be honest about the baggage that it brings with it."

Others, like Tom Freda, co-founder of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, don't want Canada to keep its current connection with the Crown. His group wants to instead see the governor general evolve into the country's official head of state.

From Freda's perspective, it's hard to say what is at stake during this royal visit.

Artist Rosemarie Péloquin made this bust of Prince Charles out of wool. He will be introduced to the life-size, hand-needle-felted bust of his own visage as he meets with Canadian wool enthusiasts in St. John's on Tuesday. (Natasha Hudson/Twitter)

"I don't want to predict what Canadians' views will be at the end of it, but … I don't envy [Charles and Camilla]. Because Prince William and Kate got an unexpected negative reception when they went to the Caribbean," Freda said in an interview.

"That certainly was not in the cards. They were there to help shore up support for the monarchy and everywhere they went, there were demonstrations. So if that's going to happen here, I would say, as was the case with William and Kate, it would be damaging to the monarchy."

Whatever happens on the trip, Freda said, "every step of the way, it will be managed by the Canadian government and everything that they say will be approved of, if not written, by the Canadian government. 

"Sometimes they go off script and we'll have to see how far Prince Charles goes with that."

Tidridge, who teaches high school history, civics and Indigenous studies in Waterdown, Ont., said he'll be listening closely to the speeches by Simon and Prince Charles throughout the visit.

"His speeches are vetted by the Government of Canada, but … I'll be interested in the language he chooses and the interactions between himself and Indigenous folks, and the environmental groups, and the military people he will be encountering on the tour," said Tidridge.

As closely as he'll be watching the visit, Tidridge isn't sure what its overall significance might ultimately be, particularly because of its duration.

"I wish that the tour was longer so that we could actually see … a significance develop," he said.

"It's such a whistlestop tour — as determined by the Government of Canada, not the Prince of Wales — that I worry it won't allow for … that kind of marinating that's needed; that time that's needed with the elders and Indigenous leaders for something of significance to happen."

Prince Charles and Camilla watch Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1, 2017, during their last visit to Canada. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

From Empringham's perspective, quick sessions between Charles and whomever he's meeting could provide the beginning of a dialogue — but only that.

"A 15- to 20-minute meeting could be a start of a conversation, but it clearly can't be the end of it, or else there will probably be no action … that will be done," he said. "Other than a cool photo."

From his perspective, what's at stake here is the current state of the environment and the impact of any potential failure to act.

"I think what a lot of young people are attuned to is the IPCC reports that are getting more and more alarming as time goes on," he said. "What's at stake is inaction. I think that's the bluntest way I could put it."

While it's "cool to hear" Prince Charles will be talking about the environment while he's in Canada, Empringham sees the potential for apprehension about just what the ultimate impact might be.

"I think there's a big part of anyone who's been a part of this, even for five or 10 years, [who] would go: 'Oh yes, OK, great,' " Empringham said. But there would also be a sense of "we'll see what happens."

"You want something to happen, and you're hopeful,"  Empringham said, but there's an "optimistic skepticism, is almost the way I would put it."

"There's probably a little bit of trepidation that people would go into a meeting like that, not knowing if anything will actually come of it." 

WATCH | A glimpse into the monarchy when Prince Charles becomes king:

Prince Charles: A king in waiting

1 month ago
Duration 6:04
Prince Charles has taken up more of the Queen’s royal duties as his accession to the throne draws closer. Those who know and have met him say they’re confident in his ability to lead what’s expected to be a smaller monarchy with diminished global influence.

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