Royal visits: How William and Kate could make their mark

The royal visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Canada offers an opportunity to see how the British monarchy is looking to the future.
Prince William and Kate Middleton take part in an event in Wales on Feb. 24. While they have made brief official visits around the United Kingdom, their trip to Canada marks their first official international trip. (Phil Noble/Associated Press)

They were a glamorous royal couple who hadn't been married that long. Canadians had seen the pictures of the British pair and were particularly curious about catching a glimpse first-hand of the young woman wed to the heir to throne.

Fast-forward 28 years, and another young, glamorous royal couple only a couple of steps down the line from the throne are about to criss-cross Canada for the first time.

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, look up to some of the people seeing them off after they officially opened the Youth Festival at King George V memorial field in St. John's, N.L., on June 23, 1983. (Andy Clark/Canadian Press)

It's hard not to draw comparisons between that first Canadian visit by Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, with the upcoming trip of their son, Prince William, and his wife, Kate, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

"Where there's that similarity is that you have that novelty factor," says Robert Finch, head of the Monarchist League of Canada. "They haven't been here as a couple before."

The nine-day royal visit, their first official international outing as a couple, will take William and Kate from Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa to Prince Edward Island, Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Alberta. It's Kate's first trip to Canada and William's third.

"Clearly, Canada is seen as a welcoming and friendly environment for visiting members of the Royal Family," says Carolyn Harris, a PhD candidate in history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who is studying British and French royalty.

While this visit will in many ways echo royal visits of the past, it's also an opportunity for the British monarchy, and those watching it, to see how an institution ensconced in tradition will move into the 21st century.

'How they work as a couple'

"It's a chance to see whether the great project of taking the monarchy on to the next generation shapes up, how [Kate] shapes up and in particular I suppose how Prince William carries himself off," says Stephen Bates, a journalist with the British newspaper the Guardian, who will be part of a large international media contingent along for the trip.

"It's to see how they work as a couple."

Prince William greets Brad, left, and Leonie Wren on their property in Benjeroop, Victoria, Australia, in March. William was visiting a flood-hit farming region in southern Australia as he wrapped up a visit to disaster zones in Australia and New Zealand. (Paul Crock/Associated Press)

Bates has seen his share of royal tours, travelling several years ago with Charles to Canada, going with William to Australia and New Zealand, and with the Queen on her historic visit to Ireland last month. He was also inside Westminster Abbey for the marriage of William and Kate in April.

He expects this visit to Canada will be a "tightly choreographed" trip, with efforts to avoid any "unscripted moments."

Still, he expects Canadians can look forward to "a more informal approach" than has been seen from Charles, and the Queen and Prince Philip, on their visits.

William is approachable and can deal directly with people.

"He's not pretentious or stuffy or as far as one can see, arrogant," Bates says. "He chats to people informally quite nicely. He's very charming."

And then there's Kate, something of a blank canvas when it comes to seeing how she gets along in her new role. So far, based on a few one-off trips around Britain, the signs have been good.

"She actually seems to be doing rather well," Bates says. "She's personable and friendly and direct and seems quite outgoing."

Focus on Diana

In 1983, when Charles and Diana made their first visit to Canada as a couple, the focus was in large part on Diana.

The look of joy is mirrored in a little girl's face as she talks to Diana, Princess of Wales, in St. John's, N.L., in June 1983. (Andy Clark/Canadian Press)

"Everyone wanted to see Princess Diana," Harris says. "In the media, there was a huge interest in Diana's approach to the onlookers and passersby."

Harris sees similarities between the two royal trips but points to differences, too. In 1983, the trip seemed in many ways to focus on interests Charles would have. He did the public speaking, while Diana's words were limited to her chats with onlookers. This time, though, Harris sees other factors at work.

"It's clear that Kate's been able to shape elements of the itinerary," Harris says, noting the stop in Prince Edward Island, home of a literary favourite of the duchess: Anne of Green Gables. "She's not just coming along in order to support Prince William in all the various places."

This trip is only the latest in a very long line of visits by members of the Royal Family. The Queen has made 22 official visits, often to mark significant occasions. The first reference to a royal person coming to Canada was in 1786-87, when Prince William, the future King William IV, served as part of a naval contingent in North America and the West Indies.

After Queen Elizabeth signed the constitutional proclamation on April 17, 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put his stamp of approval on the document. (Canadian Press)

Harris says the visits strengthen the personal connection between Canada and the monarchy and provide an opportunity to showcase Canada because of the media coverage from foreign journalists.

When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Canada in 1939, it marked the first time a reigning monarch visited the country.

Strengthened connection with Britain

Harris considers it one of the most significant royal visits to Canada. The Second World War had not broken out, but war was on people's minds.

"One of the effects of the royal visit was to really sort of strengthen that connection between Britain and Canada, so when the war did break out, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for being in the fight alongside Britain."

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stop in Winnipeg during their royal visit to Canada in May 1939. (Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

There was also a great deal of personal enthusiasm for the royal couple during the six-week whistle-stop tour: Canadians came out in droves just to see the train that was taking them across Canada slow down as it passed through towns.

That level of public enthusiasm might not be seen in 2011 — polls have suggested some apathy and indifference to the monarchy in Canada and visits often prompt debate about how much they cost. But royal watchers point out it is also a very different world today, particularly the way in which social media drives so much of life and could be at play during the upcoming visit.

"There's this whole different way that Canadians can interact with each other," says Finch, noting how a person could go to an event, catch a glimpse of a royal visitor, snap a picture on a smartphone and send it around the world.

A younger demographic

Finch, whose 10,000-member organization saw its numbers grow by about 400 in the months around the royal wedding, says the visit offers an opportunity for the institution of the monarchy to evolve and to rejuvenate.

"I think there might be a strong emphasis on young people because this is an opportunity to reach out to that younger demographic.'"

Finch acknowledges the apathy toward the monarchy, although he says it is no more than the apathy that exists toward other institutions.

But he still predicts an enthusiastic response to the royal couple as they travel across Canada.

"As much as an anti-monarchist would like to think otherwise, I just have a hard time fathoming the idea of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge coming here and having a negative reaction to it."

Buckingham Palace will be hoping he's right.