Is Prince Charles misunderstood?

Prince Charles, who arrives in Canada Thursday for a three-day visit, has been labelled an old fogey and mocked for talking to plants, but the heir to the throne has also become a keen environmentalist and social entrepreneur seen by some as well ahead his time.

Heir to throne's 3-day Canadian visit includes focus on philanthropic interests

Prince Charles, who arrives in Canada for a three-day visit this week, is a complex man and an heir to the throne with 'so many facets that are poorly understood,' says author and biographer Sally Bedell Smith. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Is Prince Charles an old fogey who talks to plants, or a keen environmentalist and social entrepreneur ahead of his time?

With Charles, who arrives for a three-day Canadian visit Thursday with his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, it's never been easy to say for sure.

"He has so many facets that are poorly understood," says author Sally Bedell Smith, whose biography Prince Charles, The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, was recently released.

Prince Charles stands with his mother, Queen Elizabeth, during the state opening of Parliament in London on June 21, 2017. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

Smith says the 68-year-old heir to the throne and eldest son of Queen Elizabeth defies categorization.

"He is an unusual combination of traditional and modern. He still has a valet who lays out his clothing just like Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey.

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"But he is a proponent of green energy whose model town in [southwest England] uses a state-of-the-art facility that turns plant waste into renewable fuel."

Charles has defied categorization for more than four decades, from his days as a tabloid hearthrob in his 20s through the scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s as his first marriage disintegrated.

"The perception of Prince Charles in the U.K and internationally took root during his … marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales: stereotyped as an old fogey and blamed for Diana's unhappiness, dismissed as a distant and uncaring father, ridiculed for his eccentricities," says Smith.

Feeling happier

But change was afoot.

After the death of Diana in 1997, the public began to see he was a loving and responsible parent to sons William and Harry, says Smith.

"In recent years, the perception has shifted more positively as the public has recognized some of his achievements, and Charles has become a happier person since his marriage to Camilla in 2005."

In Canada, there's also a feeling the public perception of Charles has been changing.

"I have the sense that it's much more positive now than it has been in the past," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based author and royal historian.

Prince Charles is all smiles with his sons Prince William, left, and Prince Harry in Vancouver on March 24, 1998. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Harris looks particularly to visits Charles has made with Camilla over the past eight years.

Their first trip together in 2009 was met with "very little public interest," Harris says, especially compared to crowds that came out for Charles and Diana in 1983 and again in the 1990s, as well as the welcome Charles, William and Harry received in British Columbia in 1998.

But visits in 2012 and 2014 drew more media attention. One of the reasons for the change, Harris says, could lie in Charles's philanthropic and charitable interests, which date back 40 years and, in this country, are under the umbrella of the six-year-old Prince's Charities Canada.

Rising profile

"Some of the causes Prince Charles has been engaging with have become very topical and raised the profile of these tours," says Harris, whose book Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting was recently published.

Charles's causes — ranging from organic farming and sustainable development to interfaith dialogue and finding employment for young people — didn't always find much favour with the public.

But again, change seems to have been afoot.

"It's amazing to see how many of things that he's spoken out on are now mainstream," says Matthew Rowe, director of operations and partnerships for Prince's Charities Canada.

Prince Charles is greeted in Charlottetown on May 20, 2014. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

One issue that will likely be on Charles's mind on Thursday while in Nunavut will be the preservation of Indigenous languages, something Rowe says also reflects one of the underlying themes to all Charles does: "a respect for tradition … and especially traditional wisdom."

A book written in Inuktitut — inspired by Charles's own children's story, The Old Man of Lochnagar — will be unveiled. The Old Man from Pangnurtung takes the story of Charles's book and places it in the Arctic, all in a "culturally sensitive way," Rowe says.

For some Canadians who have met Charles, their encounters revealed a person who did not match their perceptions and who could quickly put them at ease.

Before Leendert Bolle met him, the Canadian Forces veteran whose post-service business got off the ground with help from Prince's Charities Canada expected he would encounter a calm, quiet man of few words.

Leendert Bolle, right, meets Prince Charles as Prince's Charities Canada president Amanda Sherrington looks on at Canada House in London, England, in September 2016. (Jim Ross/Prince's Charities Canada)

'He actually cared'

But Bolle, a resident of Ontario's Niagara region, also expected Charles might have so much on his plate he would end up appearing "disinterested or even shallow."

Not so, Bolle discovered.

"When we first shook hands, [Charles] knew exactly who I was, and why I was there," Bolle said of the meeting last September in London, England.

"The first chat we had was intense. [Charles] listened so attentively that he seemed to absorb every single word I spoke. I felt as though he actually cared to hear what I had to say. It's a feeling I won't soon forget."

Monica Ittusardjuat, national Inuit language co-ordinator for the non-profit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, met Charles at his home in Wales last December as part of a group from Canada exploring ways to preserve languages.

Monica Ittusardjuat met Prince Charles at his home in Wales in late 2016. (Paul Glen)

She blessed his home before the group discussed language retention and revitalization.

Charles "seemed genuinely interested in the work on the exploration of a unified Inuit language writing system and why this initiative is so critical," she says.

Before that meeting, Ittusardjuat wasn't that interested in Prince Charles "because I was so far removed from royalty and I had never met him or even seen him."

No more bashfulness

She was nervous and spoke so softly she wasn't sure he would hear her.

"I lost my bashfulness during the discussion because he's so easy to talk to and very responsive like a regular human being."

Of course, Charles has long been the focus of suggestions he is anything but a "regular human being."

After all, what regular human being has someone else put the toothpaste on his toothbrush, a story that seems to stick with him, even though, Smith says, it is a "classic example" of lore that has developed around him.

Prince Charles meets Red Cross volunteer Carl Chant during a visit to the Westway Sports Centre, which is acting as a relief centre for those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, in London on June 27, 2017. (Philip Toscano/Reuters)

"When he badly fractured his right arm in 1990, his valet, Michael Fawcett, helped him by squeezing toothpaste for him. That gesture became popularized as an everyday routine."

And then there is the oft-repeated idea that he talks to his plants.

"Lady Salisbury, who helped him design his garden at his Highgrove estate, innocently urged him to speak to his plants," says Smith.

"When he later admitted that plants responded to his words and grew more robustly, the press made endless jokes that became part of the lore."

Martinis to go

But, Smith says, some of the lore — shaped by his quirks — is true. Charles has his martinis specially mixed by one of his two butlers.

"When he is invited out to dinner, his protection officer carries the martini in a special case."

He also travels with a chinup bar for exercise and a massage table for lower back problems.

The way Smith sees it, Charles is ultimately a man awkwardly straddling two generations.

"He seems destined to live in the shadow of his beloved mother, the mythologized memory of Diana, and the glamour and popularity of William, Kate and Harry."

Prince Charles learns how to scratch and fade with a turntable as he tours an employment skills workshop in Toronto on May 22, 2012. (Paul Chiasson/Reuters)

Rowe says some people may have a view of Charles based on TV or magazines. But, he suggests, there's more to the man if people look further into what he has done in the role he has carved out for himself as Prince of Wales.

Charles could have opted to "just be like one of his ancestors and … go to hunting parties and … have fun, but that's not the path he chose," says Rowe.

"He chose to work full-time to improve the lives of the people of the places that he will one day be king of and I think, regardless of your views on the monarchy, I mean, that's the kind of king you want. If you're going to have a king, you want one who cares about the wellbeing and long-term sustainability of their realms."


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