World·Royal Fascinator

The PM and the Queen: Talking about the state of the world and bringing hope to Canadians

A phone call between Justin Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth gave them a chance to speak about the pandemic and the prime minister the opportunity to thank the monarch for recent messages of support to Canadians.

Phone call between prime minister and monarch came on Victoria Day, her official birthday in Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth during a private audience at Buckingham Palace in London on Nov. 25, 2015. (Yui Mok/Reuters)

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Queen Elizabeth's relationship with the British prime minister is steeped in history. It can have its attention-grabbing moments, such as when a new government is being formed. The relationship has even made it onto stage and screen.

Given the distance and other huge differences, the Queen's relationship with prime ministers throughout the Commonwealth doesn't have the same profile.

Yet there it was over the Victoria Day weekend, front and centre, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter and let his followers know he had been talking with the monarch.

"I spoke on the phone with Queen Elizabeth II today," he tweeted. "We talked about the state of the world, COVID-19 and more. I also thanked her for the hopeful messages she has sent during these difficult times, and I wished her the very best this Victoria Day."

What else was mentioned, however, remains a mystery.

Buckingham Palace confirmed the telephone call took place but said no further information could be provided because it was private. 

A query to the Prime Minister's Office resulted in a link to a readout — the official notice issued to describe communications Trudeau has with other leaders.

"Prime Minister Trudeau offered Her Majesty his best wishes on Victoria Day, the official observance of the Queen's birthday in Canada," the readout said.

"The prime minister expressed appreciation for Her Majesty's recent messages to the people of Canada. He noted the hope and encouragement they brought to Canadians during difficult times."

Trudeau meets Queen Elizabeth at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh on July 5, 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

One of those recent messages followed the shooting rampage in Nova Scotia.

"The Queen has had more profile at the moment than she normally has in the last little while," said John Fraser, author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty.

Fraser wonders if perhaps the Queen's time in isolation during the pandemic has given her the opportunity to be in touch with Commonwealth prime ministers more often than usual.

"I suspect what she has done in Windsor — she's had more contact … with her Commonwealth prime ministers than … she's ever had in such a period of time because there's more time to do it."

It's hardly the first time she's spoken to Trudeau — they have met a few times since he became prime minister in 2015, and he had met her when his father, Pierre, was prime minister.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is seated next to Queen Elizabeth at an official dinner he hosted in her honour in Vancouver on March 10, 1983. (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press)

"She appreciated this prime minister's father very much," said Fraser. "I think she enjoyed his company very much because he was perhaps not so deferential as her other prime ministers. He actually saw her constitutional role quite clearly."

Justin Trudeau has recalled meeting the Queen as a child.

"She was always lovely and gracious," Trudeau said in a statement given to reporters when he visited her at Buckingham Palace shortly after his election as prime minister. "She was very tall, which points out how little I was at the time.

"They were nice moments, because I knew how much my dad liked her. You could tell my father was really proud to be introducing his son to the Queen."

She would have had her eye on Canada at the time, particularly in the run-up to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. 

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signs the proclamation of the Canadian Constitution on April 17, 1982, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa as Queen Elizabeth looks on. (Canadian Press)

"That was probably the most intense time that the Queen was involved with the Canadian government," said Fraser. "She and her people were staying very keenly on top of that."

Like any relationship, however, it may also have had its tense moments — with some coming around that same constitutional time.

"There's a bit of correspondence [from British government files in the National Archives] with the Queen's private secretaries suggesting that she was personally getting rather cheesed off by Trudeau and was losing patience with him," Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said in a 2015 interview.

There is also that pirouette photo, snapped by photographer Doug Ball in 1977, of Trudeau taking a spin as the Queen walked away at Buckingham Palace.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pirouettes behind Queen Elizabeth during a picture session at Buckingham Palace on May 7, 1977. (Doug Ball/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau was clearly annoyed at being excluded from a "head of state" dinner party, said Fraser, and he suspects the Queen would have been amused at the spin behind her back.

Fraser said the Queen has "always had a pretty comfortable relationship" with the Canadian prime ministers. But he doesn't think the most recent phone call was anywhere close to a regular thing.

"I'm sure it's very irregular," he said, noting the greater likelihood of regular talks between the prime minister and the Canadian governor-general, the Queen's representative — rather than the Queen herself.

Victoria Day — with a difference

Helen and Paul Spence have lived on Gerrard Street in London, Ont., since the 1970s and started an annual Victoria Day party in 2004. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

The occasion mentioned during Trudeau's phone call with the Queen — Victoria Day, named in honour of her great-great grandmother — would normally be recognized in various quarters of Canada with fireworks displays and social gatherings that might have focused on a little bit of history, and perhaps quite a bit of tea.

But physical distancing and efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus led to Victoria Day cancellations across the country — from a parade in Victoria to celebrations at Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Ont., to a fireworks display at Ashbridge's Bay in Toronto.

Still, there were places where people found ways to carry on their annual traditions.

In the Old South neighbourhood of London, Ont., the annual party in Helen and Paul Spence's backyard was converted into a physically distanced celebration spread along the street, the CBC's Liny Lamberink reported.

But there was still a moment to remember the monarch born on May 24, 1819.

"Everybody at some point today will stand and sing Happy Birthday to Queen Victoria," Paul Spence said as he motioned toward a large framed portrait propped up on the front lawn. 

The gathering wasn't the first time the neighbours on Gerrard Street found a way to enjoy being together during the lockdown. It also helped meet a need that has emerged among many as the pandemic grinds on.

"I think that feeling of wanting to be with other people is very strong, and we're just trying to find a way to do that safely so that we can have some fun and lighten our mood and continue to enjoy this beautiful day," said Julie Ryan.

Pandemic distractions

While members of the Royal Family have been focusing their online pandemic efforts on supporting the many ways people have been coming together to help fight the coronavirus, there have also been some unexpected moments that offer a little levity or diversion from the seriousness of the day.

In a moment with little royal precedent, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, turned up via video link the other day as bingo callers for a game with seniors from their country home in Norfolk.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, also drew attention as she did a character reading for a web series, taking on the role of the ship captain in the Roald Dahl classic James and the Giant Peach, as part of project by the Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity, for which she serves as royal patron.

"I hope this campaign will raise vital funds to support those most in need at this very challenging time — as well as helping families and children currently in lockdown to find a moment of comfort through the joy of reading," Camilla said in a statement.

Royals in Canada

Princess Alexandra is seen at Winnipeg's Kildonan Park on June 6, 1967. (CBC/CBC Archives)

When Canada marked the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967, Queen Elizabeth was here for the Big Day, marking July 1 in Ottawa. She also took in the Expo 67 celebrations in Montreal during a six-day visit.

But she and Prince Philip weren't the only members of the Royal Family to come to Canada that year to mark the milestone.

A few weeks earlier, the Queen's cousin, Princess Alexandra, and her husband, Angus Ogilvy, were also in Canada to mark the centennial, but for a much longer period.

Alexandra and her husband arrived on May 14, and their 27-day visit took them to Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Banff, Calgary, Edmonton, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Jasper, Hay River, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg and Montreal.

The visit attracted a lot of attention for the princess, described as "hard-working, glamorous and anything but stuffy" in a Canadian Press report just ahead of her visit.

WATCH | Princess Alexandra speaks during a stop in Winnipeg in 1967:

Princess Alexandra at the Rainbow Stage

3 years ago
Duration 1:42
Princess Alexandra addresses a crowd from the Rainbow Stage at Winnipeg's Kildonan Park on June 6, 1967.

Alexandra — at that point 31 years old and 12th in line to the throne (she's now 53rd) — was seen as symbolic of a new way forward for the Royals. She had developed what CP said was her own royal style, which blended friendly spontaneity with an aristocratic aura "that seemed to hit the right note in the evolving role of the Royal Family."

Royally quotable

"We decided each movement should reflect an important aspect of her character. The smile, the love and sense of duty which remained deep right to the very end."

— Prince Charles talks about a piano concerto he had commissioned in memory of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Royal reads

  1. lengthy piece on Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, in Tatler magazine, which included numerous unnamed sources identified as friends and insiders, drew a lot of attention for its mention in particular of her workload and reported friction with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Kensington Palace denied the claims, according to reports, but Tatler stood by the story.
  2. Prince William says he's found being a parent overwhelming at times and that the "life-changing" experience of having children brought back the trauma he experienced following the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. [CBC]

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

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