Royal visits: How they still matter

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla will be returning to Canada in May for the second time in as many years. And while some question the need for royal visits, not to mention their cost, the impact of these tours can go beyond small communities to the national agenda.

Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall will return to Canada in May

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, shown in St. John's, N.L., in November 2009, will be back in Canada Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

For months, principal Jennifer Carhart harboured a secret she could share with almost no one at her Saint John school.

Royalty was coming to New Brunswick and, as excited as she was, everything had to be kept hush-hush.

Principal Jennifer Carhart had no idea she was going to receive a Diamond Jubilee medal when Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited her school in Saint John in 2012. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
Now, two years later, she marvels at the scope of the preparations that were required to welcome Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall to Hazen White-St. Francis School in May 2012, and at the impact that brush with the House of Windsor had.

"It put us on the map and it put us on the map in a very positive way," Carhart says, noting that the school is in an inner-city community in Saint John that people rarely visit unless they have a reason.

Now Charles and Camilla are coming back to Canada in May for a visit the federal government clearly hopes has an equally positive impact on communities in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Manitoba — and that may be part of a larger federal plan that puts the royals front and centre over the next election period and for the next half-decade of big historical events.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled as much when this visit was announced, saying he was pleased Charles and Camilla "will be joining us in a few months' time as Canada enters a five-year period of significant national celebrations, beginning with the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War and the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown and Quebec City conferences, which led to the creation of the Dominion of Canada​."

Related to the Crown

While no overall theme for this upcoming visit by Charles and Camilla has been announced, the person co-ordinating the tour also points to the spate of anniversaries on the agenda.

"It's important that members of the Royal Family be here to help mark those occasions," says Kevin MacLeod, the Queen's secretary in Canada.

"A lot of these key moments are either directly or indirectly related to the Crown. So to have [Royal Family members] here with us to help commemorate or celebrate makes these events all the more meaningful."

Prince Charles plays road hockey while touring Hazen White-St. Francis School in Saint John on May 21, 2012. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
Many of the events are connected to the First World War, but others relate to the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage (2016) or the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag (2015), the latter a political achievement the opposition Liberals have liked to claim for themselves. 

With the Conservatives in power now, having the royals around would obviously make for a less partisan celebration and perhaps even a blurring of the lines, especially if the 2015 visitors turned out to be the ultra-popular William and Kate and baby Prince George, who have been invited for that year to celebrate anniversaries in Prince George, B.C.

As for Charles and Camillia returning for their second royal tour in as many years, there may be a different political purpose at work there, critics suggest.

Put simply: "Prince Charles commands nowhere near the same popular approval rating as the Queen and [Harper's government wants] to rectify that," says Tom Freda, co-founder of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, which wants Canada's constitutional ties with the monarchy cut.

Intrinsic value

Beyond the politics of these royal tours, however, there can be an intrinsic value in the time the Royal Family spends meeting and greeting Canadians, say those on the receiving end. 

"It was an outstanding educational opportunity for our kids that lasted beyond just the visit," Carhart says of that May 2012 visit.

The school was spruced up and received a new computer lab. Students learned about the Royal Family, protocol and how the media works. The day of the visit, the school had a carnival. 

"It was just such an outstanding family day. For me, that's what it was all about."

Prince George in Prince George?

One of the youngest members of the Royal Family is expected to accompany his parents, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, on a high-profile visit to Australia and New Zealand this spring.

But one Canadian community is hoping Prince George will also visit it sooner rather than later.

The mayor of Prince George, B.C., announced shortly after George's birth last July 22 that the municipality would offer a formal invitation to his parents to bring the little boy with them to celebrate several city milestones in 2015.

Kevin MacLeod, the Queen's secretary in Canada, wouldn't speculate too much on the odds of Prince George showing up in Prince George in the not-too-distant future, but he seemed to offer some hope.

"I'm Presbyterian so I'm not a betting man, but if I were non-Presbyterian and I were a betting man, I would think the chances are probably fairly good."

In a way, that is also what it is all about for MacLeod.

"Royal tours are somewhat magical because they create moments in the lives of so many Canadian families that live for generations to come," he says, 

"It brings the members of the Royal Family in immediate contact with Canadians, and it brings the institution to life."

For him, that realization came when he first met the Queen, in 1987. He had it all straightened out in his head what he was going to say to her, and what she might say in reply. Then he went into the room, and his mind went to mush.

"What struck me, and this stayed with me for all those years, is this person stood in front of me, about five foot five, this one person embodied all of our democratic rights and freedoms and principles going back to the Magna Carta," he says.

"It's not that she is the Queen, it's what she as Queen represents to us as Canadians and when we have royal tours to this country, it just brings that message home."

Perhaps ironically, for someone who is opposed to the monarchy, Freda welcomes whatever attention those tours bring, and has no particular quibble with the visits per se.

"First of all, from our advocacy standpoint, it makes our job really easy. Most Canadians don't think about the monarchy except when they come to visit. So when they do, people sit up and take notice," he says. "Whatever it takes to get people thinking about the monarchy, we're in favour of it."

Where he does have a concern is more specifically around spending tax dollars to cover the costs of visits by the Queen's children, like Charles, or grandchildren, like Prince William.

"As far as I'm concerned, whenever [Charles] comes, he's a tourist," says Freda, and taxpayers shouldn't be paying his way.

And he's not alone in questioning those expenditures; you can see them also in the pointed comments that readers make to the news stories about almost any royal tour.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Canada in 2010, she took part in Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
In response, tours now feature fewer — if any — black-tie dinners and have more grassroots events, such as when William and his then-new wife Kate went canoeing in the Northwest Territories in 2011.

"I understand people might say no money should be expended at all," says MacLeod. "But I come back to my guiding principle that there are certain moments that require or cry out for celebration to bring people together in a moment of common purpose."

Another matter

For critics like Freda, a visit by the Queen is a justified expense because she is the head of state, and there are financial obligations to maintaining a head of state. (Her 2010 visit, government officials have said, cost Canada $2.79 million.)

Charles, however, is in an interesting position. He may not be Canada's head of state, but the 65-year-old is heir to that title. And while his 87-year-old mother, the Queen, seems hale and hearty for her age, she is cutting back on overseas travel — some rumours suggest a trip to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June may be her last official foreign visit.

Roy Dawe, left, welcomed Prince Charles and Camilla when they visited Cupids, N.L., in 2009. (Submitted by Roy Dawe)
 "With the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh travelling less than they used to, we're seeing the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall assume a greater degree of the overseas travel," says Toronto-based royal historian and blogger Carolyn Harris.

What's more, she adds, "there has been a growing perception over the course of Queen Elizabeth's reign that [she] is the Queen of the United Kingdom most significantly." So it's important for the Canadian public to see her within a Canadian context.

Roy Dawe, for one, appreciated the opportunity to see Charles and Camilla in a Canadian context when they visited Cupids, N.L., in 2009.

For Dawe, any costs associated with visits are insignificant, particularly when you factor in the value of what he calls "stable government." 

Charles and Camilla unveiled a plaque for a new interpretation centre in Cupids, and the number of visitors to the centre has increased by 50 per cent in the past year, a rise Dawe says was influenced "big time" by the attention the community received through the royal visit.

"It gives us a nice starting point now to keep our profile."

Regina resident Renae Grubb has also seen Charles and Camilla during a royal visit, and tries to see members of the Royal Family any time they are close by. She's taken a lot of pictures of them, and in 2005 even gave the Queen a photo she had taken years earlier of her daughter, Princess Anne.

Grubb considers royal visits are "very important," particularly given the history of the country, and says she can't wait until William and Kate come to Regina.

"I'll have to buy a bigger and better camera, I'm sure."