Psst. John Fraser, Member of the Order of Canada and master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, wants to let you in on a secret.
And not just any secret. This state secret, cherished by older generations of Canadians, is – according to Fraser – under sustained attack from a relentless plague of capricious politicians, stealthy bureaucrats, and muckraking journalists led by the Prince of Media Darkness, Rupert Murdoch.
Like the very best secrets, Fraser’s lies hidden in plain sight: At the core of what makes us truly, distinctively Canadian is the bedrock of our long constitutional connection to the British Crown. “When we say ‘God Bless the Queen,’ we are really saying ‘God Bless Us,’ ” Fraser assures us in the preface to his new book. “We are also saying ‘God Bless Canada.’ ”
For many Canadians – Fraser among them – the enduring presence of the Crown provides a bulwark against faddish, media-driven enthusiasms and fickle politicians. For other, equally thoughtful, Canadians – and Fraser generously acknowledges their reservations –the monarchy is a constitutional fossil that has outlived its usefulness.
As secrets go, that of The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Affair with Royalty probably won’t appeal to the Da Vinci Code crowd. Nor will his belief in a stealth campaign against Canadian constitutional monarchy spawn many conspiracy covens.
Instead, Fraser has given us an entertaining if haphazard confection of personal reminiscence, well-chosen historical vignettes and gossipy anecdotes about the Royal Family and their Canadian vice-regal avatars. What separates this book from the royal puffery found in the pages of Hello! or Majesty Magazine is a leavening of tell-tale malice; when it comes to what he perceives as lèse-majesté, Fraser forgets nothing and forgives nothing.
One of the most engaging of his early royal memories is watching Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation with his grandmother on the newly acquired family television set in 1953. The lofty ecclesiastical solemnity of the Westminster Abbey ceremony seems to have left its traces on Fraser’s subsequent chats with members of the Royal Family. He and Prince Charles chuckle together about the state of Sunday schools in Toronto. Basking in the Queen’s presence at Fort Belvedere (“close to reaching Nirvana”), Fraser asks Her Majesty to recommend a local parish. “You’re the head of my church,” he tells her, “and I thought you’d know the local parishes.”
If Queen Victoria once complained that prime minister Gladstone addressed her as though she were a public meeting, Fraser sometimes treats the royals as though they were public monuments. The Queen is “one of the most extraordinary human beings of our own time, and the time of our parents and grandparents.” Prince Charles is hailed for his personal bravery, his prophetic wisdom, his astuteness as a businessman, his genius as a father.
Wisely, perhaps, Fraser confines his observations about the late Diana, Princess of Wales, to a few anodyne generalities, but when it comes to the recent “elegant nuptials” of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, his repertoire of superlatives reaches a climax.
Even the most loyal of subjects must acknowledge, however reluctantly, that not all royals conduct themselves with equal decorum. According to Fraser, royal scandals can actually buttress the Crown’s mystique. Proximity to royalty carries a heavy price, he explains: The scandalous Fergie, the bossy-boots Princess Michael of Kent, and the spoiled and selfish Princess Margaret – all serve as “human scarecrows” whose inappropriate behaviour reminds us of what really counts in Crown and country.
Fraser’s reverence for our homegrown representatives of the Crown is more uneven. He glosses over the very real differences between the viceregal styles of Georges Vanier and Adrienne Clarkson, both of whom he admires extravagantly. Lesser, or perhaps less familiar, governors-general are dismissed briskly or with disdain.
In the lower viceregal branches, among the lieutenant-governors, he singles out for praise John Crosbie in Newfoundland and the “outrageously misunderstood” Hilary Weston in Ontario.
“I think you’re a bit old for this,” Governor-General Vanier said to the young John Fraser, presenting him with a copy of Kipling’s Stalky and Co. during a Prize Day at Upper Canada College in the early 1960s. Vanier misjudged Fraser. Fifty years later, The Secret of the Crown is suffused with a Kiplingesque nostalgia for the glory days before the death of deference, and before instant celebrity and the fractious, multicultural Canada that emerged after 1967 – Pierre Berton’s “last good year.”
Irish by birth, Canadian by the grace of God, Elizabeth Grove-White is a faculty member at the University of Victoria.