In what just might be the most British spot in Canada, Victoria’s castle-like Fairmont Empress Hotel – named, like the city, for Queen Victoria and decorated in places with photos of the Royal Family – stands kitty-corner to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.
Flags on Friday morning were at half-mast and flowers were being dropped off on the legislature steps and at the statue of Queen Victoria a few metres away, which looks out onto the Inner Harbour.
“God Bless Your Majesty,” began a card written by Janice Bueckert, in all caps, with a hand-drawn heart. Ms. Bueckert, visiting from London, Ont., had brought a bouquet of mostly lilies – for Lilibet – in a muted pallet, because she loved seeing Queen Elizabeth in pastels. She said she was relieved to see the outpouring of love after her death on Thursday.
“I was kind of pleasantly surprised because I know there’s been a bit of backlash with the shenanigans of the family, but I think the Queen, everyone respects her personally,” said Ms. Bueckert, who has a British background. “I just admire her strength and dignity. The kindness that she showed, even though things didn’t always go her way. But it didn’t ruffle her feathers very much – publicly.”
(There was some snark in evidence, if not for the Queen herself. On a card tucked under an electric candle, someone had written, “Thank you for your service! Sorry that this country is such an embarrassment. God Save the Queen.”)
Chris Short, who had just a brief window in Victoria before boarding an Alaskan cruise – the tag from his Harbour Air floatplane flight was still attached to his wheelchair – was working on a selfie, trying to get himself, the flowers and the building in the shot.
“This is truly a heartbreaking thing, not just for the Commonwealth and British citizens, but I think for the entire world,” the Pittsburgh man said. “She exemplified what it was to be a royal and a leader in a modern age.”
Nearby, an emotional Debra Ceschia was telling a TV news crew she wasn’t sure about how things will work out under King Charles: “She’s irreplaceable,” she said.
Ms. Ceschia, visiting from Toronto – her husband was here for a financial-services conference – landed at the Victoria airport on Thursday, turned on her phone and got the news.
“I think it’s fitting that we’re here when she passed away. Because to me, this, like, epitomizes a regal city in Canada,” she told The Globe and Mail.
She was waiting for the book of condolences to be set up inside the Legislature, explaining that she preferred to physically sign it, rather than record her message online: “I’m old school; I like pen and paper – like you,” she said, as I jotted down notes.
At the building entrance, security guards were busy dealing with people wanting to sign the book – actually separate, lined pieces of paper – which was installed Friday morning in the Legislature’s Hall of Honour.
“You will be greatly missed. An iconic, powerful stoic lady. A symbol of peace and strength,” Ms. Ceschia wrote. A large portrait of Queen Elizabeth, draped in black because of the sombre occasion, looked on.
Margaret (“like the Queen’s sister”) Paul was among those who came to sign the book.
“I’m not a Canuck,” the Gilroy, Calif., woman said (pronouncing it “Can-ook”), shortly before her knee brace triggered the metal detector on her way into the building. But she wanted to express her admiration.
“I happen to think Queen Elizabeth was one of the most remarkable women who ever lived.”
Some people shared stories of Royal Family sightings. Cheryl Russo, visiting from Kamloops, took out her phone and scrolled through shots her father, a photographer, had taken of the Queen during her visit to Davidson, Sask., in the 1950s. The family had been driving from their home in Rossland, B.C., to visit family in North Battleford, Sask., when they heard the Queen was passing through town, by train.
“He didn’t have a press pass,” she explained, “but he just went right up and took the pictures.” Even better – for her family, anyway – the local girl who was supposed to hand the Queen flowers had taken ill, so Cheryl’s big sister, Elizabeth, got to do the honours.
Ms. Russo told the story more succinctly in her condolence note: “Pure joy!” she wrote at the end of it.
Outside, Sarah Scheller was on her way to a medical appointment when she noticed the flowers gathering on the legislature steps. On her way back, she swung by a corner store and picked up a bouquet.
“I thought she was going to live forever,” Ms. Scheller said, after placing the flowers.
She also had a Royal Family story: A couple of years ago, she had been walking her dog – a Mexican rescue named Riley – near her Sidney, B.C., home when she came across a man walking two dogs who remarked that Riley was cute.
“[I notice] English accent, red hair. And I look up and I’m standing [next to] Prince Harry,” she said. He was followed shortly afterward by his wife, Meghan Markle. “I guess I fangirled a little bit.”
“I feel largely for them right now,” Ms. Scheller said. “She was just a wonderful lady.”
Across the street, at the Empress, where Queen Elizabeth lunched in 1959 (and her parents lunched in 1939), the hot seller at the gift shop since Thursday has been a solar-powered waving Queen Elizabeth figurine.
The hotel’s large bar, Q at the Empress, is named for Queen Victoria, and her portraits, adorned with splashes of colourful paint (artwork by Julie Coyle Art Associates), loom over the space. On Friday, they shared a wall with a large-screen TV broadcasting the service for the Queen at St. Paul’s. In the next room, guests shuffled in for High Tea (with the royal price tag of $89 a person; $128 with a glass of champagne).
“We’re going to have a martini afterwards,” said Cathy Hengel, of Maple Ridge, B.C., who was in town on a long-weekend getaway with two girlfriends. The High Tea had been booked in advance, but the women decided on the stiffer beverages after Thursday’s news.
“We thought we’d do it in honour of the Queen.”