Having seen more than 125 countries, many of them several times over, Queen Elizabeth II is the most widely travelled monarch in history. Yet, it is Canada which she has visited more often than anywhere outside Britain; where she has received some especially memorable gifts, not least the 100-foot totem pole standing in Windsor Great Park and her beloved mare, Burmese.
Canada has also played a pivotal role in the story of her equally beloved Commonwealth. Its first secretary-general was the Canadian diplomat, Arnold Smith, and the Queen attended her first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Ottawa. The host, Pierre Trudeau, created a new, more intimate type of summit with a “retreat” for leaders and a ban on pre-prepared statements. He set the template for every CHOGM since. “Trudeau was a slow starter,’ says former secretary-general Sir Sonny Ramphal, ‘but he became one of the great Commonwealth leaders.”
For all his bluster in front of the cameras, Trudeau was less of a showman in the presence of the Queen. Indeed, it seems he was as nervous of her as anyone else. We know that, because he is perhaps the only Prime Minister from any of her realms who has gone through an entire private royal audience with a third person in the room. It happened during the filming of Royal Family, the original royal documentary, in 1968. BBC technician Dave Gorringe was present to record a few snippets of conversation as Trudeau came for his first audience. “The Queen was making all the going and his answers were not very good and it lasted about ten minutes," Gorringe told William Shawcross years later. She eventually pushed a buzzer for the door to open. He walked out and the doors closed and she said: "Well, he didn’t have much to say for himself, did he?'”
A fiery French Canadian lawyer, Trudeau had never been a monarchist, but neither would he turn out to be avowedly republican. “He was probably a republican, or at least started as one,” says a former royal private secretary. “But I think he was beguiled by the Queen. He was a very shrewd politician and he knew there was not much in it for him. He was a class act, too. I remember he made a speech at a state banquet at the Ottawa national hall. It was white tie – the Queen in her white fur, which we don’t mention any more, given to her by the Hudson Bay Company – and it was a dazzling evening. He made the most perfect speech, a mixture of French and English without looking at a note at all.”
Trudeau preferred to make the monarch, and the trappings of monarchy, more Canadian rather than seek a replacement. The defining moment was the Queen’s public signing of the 1982 Canada Act in Ottawa. When her ministers came to sign the associated document, Pierre Trudeau broke the nib of the official pen. Next up was justice minister Jean Chrétien, who found that he couldn’t sign a thing. “Merde!” he muttered, looked up and saw that the Queen was highly amused.
She was happy to indulge what Ramphal calls Trudeau’s “boyish antics." There was one potentially tricky evening when Trudeau invited a local (republican) student leader called “King Steve” to join a dinner on board the Royal Yacht in Vancouver. Some members of the Royal Household were nervous, even more so when a van screeched to a halt on the quayside to deposit the young man, amid chants of “Steve for King.” The Duke of Edinburgh, however, was adamant that if the student had been invited to dinner, then “to dinner he must come.” Jock Slater, the Queen’s equerry at the time, remembers that Steve was late and “oddly attired” but he escorted him into the Drawing Room to be presented to the Queen. It later emerged that “King Steve" had come prepared to deliver a republican speech but had lost his nerve. “He was overawed and subdued,” says Slater, “and what he planned to say never happened.” Slater recalls the evening for another reason. Trudeau’s wife of a few weeks, Margaret, was already pregnant with the future Prime Minister of Canada.
By 2015, the Queen would be having audiences with another member of the Trudeau family when Justin Trudeau, eldest son of Pierre (who had died in 2000) became Prime Minister. Later that year, as one of the newcomers at the 2015 CHOGM in Malta, Trudeau junior was invited to make the banquet toast in honour of the Queen. After he pointed out that she had performed her first official Canadian duty in 1935 – appearing on a postage stamp at the age of 9 – he reminded the assembled heads that his father had been the Queen’s fourth prime minister while he was her 12th. Rising to respond, the Queen joked: “Thank you, Mr Prime Minister of Canada, for making me feel so old!”
Though the Queen met him several times as a baby, Justin Trudeau’s earliest memory of her comes a little later. “I remember one day having to rush home from school because she was going to stop by for lunch and we had to be there to receive her,” he says. “I was terribly worried because although I was going to get changed into better clothes, I was going to have to wear the same shoes and I needed to keep them clean all morning. And I don’t think I was able to.”
Later in life, it would be his brightly coloured socks rather than his shoes which would attract royal attention. Heading for his audience with the Queen ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth summit in London, he revealed that he had chosen a pair of grey socks covered in pink moose. “They match the suit,” he explained.
Having attended the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in person, the Queen had given up long-distance travel by the time of the 150th in 2017. So, she asked the Prince of Wales to represent her. “Each time he comes he feels a bit more of Canada seeping in to his bloodstream,” explained the governor-general, David Johnston, as he prepared his residence, Rideau Hall.
After travelling to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in his horse-drawn carriage, the Prince spoke on the Queen’s behalf, praising Canada as “a champion of human rights; as a peacekeeper; a responsible steward of the environment; and as a powerful and consistent example of diversity and the power of inclusion.” Mr. Johnston then flew over to London to celebrate with the Queen at Canada House. A broad cross-section of U.K.-based Canadians were gathered in one room and a broad cross-section of royal Canadian treasures were in another. The exhibition ranged from the letter confirming Queen Victoria’s approval of the name “Canada” to the puck that the Queen threw at a Vancouver ice-hockey game on her Golden Jubilee tour. Ahead of this visit, the Queen had given much thought to the 150th. She had asked the royal librarian, Oliver Urquhart Irvine, to assemble facsimiles of all the key documents and images from Canadian history and create a one-off commemorative book at the Windsor book bindery. This was to be her present to the people of Canada. They, in turn, had another memorable gift for her: a brooch in the shape of a Northern Star snowflake. It would be a companion piece to that Maple Leaf brooch, which King George VI gave to his Queen in 1939. “We are blessed that you are our Queen," the governor-general told her. "Thank you for your selfless service to our country.”
Adapted from Queen of The World (Century) by Robert Hardman, which is available now.