Skip to main content

Since the Sussexes came, British Columbians have been bemused by the added attention, irritated by the visiting paparazzi and generally inclined to leave the family alone

A horse-drawn carriage tour makes its way through Victoria. Vancouver Island has been getting used to the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who are staying near the provincial capital in North Saanich.Photography by Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

As far as landing pads go, North Saanich seems at first glance an unlikely choice for Prince Harry and Meghan.

But maybe it’s not. Fruit stands and the odd, errant sheep dot the winding country roads surrounding their rented estate. It’s not unusual to see horses trotting down the middle of the single-lane road fronting the $14-million home on Patricia Bay.

The locals, with their gumboots, walking sticks and wet Labradors, really put the British in British Columbia. Harry must feel right at home. The nearby deli carries curry pies, Cornish pasties and Scottish crisps. Sea Cider, a local cider house, offers decent scrumpy. Saanichton butcher Fraser Orr is said to be “the best haggis maker on this side of the Atlantic.” Every afternoon, the Fairmont Empress Hotel in nearby Victoria serves an elaborate high tea. There’s an island youth cricket league with 15 teams.

Ever since Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, decamped for Vancouver Island with their son, Archie, late last year as a prelude to stepping down from their royal duties, British Columbians have been reacting with bemusement over the bit role the island has been playing in the psychodrama roiling England.

E News reports that the couple is considering a relocation to Los Angeles for the summer, but while they remain on Vancouver Island, the young family’s mostly septuagenarian neighbours on “the peninsula,” as the Saanich Peninsula is locally known, are feeling deeply protective of them.

“We just want them to be left alone,” said one woman, who asked not to be named for fear of being mobbed by British press. She feels “sick” whenever she sees a boat on the inlet, she added, worried that a paparazzo is training a long lens at the young family.

She needn’t worry. Many of the island’s boat operators are refusing to take photographers to the waters surrounding the estate.

“I take people out to take pictures of eagles, whales and seals – things people should be looking at,” said Reg Kirkham, who owns Island Water Taxi. “I don’t go peeping in windows.” Mr. Kirkham said he has refused multiple offers from paparazzi. “We all put our pants on one leg at a time. They’re humans, too.”

The nearest café, where Harry has stopped for sandwiches and coffee, has posted a sign reading “No press zone” to its front door, making its allegiance clear.

“They keep coming and coming,” the woman working the till said of the paparazzi, rolling her eyes. “They don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word ‘no.’”

In North Saanich, a 'press free zone' sign is taped to the door of the Deep Cove Market, where the Sussexes were spotted.

British flags adorn the Huntingdon Manor in Victoria, left, and a telephone pole in Oak Bay, right. At middle, headlines about the Royal Family dominate a Shoppers Drug Mart tabloid rack in Duncan.

One of their neighbours has formed a Facebook group, where members can identify locations of paparazzi, when they spot them, to help the couple’s security team.

Others are delighting in toying with visiting British press. When reporters stopped the royals’ 83-year-old neighbour to ask if he had seen “them,” he stonewalled: “Who?” He then stared blankly back at the journalists. “Oh, right, them – yeah, Archie’s been keeping us up all night with his wailing.”

After Meghan and her eight-month-old son were photographed from behind bushes in Horth Hill Regional Park last week, a young father bawled out the American paparazzo who took the pictures, a confrontation caught by CHEK, a local TV station. “I spent the last 11 days in the community,” photographer Derek Shook said in defending himself. “Do you think a guy like you does anything for this community?” the local replied.

A boat is stranded on a beach within Tseycum First Nation territory that abuts the Sussexes' home in North Saanich.Melissa Renwick/Melissa Renwick

Meghan and Harry are not unaware of the locals’ mother-hen instincts. Miles Arsenault, who runs a taxi boat from nearby Deep Cove, said he received a phone call from Meghan herself – whom he described as “sweet, real and sincere” – after it was reported that he’d refused to take Japanese photographers to shoot their home abutting the Tseycum First Nation.

(Tseycum leadership have taken the opportunity to note that the stunning, four-acre headland where the estate lies was stolen from their ancestors, who were crowded onto a reserve totalling less than one square kilometre. Harry and Meghan, on their way to Victoria, likely drive through it. They might notice that the busy roadway, which was built without consent on Tseycum burial grounds, bisects the reserve, cutting off access to the ocean.)

Islanders are also getting a taste of the “fact-checking” that goes into royal coverage from abroad. More than a month into Meghan and Harry’s Canadian sojourn, Vancouver is still being confused with Vancouver Island, which has been described as a “largely uninhabited” resort island, with “few highways.”

Kelly Corby is served tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria. The Empress is the island's premier spot for the upper-class British custom of high tea.

Victoria is home to B.C.'s Legislature, where a statue honours the monarch who gave the city its name.

The Canadian news media has been considerably different, in keeping with its own traditions.

Victoria’s Times Colonist, the biggest newspaper on the island of 800,000, declined to report on their presence until after they returned to London briefly early in the new year: “Their connection to our island is worthy of note,” editor and publisher David Obee wrote in an editorial, “but their day-to-day existence here is not. Let them be.”

When it comes to writing about the private lives of politicians, hockey players and movie stars, Canadian news media have set an unusually high bar. Unless a public interest case can be made, extramarital affairs and step siblings tend to be out of bounds. This makes Canadian outlets unlikely to dispatch photographers to haunt the bushes outside Meghan and Harry’s home, or publish anything Meghan’s family, the Markles, have to say.

It’s all very Canadian, not that the locals surrounding the peninsula’s royal guests are apologetic.

“I deal with millionaires and billionaires all the time,” said Mr. Kirkham, the water taxi operator who has taken several other celebrities to private islands in the Strait of Georgia. “We just respect it. They’re safe here.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.