Carolyn Harris is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books, including Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.
It was all that anyone in Canada, the United States or Great Britain could talk about: the arrival of a British royal couple, still in their 30s, in Canada. One observer noted that their plans for an extended stay meant that Canada “at once assumed a more prominent place in the columns of the leading journals in both Great Britain and the United States.” The couple had endured a complicated relationship with the press; they sometimes cancelled public engagements at the last minute, and fiercely guarded their privacy. He ordered three journalists off a train, objecting to their intrusive coverage of his activities; she made impromptu personal visits to charities that empowered women, including the Haven, which provided vocational training for discharged female prisoners.
And as royalty living in Canada, the pair divided public opinion. One commemorative book about the couple, called Royalty in Canada, stated that “the residence of royalty in Canada has given us a new attraction – one that is likely to be of great advantage.” In contrast, Canada’s leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, considered the financial implications of their presence in an editorial that encouraged the royal couple to display “a proper sense of economy” and “exhibit to the people of Canada the useful example of a prudently regulated household.”
But the royal couple at the centre of this intense media scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic were not Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex who, this past weekend, struck a deal with Buckingham Palace over the logistics of their stepping-away from royal duties as of this spring. Instead, this was a chronicling of the arrival of the first-ever royal couple to visit Canada, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter Princess Louise Caroline Alberta and son-in-law John Campbell, Lord Lorne, in 1878. And while the circumstances of each royal couple’s arrival in Canada were very different – Lorne and Louise crossed the Atlantic to take up residence for five years at Rideau Hall in Ottawa as Governor-General and Viceregal Consort – lessons abound for Harry and Meghan as they navigate new territory, and the perception that British royalty might be out of place in a Canadian context.
Even in 1878, just 11 years after a fledgling Confederation, a Canadian national identity was emerging – one that was more informal and democratic, and would not easily accommodate the pomp and circumstance associated with the British Royal Family. Louise and Lorne were warned that they should not expect court dress or guests to back out of the room at their receptions; to be popular in Canada, they were told, they would be expected to embrace the cold winters and outdoor pastimes. They needed to be seen as part of Canadian culture rather than as members of the British Royal Family who were just spending a few years in Canada.
Louise and Lorne embraced both with aplomb, forging a distinct public image as Canadian royalty. In response to rumours that guests received by the royal couple would be expected to wear court dress, the press reported that Louise stated that she would not mind if they “came in blanket coats.” Louise and Lorne hosted “snow parties” at Rideau Hall where there was skating, tobogganing and curling – an enthusiasm for winter sports that the press noted with approval. In the summers, they went salmon fishing on the Cascapedia River in Quebec, and Louise, an accomplished artist, painted Canadian landscapes.
By the time Louise and Lorne departed Canada at the end of Lorne’s term as Governor-General in 1883, the press coverage was largely positive, despite Louise’s frequent absences from public view after an 1880 sleigh accident. They were instrumental to the founding of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and the National Gallery of Canada, and undertook the first royal tour to Vancouver Island in 1882. They remained associated with Canada for the rest of their lives, and Louise gave her name to both Lake Louise and, by way of one of her middle names, the province of Alberta.
“The U.K. is my home and a place that I love. That will never change,” Harry said in a speech on Sunday night at a charity event in London. And that may well be the case. But if Harry and Meghan decide to live in Canada for extended periods of time, they may well develop a Canadian public image distinct from their place in the British Royal Family. The experiences of Canada’s first resident royal couple in the 19th century demonstrate that to achieve enduring popularity with Canadians, royalty who live in Canada must understand that it is our national fabric that matters most.
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