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opinion

Carolyn Harris teaches history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is the author of Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada

Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II's 63-year-reign surpasses Queen Victoria's record for the longest-reigning monarch in British history. In Canada, the Queen has reigned longer than any other monarch since the British conquest of New France in 1759. The longest reign in the history of Europe – and European contact with the lands that became modern Canada – is the 72-year rule of France's King Louis XIV, who placed New France under his direct control as a royal province, established a sovereign council to hear legal cases and sponsored the immigration of female colonists who became known as the "king's daughters."

Perhaps because the record set by Louis has yet to be broken, the media in both Britain and Canada have treated the length of the Queen's reign as a purely British milestone. This focus on Victoria and the Queen as British monarchs obscures the profound influence both monarchs have had on Canadian history and society. Victoria supported Confederation and shared loyalty to the Crown helped bring the provinces together; the Victoria Day holiday honours the queen's role as a mother of Confederation. The Queen has spent more time in Canada than any previous monarch and was present for key events in the past six decades of Canada's history including the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, Expo 67 and the patriation of Constitution in 1982.

Both Victoria and Elizabeth II exerted a powerful cultural impact on Canada, including influence over the status of women in political life. The two queens had very different attitudes toward women's rights. Victoria disapproved of the campaign for women's suffrage and wrote in 1870 that prominent suffragist Lady Amberley "ought to get a good whipping." Nevertheless, Victoria's example transformed the lives of women throughout the English-speaking world as she popularized the use of anesthesia in childbirth and supported other public-health advances that improved women's lives.

In contrast, the Queen has repeatedly expressed support for the expanding role of women in the public sphere, stating at the 100th-anniversary celebration of Britain's Women's Institute in June, "In the modern world, the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life."

Regardless of each queen's personal attitudes toward women entering the political realm, the example of a female head of state inspired Canadian women as well as British women to enter politics and expand their presence in public life. Canadian suffragist Nellie McClung wrote in 1915, 14 years after Victoria's death, "Queen Victoria, in her palace of marble and gold, was able to retain her virility of thought and independence of action as clearly as any pioneer woman." Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables wrote, "We were brought up to believe that 'the queen' … was a model for all girls, brides, wives, mothers and queens to follow."

The presence of a woman at the apex of Canadian political life, even though the Queen owed her position to heredity rather than election, demonstrated that women could be influential, effective political figures. Her reign has seen the election of female heads of government and members of Parliament as well as the development of gender-neutral succession reform that ensures the eldest child of future monarchs, male or female, will succeed to the throne.

The future of the monarchy has been debated in both reigns. Republican sentiment increased in Britain – but not Canada – during Victoria's long seclusion after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 and she did not regain her popularity until the public celebrations commemorating her eldest son's recovery from typhoid in 1872. Public awareness of Elizabeth II's role as Queen of Canada declined in the 1970s and 80s, and a series of scandals in the Royal Family in the 90s appeared to jeopardize the monarchy. Like Victoria, Elizabeth emerged from difficult times as a respected elder stateswoman by the time of her Golden and Diamond Jubilees. For more than half of Canada's history since Confederation in 1867, the head of state has been either Victoria or Elizabeth II. The Queen's record reign demonstrates the enduring influence of the monarchy in Canada.