The World’s Number-One Box Office Draw reawakens a forgotten part of the national psyche

JUNE CALLWOOD September 1 1973


The World’s Number-One Box Office Draw reawakens a forgotten part of the national psyche

JUNE CALLWOOD September 1 1973

All royal visits to Canada are multilayered, like onions, like Russian nesting dolls, like those wooden eggs children play with, each one coming apart in the middle, if you know the trick, to reveal a smaller egg within, and that egg opening to display a still smaller one, and so on, until at the end there is a very tiny egg which won’t open, not ever.

Depending on the age and whimsy of the person taking the eggs apart, the final impenetrable egg represents either frustration, or something vulnerable and precious that the rest of the eggs have been protecting, or affirmation of the transcendental truth that, when you get right down to it, the essence of everything is unknowable.

As applied to Royal Visit ’73, the 11-day, limited-run-only extravaganza with the political surprises, which opened June 25 shortly after noon at a sweltering Toronto airport and closed just before midnight July 5 at a Calgary airport whipped by a cool wind and starving mosquitoes, the gaudy exterior egg, enclosing the ones representing preparations, security, political intrigue, royal fingers in the wind and immutable secrets, was the one the public saw: the pageantry. There is no show on earth to compare with Elizabeth II, superstar, touring the provinces. She’s the world’s Number One box-office draw, save in a few corners of her realm where the very sight of her would send citizens scurrying home to make bombs.

Elsewhere, when Elizabeth II puts her show on the road, it’s hypnotic theatre. The Royal Standard slips up the flagpole against an azure sky, there is the shivering sound of trumpets, in the distance cannons boom a 21-gun salute, parachutists dressed in red, white and blue drop out of the sky, the band begins to play, someone in the rigid honor guard faints as unobtrusively as he loyally can manage, the crowd surges forward longingly against the linked arms of police, firemen, sea cadets and veterans wearing medals, and out of the airplane or limousine or train steps a small, firm, unhurried 47-year-old woman in an undistinguished dress with an almost expressionless face. She stands still a moment, taking in the tableau, and every calm inch of her declares of course.

In that instant something that has been perilously close to slapstick is transformed into a genuinely moving experience. A small part of it, but an essential part, comes from the Queen herself, from her total conviction that no trouble anyone has gone to on her behalf is too much. If she were effusively grateful or overwhelmed, humble and human though such responses would be, the inference logically could be drawn that the Crown itself is not worth such bother.

It is Elizabeth II’s flinty grip on the fusion of her own personal dignity with the Crown’s prestige that prevents her crown from becoming a paper dunce cap and blowing away. It is unlikely the present fervor for preserving the monarchy as a bulwark against Watergate would find as many advocates if Queen Elizabeth was a silly woman.

So she pauses when she makes her entrance, stage centre, incuriously examining the panorama before her. She waits patiently for the anthem to end, and lifts a languid hand.

The rest is projection. People come to see Elizabeth II for complex reasons, out of loyalty, out of nostalgia, out of uncomplicated love, out of curiosity, because the children want to see her, because they think the children should want to see her, because they are Brownies or elderly or handicapped and transportation is laid on, because they are invited and invitations are prestigious, because it isn’t inconvenient so why not, because it is an event with no admission price.

Whatever the original impetus, individuals become less separate as they wait and the crowd melds good humoredly, watching the final preparations for the spectacle to come, feeling the nervousness of the police, enjoying the sight of the most important citizens in the region being schoolboy careful not to put a toe on the unsullied red carpet.

Expectancy builds and when the Queen finally appears and waves a little and smiles a little, there is a flow toward her of purest gratitude. She hasn’t let the side down: she looks exactly as she has looked for the past 20 years, even down to the handbag and hairstyle. Age has only improved her face, softened the severity it had when she was younger and less assured, warmed her smile. What she emanates, and what the crowd responds to thankfully, is the sane past, when virtue, duty and honor were words that had weight to them, when churchgoing was the pivot of existence, when dress and decorum indicated uprightness of character.

In an age that has no more heroes, no sanctuaries, no core, the sight of Elizabeth II, unchanged and unchangeable, is deeply comforting.

Some cry “God save the Queen!” in the old way; but not many. Quite a few say, “Isn’t she beautiful!”—which she isn’t, in the usual sense. It’s an illusion she creates from the serenity within, which likely will be imperishable. People clap a bit but mostly crowds beam fondly at her with big, sloppy, unselfconscious grins, and almost forget to use the cameras they brought.

When the Queen abruptly leaves, and it is abrupt—this tour she covered a lot of ground and saw more people by making every stop a quickie of 10 or 15 minutes, rarely more—the orderly scene which she has just graced falls apart at once and becomes a muddle, the honor guard mixed in with people moving toward the parking lot, the band putting away instruments while mothers try to find their children, policemen coiling up the yellow nylon restraining ropes around beefy forearms, the Brownies being herded to their buses.

There is a mood of tiredness upon them, a good sated feeling mixed with something wistful, something close to regret. For a moment while the Queen stood there, life had seemed simple again. There was decorum, a pattern, respect, knowing where you were supposed to be, how you were supposed to act, who you were supposed to be. It felt just marvelous, but it is over.

That was the visible royal tour, where the Queen, the consummate pro, went about her usual Queen chores of signing guest books (23); receiving bouquets from excited children (27) including a sheaf of wheat at Regina and six crushed daisies a four-year-old boy proffered her from a crowd in Montague, Prince Edward Island, after holding them as tight as he could for two hours after picking them; unveiling plaques and cairns by a variety of ingenious means.

She declared open, well after they had been functioning fine without her, the Prince Edward Island Summer Games at Summerside, the Calgary Stampede and the Scarborough Civic Centre. She gave the RCMP a new cavalry flag, which is called a guidon, on which to display its non-classified victories. She presided over Prince Edward Island’s less than euphoric centennial (the Island is still not convinced, any more than it was in 1873, that it was such a smart move to allow Canada to join it). And she was the feature attraction at Kingston’s 300th birthday, as counted from the summer that Frontenac first paddled in and agreed with Talon that it was. a good place to build a fort, and the 100th anniversary of the RCMP.

Canada, roots-hungry as an orphan ever since the 1967 centennial, showed the Queen some of its recent attempts to resurrect, imitate or invert its past. There was a simulated battle in the war of 1812 staged at Fort George, with all the children in the supposed line of fire rapturously playing dead; a glimpse of some youths at Kingston wearing the brown coats and tricorn hats of the Carignan-Salières Regiment, the first regular troops sent to Canada more than 300 years ago; a stroll through an Acadian Village circa 1812 being built at Mount Carmel, Prince Edward Island, as a government make-work project that began in 1967 when the fishing gave out, potatoes dropped to a cent a pound and Acadian families began to starve; another stroll through Fort William, being restored to look as it did early in the 19th century when it was the hinge of the North West Company’s fur trade.

What the Queen saw at Mount Carmel, PEI, as she drove down a long road to the site, was a row of young men on her right dressed in the uniforms of the Fraser Highlanders who fought under Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and on her left young men in the uniforms of La Compagnie Franche de la Marine who fought under Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. All were students with summer jobs to impersonate the two regiments for tourists visiting a restored fort near Montreal and had been imported to PEI to adorn the centennial.

The Queen arrived too late to witness the rehearsal, a pity. When the troops attempted to coordinate the salute that would be accorded the Queen it was discovered that the men portraying the Highlands spoke only English, the men portraying the Marines only French. In fact, though they work side by side, they had not yet learned one another’s names.

“They have their own group, and we have ours,” explained a McGill undergraduate, as an officer bellowing “Present arms!” got crisp response from the Highlanders but none from the Marines, and the officer who shouted “Présentez les armes!” was rewarded by activity along the line of Marines, while the Highlanders checked their watches and worried that it would rain.

That was the tour at its tragic-comic worst, equaled only at Thunder Bay when a group of Indians from United States reservations took time out from their annual Indian dance competitions to attire themselves in the gorgeous costumes of the potpourri band, Hollywood-picturesque tribe, a conglomerate of feathers, deerskin, beading, jingle bells and bangles patterned mostly on the striking ceremonial dress of Oklahoma tribes, with bits of Cree, Blackfoot, Sioux and early Tonto thrown in.

They shuffled cheerfully around a pocket stage in front of the Queen, having a good time and occasionally exposing a glimpse of their Jantzen swim suits, while a bagpipe band in kilts waited to accompany a chorus of Will Ye No Come Back Again? sung in Ojibway.

It was all witnessed by the Indian celebrity, actor Chief Dan George, holding his feathered war bonnet against the high wind and looking contented in a full Indian costume creation of his own, worn with black-and-white patent oxfords with raised heels.

On the other hand, some of the arranged spectacles were masterpieces: the 1,000 elementary schoolchildren from Etobicoke who sang for the Queen shortly after she got off the plane in Toronto, a sea of freshly-shampooed heads and dancing eyes; the Gadabouts, elderly citizens in becoming 17th-century costumes who sang She’ll Be Cornin’ Round The Mountain for the Queen in Kingston, putting their all into accompanying gestures; the joyful burst of pastel balloons into a clear sky at the Scarborough ceremony, an inspired idea; the breath-stopping, almost inhuman precision of the RCMP parade at the Regina barracks, executed by recruits who stood up to being drilled ruthlessly for weeks under a pitiless sun; Angele Arsenault, an Acadian folk singer who projected star quality, that dimension beyond talent where the spirit shows, in what was billed in the PEI royal tour handbook as a “folklore display.”

And, the strangest event of all, the historic noon at Calgary where representatives of every Alberta Indian tribe pitched their teepees on Ministry of Transport land near the airport in order to meet for the first time their Great White Mother. Another Indian, David Ahenakew, president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, had been face to face with the Queen the previous day but his protest was muted somewhat by an ill-advised RCMP decision not to let him have a microphone.

At Calgary, the Indians had their own sound system. Harold Cardinal, president of the Indian Association of Alberta, had a milder speech than Chief Ahenakew’s, though more audible, but his was drafted by a committee that met over a period of months. Ahenakew had said, “A great majority of our people still live in a state of isolation and poverty.” Cardinal said “ ...we have much to overcome and far to go,” The Queen replied, in effect to both of them, that “my government” would keep its part of the treaties, which was exactly what both were asking.

The royal tour of '73 was full of paradoxes, but none more puzzling than Harold Cardinal solemnly reading a speech approved in Ottawa about Ottawa’s injustices to Indians and the Great White Mother in her clear light voice reading a responding speech not only approved in Ottawa but written there, telling him that she agreed things need improvement and would look after it. This Chrétien monologue for two voices was delivered while both stood on buffalo hides under a canvas canopy, and was accompanied by the sound of departing jet aircraft.

Rick Yellowbird, 23, dressed in faded jeans, his long hair tied with a scarf around his forehead, stood apart from the congestion of beaded moosehide and Savile Row tailoring that surrounded the Queen. He had come to take part in the demonstration of Indian dancing, but had changed his mind. He called the group having a powwow with the Great White Mother “red apple Indians.”

Yellowbird represented the Royal Tour ’73’s largest audience: the noshows. The CBC, which spent a fortune on the coverage, especially in Prince Edward Island where it went to the sumptuous expense of draping its camera platforms in apricot raw silk to match the decor in the Charlottetown Hotel’s newly renovated dining room, is not able to report on the size of its radio or television audience because no surveys were taken at that time. There were, however, 345 phone calls commenting on the coverage, about the same number as for a Grey Cup game.

The Queen drew crowds certainly, but her itinerary was not designed to make that a difficult feat: Toronto City Hall at high noon, just as the offices in the surrounding highrises empty for lunch; Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, which is packed if it pours down forked lightning; opening day of the Calgary Stampede, always a SRO situation; July 1 in Charlottetown in PEI’s centennial year, with Stompin’ Tom Connors, who outdrew her the night before, modestly in the audience.

The people who came were middle Canada: wholesome, conservatively dressed, back bone of the nation types.

Leona Porter, her mother and her five children drove from Peterborough the night before so they could plant their lawn chairs at 7 a.m. in the front row at the Cobourg conservation area and see the Queen walk by nearly four hours later. Why? “I thought it was important for the kids to see the Queen. They don’t realize that she’s a real person.”

That’s who came. The Queen drove through few working-class districts and when she did, as in Toronto’s east end on the way to a textile factory, there was almost no one around. Young people, the faded denim set, were almost totally absent everywhere; except where they had been built into the agenda deliberately, which happened conspicuously in Prince Edward Island.

The skeleton of the tour began two years ago, when Buckingham Palace agreed that the Queen and Prince Philip would attend Prince Edward Island’s centennial, around July 1. A year later Kingston, observing its tercentennial, was accepted by the Palace, as well as a long-standing invitation from Toronto, partly because the Queen hadn’t been there for 14 years and partly because it had an airport large enough to land her DC8. The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake had been trying to get her for years and had a striking new theatre, so that was added, which meant that it might be a good idea to take a swing around western Ontario. Some inclusions were bold-faced: Brampton got the first royal visit of its life because it is Premier William Davis’ hometown. London was in because it is good Tory country, and Ottawa out because the Queen would be going there a few weeks later for the Commonwealth Conference.

The 100th anniversary of the RCMP was an obvious choice, with the location moved to Regina because Ottawa was off the tour. That meant a long flight from Prince Edward Island to Regina, but the plane could make a pit stop at Thunder Bay and in that way accommodate northern Ontario. By juggling the PEI agenda, the Queen could just nicely arrive in Calgary on the first day of the Stampede and leave that night.

Now to work. Scarborough, with a new civic centre, scraped 12 minutes of the Queen’s time and managed, by wailing considerably, to have it stretched to 15. Surprised little Breslau in western Ontario, population 400, got five minutes because it was the logical place for the Queen and Duke to change to a limousine to drive to Kitchener. Kitchener-Waterloo couldn’t decide what to do with its welcome guest until it was remembered that its urban renewal plan had uprooted the city’s obelisk cenotaph. If the Queen admired it, unveiled it, got it! put a wreath on it, people would accept the new location better.

Protocol books began to arrive from London, hints were given. The Queen would like to meet people, she would do “walkabouts,” that is, stroll along one side of the crowd briefly, chatting here and there. The Duke would work the other side. Open space between the crowds to be no less than 20 feet wide and 30 is preferred; platforms not too high (Kitchener goofed, and had to lower theirs); meals were to be simple and not last too long; the Royal party would require as many as 67 rooms in the hotels it occupied; nearby hospitals wherever the Queen traveled must clear accommodation for her in case of emergency and have blood of her type, O negative, available for transfusion.

Hotels were preparing, at costs that caused managers to roll their eyes ceilingward, refuse to answer, and then hastily explain that the renovation was planned anyway. The Royal York in Toronto washed with pressure hoses its entire exterior, at a cost of $100,000, finishing just in time—the first floor awnings were being scrubbed only hours before her arrival. The Palliser in Calgary had a new rug in the lobby, new rugs on the floor the royal party would occupy, a refurbished royal suite. The Saskatchewan Hotel was spending $120,000 on “upgrading,” most of it in the viceregal suite; the Charlottetown Hotel, to the regret of some, was converting its classic oval dining room from soft blue woodwork and pastoral murals to apricot woodwork and apricot raw silk covering the murals.

The hotels, long accustomed to delicacy in such matters, gave the royal couple a choice of sleeping arrangements: a king-sized bed in what was designated as the Queen’s room and twin beds in the Duke’s.

Air Canada was “reconfiguring” a DC8, at undisclosed cost, putting two bedrooms, two lounges, a changing room and a dining room in what had been the first-class section. Governor General and Mrs. Roland Michener were polishing up the private railway car they would be lending the royal couple, with its unusual adjoining bedrooms: the beds separated by a wall, with a small sliding panel pillow-high for goodnights.

Brampton was moving a hydrant. The mayor thought it was unsightly.

The cars in the royal motorcade were inspected, every inch of them, and then kept under armed guard. In Toronto they were stored in the armories at night, with shifts of police to watch them. They were fueled with armed men watching and then the tanks were sealed. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau lent his new bulletproof car. The cars the Queen would use, the limousine and an open one, were flown across the country ahead of her and the license plates changed to conform to the province they happened to be in.

The Queen and the Duke would be visiting Royal Military College in Kingston at an awkward time, when all the cadets were scattered across the country, some in jobs, some on summer manoeuvres. One hundred and eighteen of them were recalled, dressed in pillbox hats and their fully-lined ceremonial uniforms and stood in two straight lines in the merciless sun outside the railway station in Kingston, marched a little while she was at RMC and lined up along the driveway as she drove away. Total time in her presence: 30 minutes.

A selection of menus was submitted to the Queen, from which she made her choices—fish, lamb chops, steak, guinea hen and, inexplicably, lobster twice on the same day in PEI. The food’s purity was another matter. Waiters serving the royal couple were asked to have throat swabs and x-rays taken, and stool samples were examined. At Niagara-on-the-Lake, two of the serving staff were desolated to be excluded from the dining room because they had incipient colds. In Calgary, food in preparation was submitted to 22 laboratory tests to establish its guilelessness; as a further precaution, bits were taken from the plates on their way to the royal table. If the Queen or Duke, or anyone at their table, had become ill, these food scraps would have been rushed to the labs for analysis. Calgary would have been ready instantly with the correct antidote.

The Queen brings her own drinking water, out of concern for touriste, or Montcalm’s revenge. To spare herself regional variations in the water while in Canada, she drank from a supply of 100 cases of bottled Malvern water imported from Schweppes, England. Ice cubes used in her drinks during pre-dinner receptions were made from this water and kept under lock and key until needed. Mixes also were imported from England in sealed cartons, guarded in warehouses by bonded assistants.

Beneath the scurry is the hidden agenda, what it all is really about. Royal tours are never purely social visits. The very first one was in 1860, when Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, came for two purposes: to soothe Canadians wrecked by British economic policies and to assure the United States, which he did, and bluntly, that Canada would not be unprotected if the U.S. attempted annexation by force. Some Canadians, particularly businessmen, had exactly that hope in mind, but when the Prince left a titled observer who had traveled with him observed that in Canada “the loyal idea began to germinate once more.”

The Queen’s game and decent father, George VI, came to Canada in the summer of 1939, the first ruling monarch ever to set foot in Canada after almost 200 years of membership in the British Empire, because Britain needed Canada in the imminent war. Elizabeth II was here in 1959 to outglitter the Americans during the joint opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which she did handily, bringing her diamonds and ships of the Royal Navy as well.

Royal Tour ’73, by no coincidence, followed on Britain’s entry into the European Common Market and the distressed discovery by Canadians that when they look fondly at Britannia it is the back of her head they see.

The Queen had a quiet scheme of her own, born of a mother’s natural interest in her children’s welfare. Charles, Prince of Wales, will be finished his naval service in about five years. He could remain at sea, but that could be tiresome, and he could become proficient at unveiling cairns when she was otherwise engaged, but he’s not a natural cairn-unveiler, or he could be King, which would be nice for him but she’s becoming extremely proficient at being Queen; never better, in fact—she’s thriving on cairn unveiling, has overcome her shyness and can stroll around chatting effortlessly to any number of Brownies, mayors, octogenarians and women with twins in the pram. So it occurred to her, or to someone close to her, that maybe there might be an opening for Charles as Governor General of Canada, after the obligatory French-Canadian one who will follow Michener in a few months.

The idea was tested with studied casualness on two sound, respected Canadian journalists, Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun and Charles Lynch of Southam News Services. It was a curiously insensitive suggestion, given the fact that the Queen is one of the best briefed dignitaries in the world. It failed to appreciate the state of the country’s hot nationalism in parts of the land, and aversion to all of Wolfe’s descendants in others.

The reaction was to recommend the compromise that Prince Charles should emulate his great-uncle, the late Duke of Windsor, and buy some property in Canada, living here for extended periods. Failing that, the Queen should establish a Canadian residence to give more credibility to her declarations that she is Queen of Canada.

There were more little eggs within bigger ones: Pierre Elliott Trudeau had plans of his own to make the royal tour a native folk festival, with Elizabeth II winning the Miss Canada contest, and her loyal coach, Trudeau himself, at her side. The sudden conversion of Pierre Elliott Trudeau into an ardent monarchist, a light that struck him on the way to Damascus just shortly after studying the election returns, has given John Diefenbaker rich enjoyment. But Prime Minister Trudeau has not shown himself in the past to place any consideration second to his goal of somehow welding the Canadian mosaic together so that all its pieces remain intact but, for once, in compassionate touch with one another. That clearly was the master plan behind the bilingual speeches, the omnipresent ethnic dancing and the stress on “Queen of Canada.”

So he hatched a mad scheme—ingenuity at its expedient best—that loyalty to Elizabeth R., Queen of Canada, would pull the pieces together. To help it along, and to present this new vision of the Liberal party perched casually on the arm of the Throne, he invited himself at short notice to be in Charlottetown with the Queen and speak at the major banquet planned there. He inserted himself prominently in the festivities in Alberta, where his Liberals lost every one of the 19 federal seats. He hauled along everywhere his exquisitely beautiful wife, even though she looked about to faint twice in Toronto’s heat and keeled over like a sick kitten in Charlottetown.

The Queen and the Duke arrived at the airport on schedule, straight from the Calgary stampede. The Queen stolidly boarded the glossy white plane. It didn’t roll away at once, so she sat at one of the windows, dutiful to the end, unwilling to turn off the houselights while the guests are still in the driveway.

The small group seeing her off watched her thoughtfully, not speaking much.

A long minute passed, with Elizabeth II very still in the white glare of the strongest lights the airport could assemble. It was chilly and there were murky clouds over the quarter moon.

Then the plane moved out slowly, wheeled toward the taxi strip, and was out of sight. The Queen was gone, and with her the innermost egg in the series of toy eggs, the secret one that won’t open.