Reflections from the Swamp
Most Canadians have never known a monarch other than the Queen. My bride and I were in Algonquin Park without radio or internet while the news of Queen Elizabeth’s death filled the airwaves. I’m approaching this topic without all the reflections offered in the media. These are personal reflections, just as you have your memories and stories. I was born two years after Elizabeth became Queen.
My parents were monarchists. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had the same birthdate (August 31) as my mother. When they came to Canada, they transferred their allegiance to the Queen, as did many immigrants. We made a big deal out of Victoria Day, associating it with garden day opening. Canadian history became our history. We would sit around the radio and later the TV and listen to the Queen’s Christmas address to the Commonwealth. I have continued to do so for most of the years since.
When I went to school, we still sang God Save The Queen and The Maple Leaf Forever. We had the Red Ensign with the Union Jack filling a quarter of our flag. Our maple leaf flag was yet to be born and unfurled. Parents named a disproportional number of their daughters Elizabeth, Liz, Betty and Beth.
The Queen was on all our money, including all the paper money. We had the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Queen on biscuit tins that appeared in stores around Christmas. Crown Land still fills most of the country with wilderness, now being returned to indigenous people or shared with the provinces. My kids used to say they were going out to the “Queen’s Land, ” the Crown lands that abut our property.
Mrs. McGlocklin, my first teacher, had a large world map in our classroom. She looked much like the Queen did in her final years, a diminutive older woman of about 4 1/2 feet with a Scottish accent. The map was a Mercator projection, so the arctic islands of Canada were enormous and easily more prominent than most of Europe. All the British colonies, outlined in pink, showed the expanse of the British Empire.
Mrs. McGlocklin said, “We will study the ‘pink bits’— the other bits aren’t as important. The USA used to be a pink bit until they rebelled. Those loyal to Britain came to Canada from the US and helped form our country today.” A portrait of the young Queen displayed beside the map overlooked the activities of the classroom.
As a youth, I collected stamps. The Queen appeared on stamps from all over the world, from Hong Kong to Australia and New Zealand, a multitude of African countries that had not yet gained independence, to the Caribbean and far-flung islands around the world. Elizabeth’s young smiling face surrounded the globe.
As young boys, we played various games where we could throw rocks at each other. In one game, Boomer’s sister stood on a platform built to facilitate hanging the wash. The platform doubled as a castle. Dressed as Queen Elizabeth, with a sheer pink dress and a dime store tiara, Boomer’s sister (whose name escapes me) cried out, “Save me, save me!” while opposing teams armed with garbage can lids for shields and hockey sticks for swords clobbered each other below.
The game’s object was to touch the Queen and rescue her from the rebellious Americans, so maligned by our teacher Mrs. McGlocklin. Somebody touched the Queen, we switched sides, and the opposing team had to save the Queen again. This game reinforced the anthem of God Save The Queen.
We had three boys and a girl in our family, and so did the Queen. I dreamed of saving the Queen from the bad guys and being invited to her castle. I’d show her the stamps I’d collected of her with lions on them from Tanganyika. She was very impressed and had never seen them before. I showed her kids how to play hockey, and they showed me how to use all those extra forks and knives they have at their dinner table. I imagined being invited to go on those trips she went on while on the Britannica and see the lions myself.
When we were newlyweds, we lived above Mrs. Milk’s house in Little Italy in Ottawa. Mrs. Milk was about the same height as the Queen; however, her rotund frame had about three times the biomass. She lamented the fact that there was no way of seeing the Queen, who was visiting Ottawa. We had a 1960 Ford truck and offered to take her down to the War Memorial, where the Queen would lay a wreath.
An honour guard of tall soldiers and Beefeaters was a barrier surrounding the Memorial. It took a Herculean effort to hoist Mrs. Milk high enough to see the Queen. She said,” I saw her hat!” We tried to see the Queen again at Dow’s Lake the next day. We were lucky to have arrived at the same time as the former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. We chatted with him, a devoted monarchist who disapproved of replacing the Red Ensign flag with the present maple leaf flag.
The Queen stopped, acknowledging Diefenbaker and saying a few words to Mrs. Milk. Mrs. Milk felt like she had seen the Messiah and fulfilled her dreams.
During the Queen’s last visit to Canada, we saw her on Parliament Hill on Canada Day. The flurry of hundreds of RCMP on horses, the open coach, thousands of people greeting the Queen, and a Parliament not unlike that in London created an atmosphere that supported our Head of State and the monarchy. No Prime Minister could draw such a crowd.
Regardless of whether you are a monarchist or not, The Queen and the crown have had a profound impact on our history. We have a democracy where the Head of State always agrees with the majority in the House of Commons. Unlike the Americans and other republics, all our political actors are in one room. We don’t have a president blocking the will of the majority. I know this is a simplified view; we still have ways to improve our democracy, but I like that a senate or a president can’t hold up the decisions of Parliament.
Unlike most of my friends, I remain a monarchist. The Queen never misstepped in the case of Canadian politics. The mistakes are all our own.
I will miss the Queen. Her sense of always being there gave me a sense of stability and continuity in a rapidly changing world. The sins of a colonial empire are many, yet the British Empire gave the world a common language that has become a second language to many worldwide. I hope we can use it to better communicate with others who differ in opinions from ourselves.
On Monday, we will witness the passing of an era with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, a woman of grace and dignity. I’m thankful for our Queen and her almost iconic presence in the lives of many of us. Undoubtedly, the near future will renew discussions about the ending of the monarchy in Canada. I agree with King Charles. We should keep it as long as it is helpful and useful in our type of government.
I thank God for our Queen and our country. Queen Elizabeth, you will be missed but never forgotten. Thank you for a life of service.