J.D.M. Stewart: ‘An occasion and a country worth celebrating’: The Queen was a proud participant in Canada’s growth

Canada grew into itself as a nation under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Trudeau, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip sit in the Senate Chambers to officially open the session of Parliament, in Ottawa, Oct. 18, 1977. Staff/The Canadian Press.

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, takes her final resting place today at Windsor Castle. This is no ordinary funeral. It honours a woman who was not only this country’s head of state for 70 years, but also who—through both longevity and purpose—was inextricably woven into the fabric of Canadian history. 

A look at the life of Her Majesty is to take an enviable ride in a time machine to some of this great Dominion’s most important moments. Whether it was signing a proclamation to establish a new flag for Canada in 1965, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, or signing the 1982 Constitution Act, Queen Elizabeth II was a steadfast and proud participant in our past—something not lost on our late monarch.

“During my lifetime, I have been a witness to this country for more than half its history since Confederation,” the Queen said on July 1, 2010, in Ottawa. “I have watched with enormous admiration how Canada has grown and matured while remaining true to its history, its distinctive character, and its values.”

She certainly knew Canada’s history, character, and values. At the rededication ceremony for the Vimy National War Memorial in 2007, she stood in front of Walter Allward’s masterpiece and remarked that “In any national story there are moments and places, sometimes far from home, which in retrospect can be seen as fixed points about which the course of history turns, moments which distinguish that nation forever. Those who seek the foundations of Canada’s distinction would do well to begin here at Vimy.”

The Queen was also present during the difficult few years after the 1990 collapse of the Meech Lake accord. On July 1, 1992, the 125th anniversary of Confederation, Canada was in a muddle, but Her Majesty reminded us that “we have an occasion and a country worth celebrating.” 

Noting the ongoing constitutional squabbles, Her Majesty gently warned politicians gathered on Parliament Hill that, “It is, perhaps, worth reminding those striving for constitutional success that the real Constitution is not cast immutably on the printed page but in the hearts of the Canadian people.”

Her relationships with her Canadian prime ministers were superb. From Louis St. Laurent to Justin Trudeau, the Queen impressed them all. “Her Majesty proved to be among the wisest persons I was destined to encounter in public life,” wrote Brian Mulroney in his 2015 memoir. “Considering that she began with Winston Churchill as her prime minister, this should surprise no one. I was able to draw upon this experience when I sought her advice in the years that lay ahead, and I remain grateful to this day for the thoughtful counsel she provided.” 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed those sentiments in the House of Commons last Thursday when he said, “She embraced her role as Queen of Canada, our Queen, our head of state. Her conversations with me were always candid. We talked about anything and everything. She gave her best advice on a range of issues. She was always curious, engaged, and thoughtful. Canadians can be forever grateful for her counsel.”

It is possible that some of the prime minister’s reverence for Her Majesty is due to his father’s admiration for the Queen. It may surprise people to discover that Pierre Trudeau was very fond of her, and the two developed a warm relationship, despite the PM’s antipathy for the British Empire. 

The comfort of the friendship once emboldened the prime minister to tell the monarch over dinner the story of his aunt who said it was okay to pick up a chicken drumstick with one’s hands. “The Queen does it,” his aunt said in defence when someone raised an eyebrow. As John English notes in his Trudeau biography, the two looked at each other and the Queen only replied, “Hmm.” 

“I imagine she wouldn’t do it,” the prime minister surmised later when he told the story. 

There are many lessons to draw from Queen Elizabeth II’s interactions with Canada during the past 70 years. She never lost sight of the limitless possibilities of this country. Above the political fray, she remained positive and consistently reminded us of what we have. 

“As Queen of Canada, I have had the privilege of speaking to you on numerous occasions since my first visit in 1951,” she said from Edmonton 17 years ago. 

“In doing so, I have attempted to convey the admiration and optimism I feel for this land and her diverse people. Your enduring ties to the Crown stand not only for a respect for heritage but also for the principles of peace, order, and good government developed by the Fathers of Confederation who envisaged and worked so diligently to make this country a reality.” 

During Her Majesty’s reign, we have occasionally lost the plot about what Canada stands for. But God bless her for being there to remind us of what we have. Maybe that will be her lasting legacy here. 

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