At the time this article was written
J. William Galbraith was an Information Officer with the federal government
In 1939 King George VI became
the first reigning monarch to visit Canada when he and Queen Elizabeth spent a
month touring the country from one coast to another. The tour succeeded in
every way, including the King's expressed desire to give his "Canadian
people a deeper conception of their unity as a nation". The constitutional
significance of the 1939 Royal Visit is sometimes lost among the mass of
emotional memories associated with the tour. This article looks at the
importance of the visit for Canada's development into a fully sovereign
Memories of the Royal Visit in the
spring of 1939 are cherished because of the unprecedented excitement and
activity created by the first visit to Canada by a reigning monarch. They are
cherished also because of the joyful relief the visit provided from the barrage
of foreboding news from Europe, of Hitler's bellicosity. In the 50 years that
have elapsed, the country has grown into a mature, sovereign nation. The 1939
Royal Visit acted as a catalyst in that growth.
The Governor-General at the time,
Lord Tweedsmuir, was a great admirer of Canada and an active promoter of
developing Canadian pride and patriotism. As John Buchan, the well-known
writer, he was the first non-peer to be appointed Governor-General of Canada.
(He was granted a peerage by King George V shortly after his Vice-regal
appointment in March, 1935). He knew the country well, having been a visitor in
the 1920s and travelling widely since becoming Governor-General. He believed a
Canadian's first loyalty should be to Canada and to Canada's King, not to the
Empire. This opinion confronted the imperialist perspective that pervaded much
of Canadian thinking at the time. The imperialists could not conceive of Canada
as anything but subordinate to the Empire.
The idea of the visit originated
with Tweedsmuir, according to his friends, in a book published after his death
in February, 1940. The official historian of the Royal Visit, Gustave Lanctot,
who was also Dominion Archivist, recorded that the visit was apparently first
suggested in early 1937, soon after the Duke of York acceded to the throne
following Edward VIII's abdication. In the official account of the visit
Lanctot explains that the "idea probably grew out of the knowledge that at
his coming Coronation, George VI was to assume the additional title of King of
Canada". The official invitation was presented by Prime Minister Mackenzie
King while he was in London for the Coronation in May 1937.
The title "King of
Canada" reflected Canada's sovereign status within the British Empire
which derived from the Imperial Conference of 1926 and the 1931 Statute of
Westminster. Therefore, the King would not act for Canada as King of the
"mother country", Great Britain, but as King of Canada. Tweedsmuir's
desire was to put the Statute of Westminster into practice, and that meant
Canadians should "see their King performing royal functions, supported by
his Canadian ministers". It meant having the King, and Queen, in Canada to
perform those functions; the images on the coins and postage stamps resolving
themselves into a real King and Queen.
"No one realized more
profoundly than he did the real meaning of the Statute of Westminster"
according to one of Tweedsmuir's friends, Leonard Brockington. Before
Tweedsmuir could begin to fulfil his wish, he had to secure a positive reply to
the invitation, which in fact remained unanswered for over a year. From the
time of delivery of the official invitation, the project consumed more and more
of Tweedsmuir's thoughts and activities. At the end of June, 1938, after
receiving honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale universities, he sailed to
England for a holiday where he pursued the invitation with "the
persistence of a horse-leech", as his letters to Mackenzie King reveal.
"The important question for me
is, of course, the King's visit to Canada" he wrote to the Prime Minister
in mid-July from Elsfield Manor, the Buchan home near Oxford. The visit could
only be provisionally arranged, however, because of the tense situation in
Europe, which bubbled with diplomatic activity, in reaction to Hitler's designs
for Europe. The events on the continent occupied much of the British
government's attention and was reported on in detail by Tweedsmuir in his
correspondence to Mackenzie King. Even amidst these major concerns, Lord
Tweedsmuir still found the King's Private Secretary, Sir Alexander Hardinge,
"all for it" and, after a preliminary discussion with the King,
Hardinge reported that His Majesty was very sympathetic to the idea of the
visit. Tweedsmuir also found both the British Prime Minister, Neville
Chamberlain, and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, "very strong about
the importance of the thing". Although an answer was not forthcoming for
some time yet, Tweedsmuir was confident that it would work out all right,
"as soon as I got Neville on my side ... for the King was most
Rather than returning later that
summer as scheduled, Lord Tweedsmuir was granted sanction from the King to
extend his stay away from Canada and remained in the United Kingdom to take a
recommended rest cure. His rest at Ruthin Castle in Wales in no way put him off
the trail of pursuing the invitation. He continued his efforts, repeating in
his correspondence to Mackenzie King, how His Majesty was sympathetic to the
idea of the visit. The Canadian Prime Minister also hoped for an affirmative
answer and, if not exhibiting the same enthusiasm, replied to his Governor-General's
optimism that he believed the visit would be "very much all to the
By the time he finally sailed for
Canada from Liverpool on October 1st, Tweedsmuir had secured the long awaited
reply. Upon his return to Canada, and over the coming winter, the planning of
the tour was to consume much of his time and energy. The delicate task for
Tweesmuir, and the Canadian Government, was "how to translate the Statute
of Westminster into the actualities of a tour", according to biographer J.A.
Smith, "since this was the first visit of a reigning monarch to a
Dominion, and precedents were being made."
Amidst all the colour and
excitement that Their Majesties' presence produced, there are certain events
that stand out for their constitutional significance of putting into practice
the 1931 Statute, enhancing the relatively new Canadian sovereignty.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
arrived aboard the Empress of Australia at Wolfe's Cove, Quebec in the morning
of May 17, two days late due to dense fog and ice at sea. Prime Minister
Mackenzie King and Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe, attired in their
gold-braided Windsor uniforms as Privy Councillors, greeted Their Majesties.
From the Cove, they motored along flag-lined streets, thronging with thousands of
the King's Canadian subjects on their way to the historic Citadel, secondary
residence of the Governor-General. There the Prime Minister, in his capacity as
Secretary of State for External Affairs, presented His Majesty with the
recommendation that he approve the appointment of Daniel C. Roper as
"Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of
America." The King signed the document in the top left-hand corner,
executing his first official duty as King of Canada.
Two days later, in the study of
Rideau Hall the Governor-General's and the monarch's official Canadian
residence, Mr. C. Roper personally presented to the King his credentials that
normally would have been delivered to the Governor-General. In the official
history, Gustave Lanctot had set the context for this unprecedented ceremony by
his dramatic description of the significance of the King's and Queen's arrival:
"When Their Majesties walked into their Canadian residence, the Statute of
Westminster had assumed full reality: the King of Canada had come home."
The King's personal acceptance of
Mr. Roper's credentials was but one of the significant events that occurred on
May 19, making it the most important day of the tour in terms of fulfilling
Tweedsmuir's special objective for the visit.
Following a private lunch with the
Governor-General and Lady Tweedsmuir, the King and Queen travelled with a
mounted escort of the Princess Louise Dragoons to Parliament Hill where the
political world of Canada waited for the "greatest royal function of
all" to occur -- the granting of royal assent. Nine bills were to be
presented to His Majesty for assent.
Lanctot's description of the
ceremony captures the mood and significance of that event: "...slowly,
with a solemnity born of the dignity of centuries-old pageantry, mingling
historic and present significance, the procession came to the foot of the
throne... thereupon, (with everyone seated) the Clerk of the Senate ... bowed
to the King, and holding the Bills aloft in sight of the King said in both
English and French: `His Majesty doth assent to these Bills' and His Majesty
made an inclination of the head indicating assent." One local newspaper
described the scene as "breath-taking in its grandeur." "No
ceremony could more completely symbolize the free and equal association of the
nations of the Commonwealth" stated the King in his speech following the
granting of assent.
Lady Tweedsmuir was in attendance
at this historic ceremony but the Governor-General was not. The official
history of the tour makes a special point of noting the absence. He waited at
Government House, determined that the visit should be "Canada's show"
and that he should remain in the background during the trip. His view was that
while the King of Canada was present, "I cease to exist as Viceroy, and
retain only a shadowy legal existence as Governor-General in Council."
Even though he remained the King's representative there was obviously n need
for him to be present while the King was there. The "niceties of the situation
... suggested Lord Tweedsmuir's absence" according to the Ottawa Evening
Citizen. The Governor-General, in large part the author of this
precedent-setting trip, thus did not witness one of the most significant events
in Canadian constitutional history that he had helped plan.
Their Majesties left the Parliament
Buildings accompanied by the cheers of thousands of people waiting outside.
They returned to Government House for a brief rest and a "quiet tea".
Later that afternoon, the Prime
Minister presented to His Majesty two treaties for ratification, the
implementing legislation to which he had given assent only a few hours earlier.
Both were agreements with the United States: a Trade Agreement signed in
Washington the previous November; and a Convention regarding the boundary
waters of the Rainy Lake district, in northwestern Ontario, signed the previous
September in Ottawa. In order for this event to take place, however, the
Canadian Parliament had had to pass special legislation.
In a confidential letter to his
Minister of Justice, Ernest Lapointe, dated December 10, 1938, Mackenzie King
had set out certain issues he thought advisable for the law officers of the
Crown to consider, "in view of the intended visit of His Majesty to
Canada, next summer." The most important of the issues he had pondered was
"the constitutional position of His Majesty, while in the Dominion, with
respect to all matters of State."
The law officers' response, given in
a detailed letter signed by Lapointe and dated December 16, stated that the
King "can do any act in respect of the Executive Government of Canada that
is now done by the Governor-General, other than acts prescribed by statute to
be performed by the latter as persona designata." However, there were some
royal functions that had not yet been delegated to the Governor-General by his
Commission and Instructions and that were normally performed by the King in
England. These included the issue of full powers and instruments of
ratification, exequaturs to Consuls and the issue of letters of credence. If
the King were called upon to perform an act during the visit such as the
issuing of an instrument of ratification for a Canadian treaty, legal
difficulties could arise concerning the use of the Great Seal of Canada, symbol
of the Sovereign's authority imprinted onto documents such as treaties.
If the King ratified a Canadian
treaty, the Great Seal of the United Kingdom would normally be used. However,
if the King, as King of Canada, were to ratify a treaty under the Great Seal of
Canada, the Justice Department opinion indicated that "it would seem to be
necessary to secure the enactment by the Parliament of Canada of appropriate
legislation to authorize (its) use ... for such purposes." Lapointe
proffered the opinion that the Parliament of Canada would be competent to pass
such legislation and thereby replace the requirement for the Great Seal of the
United Kingdom on such documents. His opinion was accepted and Parliament
passed The Seals Act of 1939.
That Act allowed the King to ratify
these international agreements under the Great Seal of Canada instead of the
Great Seal of the United Kingdom. It was another step in this country's
political maturity; at once, an event symbolizing Canadian independence and
continuing loyalty to the Crown. In the words of the tour's official historian,
"a new official procedure was established, which asserted and recognized
Canada's equality of political status within the British Empire."
This legislation, a direct result
of the prospect of the King's visit, added to the sovereign status already
granted to Canada by the Statute of Westminster. It allowed Canada to put her
stamp, as it were, on her international relations. It also allowed greater
scope in planning for the visit and therefore in translating the Statute of
Westminster into reality.
These three special ceremonies that
day contributed to a growing sense of Canadianism. They breathed life into the
Statute of Westminster. But they were not the only events of the visit to make
such a contribution.
At a solemn ceremony two days
later, May 21, Canadian national feeling received another boost, if in a more
subtle fashion to those grand constitutional occasions of the 19th. King George
VI unveiled "The Response", the national memorial, in Ottawa, to
Canada's Great War dead. The drive along the crowd-lined streets from Rideau
Hall to the memorial site was typical of Canadians' response to the presence of
their King and Queen. At the memorial, after "God Save The King", the
bands played "O'Canada" and His Majesty remained at the salute. He
was following the precedent set by Edward VIII at the Vimy Memorial in July,
1936. The tour's official historian commented that this royal recognition
virtually raised the status of "O'Canada" to that of the Dominion's
national song; although it was not until the country's centennial year, 1967,
that it was approved by Parliament as the National Anthem, and not officially
adopted until passage of the National Anthem Act in 1980. Their Majesties
remained longer than planned among the flood of people, talking with war
veterans and endearing themselves more than ever to their Canadian subjects.
They then returned to their official Canadian residence to prepare for their
departure from Ottawa.
When the King and Queen once again
boarded the specially prepared, blue, silver and gold royal train that would be
their home for the next several weeks, they left an excited city. The most
significant royal functions had been executed personally by the King of Canada,
leaving their legacy to a growing, sovereign nation. The Prime Minister
continued to accompany His Majesty as his senior Canadian adviser. The
Governor-General left to go fishing in Quebec, only being informed of the
tour's progress by telegrams sent to him by the Prime Minister. It was as he
wished, a direct relationship blossoming between the King of Canada and his
When the royal train pulled into
Toronto on May 22, the Prime Minister presented to the King and Queen the
Lieutenant-Governor and Mrs. Matthews, the Premier and Mrs. Hepburn, and the
Mayor of Toronto and Mrs. Day. It was a scene often to be repeated during the
tour. However, had not Mackenzie King turned his ever watchful political eye to
certain matters concerning the Lieutenant-Governors, at about the same time
that he had been pondering the constitutional ramifications of the Sovereign's
visit, the receptions may well have been different. Protocol and the 1923
Revised Table of Precedence presented a problem. Though it may not have had the
constitutional import of the Great Seal issue, it was nonetheless of concern to
Mackenzie King the politician and did reflect the federal character of the
The Table of Precedence lists the highest
positions in the government in order of rank or authority. The Table had been
revised in 1923 and published in the Canada Gazette of December 22 that year.
This revision moved the Lieutenant-Governors up to second place, after the
Governor-General, replacing the "Senior Officer Commanding His Majesty's
Troops within the Dominion." That change was made on the recommendation of
the Prime Minister -- Mackenzie King, who was then in his third year as head of
Government. As the Table existed in 1938 then, the Prime Minister followed the
Correspondence between the Prime
Minister's office, the Governor-General's Secretary and the Under-Secretary of
State for External Affairs toward the end of 1938, recorded the issue and
decision of an amendment to the 1923 Revised Table of Precedence. "One of
the reasons why the amendment is considered desirable at the present
time", explained the Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, Dr.
O.D. Skelton, in a note to the Governor-General's Secretary, Shuldham Redfern,
"is, that in connection with the visit of Their Majesties to Canada, it is
desired to emphasize the national aspect of the occasion."
The Secretary of State, Fernand
Rinfret, was working on a general revision to the Revised Table of 1923.
Whether this particular amendment was proposed separately or as part of the
general revision made little difference, according to Redfern, since the
Governor-General would "seek His Majesty's approval without delay".
When the proposal was being prepared
for submission to His Majesty, Skelton concurred with Redfern's suggestion that
the reason cited for the amendment should be made "in the first instance,
on its general merits, but to follow this up with an intimation of the special
desirability in view of the visit of Their Majesties." In the first week
of December, the Governor-General approved the recommendation that the
amendment go forward to the King. His Secretary then sent a coded telegram to
the King's Private Secretary, submitting the Canadian Government's request that
His Majesty approve the amendments to the 1923 Revised Table of Precedence. The
official view given in the telegram was that the objective of the amendment was
to "place Prime Minister more in accordance with his national position and
ahead of Lieutenant-Governors who are appointed by the Government of Canada and
whose status is provincial." It may well be that Mackenzie King felt that
the Lieutenant-Governors, and hence the provinces, had been finally put in
their place. As with the Great Seal issue, the prospect of the King of Canada's
visit resulted in action being taken by the Government, this time to reflect
more accurately the desired constitutional evolution of the nation.
By the time Their Majesties left
the shores of Nova Scotia at the end of their tour on June 15, there was no
doubt that Canadian sovereignty and national feeling had been given a great
boost. This memorable and precedent-setting visit not only allowed Canadians to
see their King performing royal functions in respect of the Government of
Canada, t was also felt beyond Canada's borders, especially in England, where
the visit, in all its constitutional meaning, had given Canada a heightened
status not conceded to her up to that time. Some of these developments may have
occurred at some future point in time but the 1939 Royal Visit was the catalyst
in making them happen sooner, and in a very dramatic, real way, in the person
of His Majesty King George VI. The heightened sense of pride and patriotism
raised by the visit was also a fortuitous and timely gift for a nation that
would be at war only three months later.
The memories of the 1939 Royal
Visit, the excitement, the colour, the relief from gloomy news in Europe,
"will endure for generations until (that day's) youngest child dies a
centenarian" proclaims one beautiful souvenir publication. The legacy of
that first visit to Canada by her reigning monarch will endure even longer. We
celebrate 1867 as the year of our country's birth. But if we think of a State
as a sovereign entity, acting independently in the world, then 1931 and the
Statute of Westminster may be a more realistic date to celebrate, and the
King's visit of 1939 helped to make the 1931 Statute a reality.