Royal Birthday Salute
Perhaps one of the greatest secrets in Canadian public life is the fact that, just as in Britain (a Saturday in June), New Zealand (the first Monday in June), Australia (the second Monday in June in most states, a Monday in September or October in Western Australia), and some other Commonwealth countries, the Queen’s Official Birthday is observed in Canada. The problem is that it is fixed by proclamation on the Monday before the 25th of May, the same day as the statutory observance of Victoria Day. This results in its being entirely overwhelmed and forgotten, because neither the Government of Canada nor the media will tell the people that this day is both Victoria Day and the Queen’s Birthday.
Before they were abolished in 1968 by the Trudeau government, artillery salutes used to be fired in Ottawa, the provincial capitals, and Montreal and Vancouver not only on the Queen’s Official Birthday, but also on the Queen’s Accession Day (6 February), the Queen’s actual birthday (21 April), the Queen’s Coronation Day (2 June), the Birthday of the Duke of Edinburgh (10 June), and (in those days) the Birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (4 August). After their abolition, a salute was left only on 1 July, while a new salute was introduced from American practice on Remembrance Day, 11 November (only several years later were the first two shots of this salute separated by two minutes in order to restore the Commonwealth practice, initiated by King George V on an Australian suggestion, of two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. on that day). Significantly however, while Montreal and Vancouver continued to be saluting bases on 1 July and 11 November, they were omitted for the Queen’s Official Birthday, when an artillery salute is now fired only in Ottawa and the provincial capitals.
All this is by way of background to the fact that, for the first time in many years, I found myself this last 20 May back in Toronto on the Queen’s Official Birthday. So, as I had done on many occasions in the past (except when involved with the Queen’s Birthday Parade, which used to take place in Toronto on this day), I betook myself to Queen’s Park to witness the firing of the artillery salute.
As preparations were being made in the park by the officers and men of the local artillery regiment for the firing of the salute, I asked, as I have done in the past on this occasion, some representative serving men (they were so young that I think they were probably cadets) what they thought the reason they were firing the salute was. I got the usual answer, “Victoria Day”. So then I asked, “But why would you fire a salute in honour of Queen Victoria?” One young lad replied, “Because she gave us our freedom”! Well, if he wanted to think that, who was I to attempt to give him a more sophisticated understanding of Canadian history? Indeed, after the salute had been fired, I heard an officer explaining to a bystander that, in addition to Victoria Day, salutes were also fired on Canada Day and Remembrance Day. That gave me the opportunity to mention to him that this day’s salute was not for Victoria Day but for the Queen’s Birthday. He had to admit that this was so, but that showed, as I have also learned in the past, that even officers are hazy about the reason they are firing a salute on this day.
But the truly impressive thing to report about this occasion is an innovation which had never taken place before in my experience of attending the salute in Toronto. Sitting on a grassy knoll was a brass quartet from the artillery regiment, who, before the firing began, played a selection of music by (Gilbert and) Sullivan, Bizet (and other composers whom I could not identify). But then, at the instant of the first shot of the salute they began to play “God Save the Queen”, which concluded on the third shot. They then continued with “O Canada”. Although they ended with the vulgar rise to the tonic an octave above what Calixa Lavallée wrote, one of the later shots of the salute at least muffled that! During the playing of the two anthems, the officers present, not otherwise involved with the technicalities of actually making the guns go off, came to the salute. Hearing “God Save the Queen” in that circumstance was really very moving. Even if the citizens of Toronto who heard the shots did not know why and the soldiers firing the salute were somewhat uncertain about what they were doing, this was a truly memorable observance of the Queen’s Birthday!
— Richard Toporoski