Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

The 1939 Canadian Tour of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

by Claudia Willetts

According to the first authorised biographical study of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Her Support to the Throne During Four Reigns, by Dorothy Laird the Queen Mother later recalled, “This wonderful tour…has given me memories that the passage of time will never dim.” The feeling was reciprocal, since those who saw the King and Queen were equally moved.

Before the tour began, it was difficult to predict the reactions of the Canadian public, because the previous king, King Edward VIII had been so popular in Canada, but the interest and understanding of King George VI, combined with the calm and grace of Queen Elizabeth, aroused tremendous loyalty and excitement.

Originally the Dominion government had expected that the King and Queen might only visit the capital, but the King himself proposed that the trip be extended to include every province of Canada. The success of the tour, which covered a lengthy 4,281 miles by rail, and lasted over a month, owed much to the care with which it had been planned by the Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir, a difficult task because of the distance to be covered, the limited planning time, and the lack of precedents. Certain rules had to be laid down and kept. Since the people of Canada as a whole were considered to be their hosts, the King and Queen accepted no gifts or invitations from individuals. Nonetheless, for the first time, spontaneous contacts and informal conversations with their Canadian subjects by the King and Queen were sparked by the warmth of the visit. Across the vast expanses of the country, large assemblies of their subjects travelled long distances and waited for a mere glimpse. At some small stops there were thousands of people, and hardly any town at all.

Major Gustave Lanctot, who as Dominion Archivist and Deputy Minister, was the Royal Tour Historian, wrote an official report of the tour, The Royal Tour of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada and the United States of America 1939. Before his full account could be published, September 1939 and the onset of World War II intervened. The book languished until 1963 when, with the help of the E.P. Taylor Foundation, the completed book was at last presented to the Queen Mother in July 1964.

Royal Spring: The Royal Tour of 1939 and the Queen Mother in Canada by Arthur Bousfield and Garry Toffoli, gives a flavour of the warm welcome offered the King and Queen in Montreal, Winnipeg and Calgary. In Montreal, thousands of people lined the streets, 64,000 school children enthusiastically greeted their sovereigns, and the royal couple had to leave the civic dinner to acknowledge the cheers of a hundred thousand subjects. In Winnipeg, the King delivered his broadcast to the Empire, in which he urged young people to “Hold fast to all that is just and good…”. Calgary offered colourful greetings from a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, who showed the King a large gilt-framed picture of Queen Victoria and medals presented to their grandfathers from this Queen.

The farewell to Canada was very emotional, as re-counted by Tom MacDonnell in Daylight Upon Magic: The Royal Tour of Canada, 1939. Following numerous leave-takings, the royal couple boarded the Empress of Britain and appeared on the bridge, where they re-appeared repeatedly, drawn back by fervent shouting from the dock. The last glimpse Prime Minister Mackenzie King had of them was, “the King standing at the side of the Queen and the Queen with hand upraised, the light shining on it.” Far out to sea the tiny figures of the King and Queen could be discerned waving back.