Elizabeth was our Queen, too
The death of Queen Elizabeth at her Scottish residence of Balmoral Castle on Thursday has plunged the United Kingdom into mourning. Union flags at official buildings were immediately lowered to half-mast. Political foes suddenly spoke as one to extol her 70 unbroken years of service to their country in what was rightly celebrated earlier this year as the longest reign in British history. And a nation in which most citizens could not remember a time before Elizabeth sat on the throne was left pondering what the future — under King Charles, her oldest son — now holds.
But the passing of Elizabeth at the age of 96 was also immediately felt — and deeply so — on this side of the Atlantic by many, many Canadians. She was our Queen, too, and has reminded us of that over and over again ever since ascending the throne and becoming our head of state in 1952. The bond she forged with Canadians was more than ceremonial and more than symbolic; it was visceral, based on mutual respect, admiration and, quite arguably, love. And that was never because of the bejeweled headpiece known as the crown. It was because of the woman who wore it with grace, dignity and even humility.
As an institution in the U.K., Canada and the 14 other Commonwealth realms in which Elizabeth was head of state, the monarchy has had its ups and downs. Perhaps more downs in recent years. The odd behaviour — and misbehaviour — of some members of the Royal Family go a long way to explaining that. But the Queen herself was different and universally perceived as such. Yes, she represented the monarchy. Of course she embodied its highest values, devoted as she was to duty and acting more as a servant than ruler of the people. But on a personal level she was far bigger than this ancient, and in some minds, anachronistic institution.
While one of the most recognizable people in an era of history that is coming to a close, she was timeless. The Queen may have enjoyed fantabulous wealth. She certainly spent much of her time in the rarefied atmosphere of palaces surrounded by splendid objects d’art, with her needs met by an army of servants. But the way she lived each day often seemed as much middle-class as aristocratic. Indeed, during family vacations at Balmoral, Elizabeth was famous for doing the washing up. No wonder her name became synonymous with the term “work ethic.” Her steadfast commitment to making the performance of her job her highest priority could well be her greatest legacy.
Canada gained from that commitment, too. Her reign encompassed the tenures of 12 Canadian prime ministers. She made 22 official visits to Canada before the frailties of age convinced her to leave overseas travel to her children and grandchildren. And each visit offered in its own way a recognition of how Canada was changing, from a post-Second-World-War country still profoundly and uncertainly tied to its colonial past to one that was more confident, diverse and truly master of its own destiny. Canada prizes evolution over revolution. Elizabeth helped us evolve.
While she represented tradition, she was unafraid of change. And it was also her calling to provide something constant in the midst of that change, an anchor in often turbulent waters. She was here in 1959 to open the engineering marvel that is the St. Lawrence Seaway. She returned to celebrate Canada’s Centennial in 1967 and the start of the Montreal Olympics in 1976. But without doubt, Elizabeth’s most memorable moment in the life of this country came in 1982 when she arrived to sign the Constitution Act that introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That stroke of the pen also gave Canada the lasting power to change its founding documents without the consent of the British Parliament. That was true independence.
In coming days there will be many discussions about the future of the Canadian monarchy, and that is appropriate. But this is a day to reflect on the passing of Canada’s Queen. And we mean Canada’s. In her last public statement, which was issued on Wednesday just hours before she died, the Queen proved how much this country meant to her. In that message she expressed her deep sympathy for everyone impacted by last weekend’s stabbing rampage in Saskatchewan, a place she knew from six personal visits. “I mourn with all Canadians at this tragic time,” she said. Now, all Canadians can mourn for their Queen. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)