By the time 1939 rolled around, 72 years had gone by since Canada had become a country. Amazingly, despite seven decades passing, it was not until 1939 that a reigning Canadian monarch set foot in the country. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived at the shores of Canada, it would be an event unlike any other in Canadian history to that point.
While there have been many Royal Tours since then, it could be argued this was the most successful Royal Tour in Canadian history.
Canada had a strong history with King George VI, going back to when he was the Duke of York. In 1930, he was offered the role of Governor General of Canada, but the British government decided against this as Canada was becoming more autonomous from the United Kingdom, especially as the Statute of Westminster was about to be enacted that would greatly reduce the power of the Governor General in the country.
On Jan. 20, 1936, King George V died and was succeeded by King Edward VIII but just under a year later, Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, this then made the Duke of York the new King.
There was talk of the couple coming in the fall of 1938 but that would fall through as the Royal Couple needed a holiday following the death of the Queen’s mother. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would write in his diary on May 29, 1938, quote:
“Personally, I should like to be the one to receive the King and Queen while in officer as Prime Minister.”
It then came down to Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor General of Canada at the time, to extend an invitation to the Royal Couple to tour Canada after their planned tour of India in 1938 was cancelled.
On Sept. 24, 1938, after meeting with King George VI, Lord Tweedsmuir was able to get a confirmation that the King and Queen would indeed be touring Canada. At first, the plan was for the King to come to Ottawa and then return home, but the King then said he wanted to visit the provincial capitals. From there, the itinerary just grew.
The Calgary Herald would report quote:
“The high and unprecedented event of the coming visit to Canada of the King and Queen will give the government a great deal to think about and arrange for the coming months. Among the public at large, it will create the thrill of an expectant emotion. Such a thing has never happened before.”
War was on the horizon, but that was not going to stop the journey, the itinerary of which was published in newspapers across Canada on Jan. 4, 1939. Originally, the Royal Couple were going to come to Canada in a battleship, but the Second World War looming would change that. Queen Elizabeth would say later quote:
“We were going in a battleship and had to change to a liner in case the warship was wanted. It was as close as that.”
Not everyone was happy about the royal visit though, especially with Canada in the throes of the Great Depression. One man was quoted as saying quote:
“I am not disloyal, but I don’t think the city should pay when our people haven’t bread.”
In Vancouver, city councilor Helena Guteridge would state that the city of Vancouver should not be called upon to bear costs from celebrations of the planned visit. She would say quote:
“I am not retracing anything. I feel those who will reap a profit from the celebrations should bear the cost, not the city.”
On May 1, 1939, the Canadian Royal Train would do a round trip test with six of the Royal Train Cars, pulled by Locomotive 6028, from Montreal to Brockville, Ontario. On May 9, another test run was conducted with 12 cars and Locomotive CP 2850 taking over. The 12 cars would include room for 20 domestic servants for the Royal Couple, Prime Minister King, Lady Katherine Seymour, the Earl of Eldon, the Earl of Airlie, as well as several journalists.
The couple would arrive in Canada on May 17, 1939, and they would spend the next month touring the country by train. The couple would travel in a blue and silver royal train, which made it instantly recognizable to the many Canadians who waited along the tracks to see the train go by.
In order to cover the historic tour, CBC radio had a staff of 100 people covering the events on the tour. On the train with the Royal Couple were 80 international journalists as well.
The tour officially began in Quebec City when the Royal Couple arrived on the Empress of Australia, escorted by two destroyers and two cruisers.
Prime Minister King would go aboard the Empress of Australia to meet with the King and Queen before the disembarked onto Canadian soil for the first visit by a reigning monarch. He would write in his diary, quote:
“The King was standing at the open door of one of the saloons. The Queen was beside him. His Majesty came forward and put out his hand to shake hands and expressed a word of greeting to the effect that he was glad to see me again. I said Welcome Sire to Your Majesty’s Realm of Canada. The Queen came forward and shook hands and spoke of being pleased to be here. I said to her Welcome ma’am to Canada.”
Prime Minister King would say in a speech, quote:
“Today as never before the throne has become the centre of our national life.”
The Royal Couple, the prime minister and others then drove to the Legislative buildings. King would write quote:
“The streets were lined with people who were quite enthusiastic. Great crowds.”
The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“Roar like mighty thunder greets their majesties as they set foot ashore.”
A total of 35,000 schoolchildren would cheer for the King and Queen during their visit.
In his speech to the crowd, King would say quote:
“May it please Your Majesty. On behalf of the Canadian people, I respectfully extend to Your Majesty and to Her Majesty the Queen, a Royal welcome to your Dominion of Canada.”
A large luncheon was then held for the Royal Couple, which was enjoyed by everyone according to King, who wrote quote:
“The King was in very good form. Laughed a good deal. He had a wholesome, almost boyish way, seeing humour in things. I spoke to him of the main incidents in the history of Quebec. Spoke of the Privy Council being assembled at the gathering. He noticed Howard Ferguson in the audience and spoke of him and of the time he was in London.”
After more receptions, with roads lined with cheering people, a long day came to an end for the Royal Couple and King. Prime Minister King would write at the end of his diary entry for that day, one of the longest of all his entries, quote:
The couple would make two trips across Canada, visiting nearly every major city along the way. At every stop of the tour, Prime Minister King was there to welcome them.
The next day, it was on to Montreal where the couple was greeted enthusiastically. King would write at the end of the day quote:
“I shall never forget today, however scenes of rejoicing, etc.”
While in Montreal, two Boer War veterans of Scottish heritage would ask the Queen, hoping to settle an argument, quote:
“Are you Scots, or are you English”
The Queen responded quote:
“Since I have landed in Quebec, I think we can say that I am Canadian.”
Queen Elizabeth would write to her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, quote:
“The French people in Quebec and Ottawa are wonderfully loyal and in Montreal there must have been two million people, all very enthusiastic and glad to have an excuse to show their feelings.”
A 21-gun salute greeted the couple when they arrived in Montreal and the Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“A colorful array greeted their Majesties as they stepped from the train to a carpeted pathway leading from their private train. The King and Queen were greeted by spontaneous cheering and shouting, flag waving and singing.”
During their stops in Quebec, the King and Queen gave their speeches in both French and English.
The next big stop on the tour was Ottawa, where 200,000 people lined a 10-kilometre route to see the Royal Couple. The Couple would stay in the capital for three days.
The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“They cheered loud and lustily for the three minutes the train took to do the remaining 500 yards and when Their Majesties alighted, they started cheering all over again.”
One woman, upon seeing the Queen, screamed, “she looks like a little girl”
There were several important milestones during the visit of the Royal Couple as well. King George VI gave royal assent directly to nine bills. A total of 800 people crammed into the Senate Chambers to witness the historic event. No royal assent had been granted by the sovereign in person since 1854, so this was a major event. King George VI became the first Canadian monarch to directly meet with Parliament. He and Queen Elizabeth also dedicated the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and they put down the cornerstone for the new Supreme Court of Canada building that was under construction.
The Ottawa Journal wrote quote:
“Joined by hundreds of visitors who were coming in a steady stream by railways and highways from near and far, citizens of the Capital today waited with restive eagerness for the arrival of Their Majesties the King and Queen.”
There were some complaints from civil servants in Ottawa that the vantage points in government buildings to see the Royal Couple were occupied by high officials, their families and friends, while the civil servants who typically occupied those areas through long years of service in the buildings were forced to go elsewhere. Finance Minister Dunning would say that the government knew nothing of this, and that each department had authority over its own offices.
Today, what is called the Royal Walkabout is customary in Canada. It involves a member of the Royal Family visiting with crowds of citizens on tours. That tradition got its start in 1939 when on May 21, when the Royal Couple dedicated the National War Memorial, they chose not to immediately go back to their motorcade and instead spent the next half hour mingling with 25,000 First World War veterans. Those veterans were part of the crowd of 100,000 people who had come out to see the couple.
The CBC would report quote:
“One of these old veterans is patting the King most affectionately on the shoulder. Her Majesty is chattering with one of the veterans of the amputations association. The Queen is speaking to a blind veteran now. The King is shaking hands.”
King would write in his diary quote:
“The crowd began to narrow in. The King gave instructions to move the mounted escort along, down the street, so he could meet a larger number, and caused the crowds to begin to narrow in. There was a moment when I was afraid some of the party might be crushed.”
The Royal Tour then moved on to Toronto on May 22, where they attended the King’s Plate horse race and dedicated Coronation Park. The Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, which was not quite completed, was also dedicated.
It was estimated one million people saw the couple in Toronto, as they lined the streets waiting for a glimpse of the King and Queen. King George VI would say in a speech quote:
“The people of Ontario, the central province of the Dominion, have by their great qualities made a very significant contribution to the material progress of Canada and an equally important one to the formation of its national character.”
King would write in his diary quote:
“As we approached the City Hall, the crowds became all that they could possibly be in those areas. It was a joy as I stood there with the King and Queen to recall that my grandfather had been the first Mayor of Toronto and had designed its coat of arms.”
The couple then began the long journey out to Western Canada, to a region of the country that had dealt with the worst of The Great Depression.
On May 23, as the Royal Tour reached White River, Ontario, George Freethy was made mayor of the community only 40 minutes previously. He was chosen by other members of the committee in charge of the visit to White River to greet the King and Queen, before he went back to his normal job as a superintendent. He would say after meeting the King and Queen, quote:
“Her smile was so dazzling I forgot everything after that.”
At Fort William, the couple would meet with Indigenous leaders and were shown a traditional Indigenous dance. The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“The Royal Couple seemed to enjoy the experience thoroughly.”
The couple would visit Winnipeg on May 24, arriving on the King’s official birthday. A crowd of 100,000 people greeted the Royal Couple and the King requested that the convertible roof on the limousine be opened, despite record rainfall, so as many people as possible could see the couple.
Macleans would write quote:
While staying at Government House in Winnipeg, King George VI made his longest-ever radio broadcast to the British Empire. The table that he sat at to read the address remains in the hotel. Originally, the King had wanted to do the address outdoors, before the people of Winnipeg as he did not like speaking in a room by himself.
The King would say in his speech quote:
“Winnipeg, the city from which I am speaking, was no more than a fort and hamlet upon the open prairie when Queen Victoria began to rule. Today, it is a monument to the faith and energy which have created and upheld the worldwide Empire of our time.”
King would say of the speech, quote:
“I thought the broadcast was too long and not as felicitously worded as it might have been.”
The train then moved on to Brandon, where Prime Minister King would describe the arrival as quote:
“Wonderful cheering. A long bridge overhead crowded with people. The hour, 11 at night, the finest scene on the entire trip.”
Even Queen Elizabeth would state the reception was the biggest thrill of the tour to that point.
In Brandon, Manitoba, the population of the city, normally 17,000, swelled to 50,000 as people from around the area came out to see the Royal Couple. The Regina Leader-Post stated quote:
“School children, farmers, babies in arms and grandmothers from near and far swelled the city’s population, massed along the station platform and crowding along the railway tracks for half a mile.”
Some journeyed from as far away as 300 kilometres to glimpse the Royal Couple.
On May 25, the Royal Couple travelled into Saskatchewan. The first stop was Broadview, where an immense crowd greeted the Royal Couple. After Broadview, the train stopped so the Royal Couple could exercise. King would write quote:
“They walked down the track, coming back, were met by their suite. The Queen set up a foot race and brought them all in puffing pretty hard. She is full of life and charm.”
The train then reached Regina where it was unfortunately raining. Once again, King George VI asked that the top of the car be taken down.
In Regina, two Inuit men had been flown in from the Arctic after travelling 300 kilometres on foot to meet a pontooned plane. The plane would land on Wascana Lake directly in front of the Legislative Building, and the Royal Couple would speak to the two men for a few moments.
The Regina Leader-Post would state of the city’s efforts to welcome the couple quote:
“Regina’s street decorations were unsurpassed by any previous event celebrated in the city’s history. Miles of bunting in red, white and blue and in the royal colours of purple and gold, together with thousands of flags and colored lights provided a colorful setting for the celebration of Their Majesties.”
Saskatchewan was the hardest hit by the Depression in Canada, but it didn’t stop many from still celebrating. The Leader-Post would go on to state quote:
“A poor transient, his clothes ragged and his face dirty, walked proudly on South Railway Street with a large flag in his crumpled hat. A large shiny car moved slowly along Albert Street, its driver obviously in difficulty with the vast array of flags carried on the car front. Information bureaus at the city’s outskirts reported one car had passed into the city bearing Hawaii license plates. Another car intended to take in the royal visit in Regina came 600 miles from north of Prince Albert.”
After visiting the Legislative Building, and visiting with dignitaries, the couple moved on to Moose Jaw. At the station, they found a young boy who was laying on a cot. He had accidently ingested poison and was not expected to live beyond a few days. He had hoped to see the King and Queen before he died.
King wrote quote:
“We all went to the cot together. The little lad first smiled very pleasantly at me and then later at the King and Queen. Waved his little flag. It was quite a touching affair.”
The day after the stop in Regina and Moose Jaw, the tour was on its way to Calgary. King George VI would ask Prime Minister King what should be expected for crowds or ceremonial military welcome in Calgary. King stated that Calgary was only a small place of little consequence. Upon arrival, the King saw there was a guard of honour waiting on the platform and he realized he should be in uniform. It was too late to change, and according to those around the King, he was angry with Prime Minister King for the rest of the day.
It was also the first time that King was disappointed with the reception. He wrote quote:
“I was disappointed in the numbers of people on the streets. There were not the crowds I had expected. Many of the seats that had been constructed were empty.”
Despite his disappointment, a crowd of 135,000 did come to see the King and Queen. The Edmonton Journal reported quote:
In Calgary, the King and Queen would meet with local Indigenous leaders, who wore traditional clothing to meet the Royal Couple.
On May 27, the Royal Couple were in Banff where a famous photo of them with Prime Minister King at the Banff Springs Hotel was taken. This would provide the Royal Couple with some time for rest after the long trip across the country. The Regina Leader-Post’s Francis Stevens would report quote:
“Right now, in this mountain retreat surrounded by whispering fir trees, looking out on one of the most publicized views on Earth, I still hear the cheers of thousands ringing in my ears.”
One man would tell Stevens upon seeing the King and Queen quote:
“They were walking arm-in-arm. The Queen looked happy and carefree, and you could almost say she was skipping along like a girl. When I saw them coming, I stood at attention to let them pass and both of them said good evening to me.”
The King and Queen had actually left for their walk in the mountains without notifying any of their staff of their intention. They would return half an hour later to dine alone together in their suite.
The press that was along on the tour also stated they would not follow the Royal Couple on their walks in the mountains, to give them a break from the constant glare of the cameras and people.
At one point, one of the Mounties assigned to guard at the hotel began to follow the King and Queen on their walk and the King politely told him that they wished to be alone.
On May 29, the couple reached Vancouver. They would drive over the newly completed Lions Gate Bridge, and the King and Queen would be the first registered guests at the new and luxurious Vancouver Hotel, owned jointly by Canadian National Railways and Canadian Pacific.
The following day, the couple toured smaller communities as well as Victoria. Prime Minister King would write in his diary quote:
“The day in Vancouver was one of the finest on the entire tour. Without question, Victoria has left the most pleasing of all impressions. It was a crowning gem.”
While in Victoria, the King would make a speech that was broadcast across Canada. He would state, with war looming on the horizon, quote:
“Someday, the people of the world will come to realize that prosperity lies in co-operation and not in conflict.”
He would then add, quote:
“To travel through so grand a country is a privilege to any man but to travel through it to the accompaniment of such an overwhelming testimony of good will, from young and old alike, is an experience that has, I believe, been granted to too few people. We are deeply grateful for it; we shall never forget it.”
At this point, the Royal Couple began the trip back to eastern Canada. The couple would have another rest at Jasper, before once again moving on east.
Upon reaching Edmonton on June 2, the population of the city went from 90,000 to 200,000 as people from the outlying areas came to the capital to see the couple. Along Kingsway Avenue in Edmonton, specially constructed grandstands were made so 70,000 people could see the couple pass by.
King would write in his diary quote:
“Tremendous crowds at and around the station. Mounted escort part of the way. We turned to the left along one of the large avenues, and there saw I think the finest sight in the whole trip thus far. Tiers of seats had been erected on either side, very wide avenue for a distance of two miles.”
With the King and Queen staying at the Hotel Macdonald, police had to keep crowds away from the entrance but that didn’t stop one 17-year-old boy from climbing up the building and looking in the window where he saw the King and Queen in the Lt. Governor’s suite, where they were having tea.
King would add later in his recollection quote:
“Edmonton better than Calgary. I think one of the great surprises of the trip.”
The next day, the couple then made their way to Wainwright, at the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan where there was another huge reception.
The King and Queen would also take a walk around Unity, and then visited Saskatoon where 150,000 came out to see the couple and hundreds of teenage girls dressed in red, white and blue and assembled in the image of the Royal Union Flag as they sang God Save the King.
The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix would write quote:
For two days before the arrival of the King and Queen, crowds were coming into the city for the big event. There were an estimated 30,000 school children who had also come to the city for the arrival.
The Star-Phoenix reported quote:
“It was a colorful scene which greeted Their Majesties as they stepped from the train. To the left of the Royal Couple was the military guard of honour furnished by the Saskatoon Light Infantry. Behind them were stands holding more than 800 high school girls wearing red, white or blue berets and carrying red, white or blue kerchiefs. To their right was a troop of Girl Guides and more stands with nearly 1,500 pioneers, visiting officials, committee chairman and honored guests.”
The Royal Couple later arrived in Melville at 10 p.m. and 60,000 people were waiting for them. The community typically had a population of only 3,000. With such a huge influx of people into the community, the Royal Couple decided to spend several hours in Melville, rather than the originally planned 10 minutes. In the crowd were 600 First World War veterans, 10,000 school children and a 200-piece orchestra.
R.J. Carnegie would say of the stop in Melville, quote:
“Never throughout the tour did I see such unbridled enthusiasm as then.”
The community is in the Central Time Zone but for the Royal Visit and to keep everything on the same day, the community temporarily switched to the Mountain Time Zone.
King would write quote:
“We got the surprise of our lives when we reached Melville. There was the largest outdoor massing of children and others that I have seen at any of the stations. I think the King and Queen were almost taken off their feet by surprise as they went to the platform.”
With its population swelling to 60,000 people, Melville became the largest city in Saskatchewan for a few hours.
From June 7 to 12, the Royal Couple visited the United States with Prime Minister King, who was the sole minister in attendance with the King to reinforce that King George VI’s visit to the United States was a state visit from Canada.
King would write in his diary quote:
“I told the Queen that I felt somewhat embarrassed about taking in the entire trip with Their Majesties, that it looked like pushing myself into the fore, yet I felt that unless some evidence of Dominion precedence existed, one of the main purposes of the trip would be gone.”
The Queen would respond quote:
“The King and I felt right along that you should come with us.”
The Royal Couple returned to Canada on June 12, visiting the Maritimes. During a visit to Doaktown, New Brunswick, they had tea at a local teahouse and upon finishing their tea, went to the kitchen and surprised the owners.
The couple then went to Newfoundland, then not a part of Canada, visiting St. John’s where the population grew from 50,000 to 100,000 for the visit. When the couple left the city, residents built a huge bonfire on Signal Hill to say goodbye.
The Royal Couple then visited Prince Edward Island, followed by the last stop on their tour, Halifax, on June 15.
After a luncheon, the Royal Couple boarded the RMS Empress of Britain to return to the United Kingdom. Thus ended their 13,481-kilometre journey around Canada. During the tour, it was estimated eight million Canadians saw the King and Queen. At the time, Canada had a population of 11 million.
Maclean’s Magazine would write quote:
Prior to leaving, a Royal Prerogative was given in which any prisoner in Canada serving a sentence of three months or more for an offense against the criminal code, would have their sentences reduced.
P. Duff, Chief Justice of Canada and acting Governor General would state quote:
“It has been the traditional practice of sovereigns to mark celebrations of this great importance by an act of grace or mercy.”
The proclamation would extend to at least 4,000 prisoners in federal penitentiaries who had sentences of two years or more. Provincial and county jails, reformatories and farms would not benefit from the proclamation.
The tour also seemed to reinvigorate King, with journalists stating that his health seemed to improve, and his spirits rose despite the schedule.
Prime Minister King would write after the King and Queen left, stating quote:
“The Empress of Britain ran past one end of the harbour where she was towed around, then came back the opposite way to pull out to sea. She was accompanied by British warships and our own destroyers. The Bluenose and other vessels also in the harbour as a sort of escort. The King and Queen were at the top of the ship and kept waving. No farewell could have been finer.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, ThemeTrains.com, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Macleans, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Winnipeg Tribune,