Were Torontonians feeling indifferent toward Queen Elizabeth II during her 1959 royal visit?
As Toronto prepared to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in the weeks leading up to the couple’s two-day visit in June 1959, press on both sides of the Atlantic debated whether Canadians suffered royal tour fatigue. The upcoming tour would be Elizabeth’s third of the decade, and the first to pass through Toronto since 1951, when she was still heir to the throne. Other royals, such as Elizabeth’s sister Margaret and aunt Mary, Princess Royal, conducted their own tours. What had been a rare experience was becoming less so.
Controversy exploded when Joyce Davidson, one of the hosts of CBC-TV’s Toronto-based newsmagazine Tabloid, headed to New York City for a featured guest stint on Today. When host Dave Garroway asked Davidson on June 18, 1959, about the Queen’s visit, she surprised him by saying “we’re still annoyed at still being dependent on a monarchy.” She declared most Canadians expressed “indifference” to the Queen because their backgrounds were not British. Davidson tried to cover her tracks by indicating her remarks did not necessarily represent her own opinion.
That point was lost when the news hit Toronto. Phone lines at the CBC and daily newspapers were flooded with outraged callers incensed by the gall of Davidson to suggest anti-monarchist thoughts. Mayor Nathan Phillips demanded an apology, stating that Davidson “doesn’t represent Canadians or the people of Toronto.” Ethnic organizations declared their loyalty to the crown. Though more politely written, letters and statements condemning Davidson displayed an underlying tone of ugliness towards her familiar to anyone visiting online comment sections recently—a Telegram editorial declared “Joyce is no brain” and that she was “posing, as some Canadians do when absent from Canada, as superior to things Canadian and thought she would show Mr. Garroway just how emancipated she is. La-de-da-da-da.” Davidson’s two young daughters, who were being watched by their grandmother in Toronto, were taunted as “traitors” by playmates.
Initially, Davidson refused to apologize. Interviewed on Tabloid that evening, she told co-host Percy Saltzman, who admitted he would have internalized similar thoughts, that “nothing I said had any reflection against the Queen… or anyone in her entourage.” During her final appearance on Today the following morning, she joked that when she returned to Toronto, “they’ll probably shoot me when I get off the plane.” She wrote a piece for the Telegram where she expressed her astonishment at the vitriol she unleashed over “a mild opinion from a mild girl.”
Discussions with CBC brass determined that Davidson would not return to Tabloid until the furor died down. In a second Telegram piece, she apologized for distressing people. Calls to media outlets continued, but opinion started to favour Davidson. CBC, which was experiencing unrelated troubles with the federal government, was criticized for pulling her off the air. Star columnist Pierre Berton doubted a similar stir would have arisen had she declared herself an atheist. He believed Canadians generally were indifferent to royal visits and that “if this be treason, make the most of it.” Davidson took her daughters to watch the royal procession when it arrived in Toronto and returned to the air a week after the Queen departed. Within a couple of years, she moved south of the border and married TV talk show host/producer David Susskind.
While the Davidson furor died down, another tour-related controversy flared briefly at city council. Mayor Phillips’ eight-year-old granddaughter Linda was designated to present the official city bouquet to the Queen at City Hall, as she had for Princess Margaret a year earlier. While some aldermen had no problems, others felt the choice should have been made from local schools or children’s hospitals. Future mayor William Dennison thought that at least Linda should have an assistant who was “a crippled child or an orphan.” Phillips stuck by his choice.
The Queen and Prince Philip arrived in Toronto Harbour aboard the royal yacht Britannia around 9 a.m. on June 29, 1959, accompanied by an entourage of royal naval ships, RCMP patrols, and harbour police. Temporary stands were filled when the royal couple stepped onto land near Queens Quay and Yonge Street around 9:30 a.m. Military guards and musicians were dressed in heavy ceremonial garb ill-suited for temperatures hovering around 33 degrees Celsius. At least three collapsed during the ceremony, the first of many guards and spectators who crumpled from the heat over the course of the day.
After dedicating docks named in her honour, the Queen and Prince Philip loaded into the open-air royal car. They headed east to Kew Beach to meet Beaches residents and physically challenged children. Greeting them was Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who joked that he wanted to “give the Queen a tip” for the following day’s Queen’s Plate horse race, preferably for Smythe’s entry, Major Flight. Instead, he introduced her to that year’s Easter Seals “Timmy.”
The royal party arrived at Old City Hall at 11:30 a.m., 15 minutes early. Despite strong winds which nearly blew away his speech, Mayor Phillips officially welcomed the Queen at a ceremony which drew 6,000 spectators. “There is probably not a member country of the Commonwealth which is not represented in this vast concourse of citizens assembled here,” Phillips noted. He invited the couple to “come again when we can promise an entirely new batch of sites.” One of those future attractions caught Prince Philip’s eye: a model of the new City Hall, which reminded him of a boomerang. He asked how to contact architect Viljo Revell.
After receiving a painting of the waterfront by Manly MacDonald, the Queen thanked Torontonians for “a demonstration of love and loyalty which has touched us beyond measure.” The royal motorcade received the ticker-tape parade treatment as it proceeded south along Bay Street before heading back to the Britannia. Following lunch, the couple visited the Redpath sugar refinery. Photographers trailing the Queen for American and British newspapers balked when told they would have to walk up many flights of stairs to follow the royal party, which had exclusive use of the freight elevator. These photographers sulked in a nearby bus, while their local counterparts braved the stairs. They were rewarded with shots of the Queen quizzing Redpath officials about sugar and the prince demonstrating his refining knowledge.
Next stop was High Park, where the royals viewed floral displays, took tea with the mayor, and presented awards to Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. As he returned to the car, Prince Philip glanced at Grenadier Pond and announced that he would go for a swim. A nearby Scout warned him the water was polluted. “If we both went in,” Philip responded, “it would be more polluted.” A stop at the CNE Grandstand for a military review featuring the 48th Highlanders followed. The crowd of 20,000 roared when she closed her parasol as the car entered the stadium.
The evening was spent with 1,500 dignitaries at the Lieutenant-Governor’s gala dinner at the Royal York Hotel. Over a meal of Lake Erie pickerel, avocados, strawberries, and domestic champagne, the royals chatted with Premier Leslie Frost, who had been present during opening ceremonies for the St. Lawrence Seaway days earlier. Frost told the audience that the Queen consented to bestow her name on a provincial scholarship program. The Queen told her fellow diners that she and Philip felt at home in Canada. “Each time I come here,” she observed, “I am fascinated by your way of life, your homes, your work, your games and recreation.” They are at once so familiar yet so different that I always want to know a bit more about them.”
The next day the royals headed off on separate itineraries. Prince Philip attended the annual general meeting of the Canadian Medical Association at the Royal York, where he was named the organization’s president. He viewed the session as “a perfectly marvellous opportunity to do a little preaching” and urged members to combat the decline in Canadian physical fitness. His suggestions included more physical education programs in schools, recreational facilities, and expanding the role of youth organizations.
Meanwhile, the Queen made numerous stops around Metro Toronto. She started at the O’Keefe Centre construction site, when she spent an extra 10 minutes asking questions about the performing arts centre and its future users. She visited seniors at the Arthur Meighen Salvation Army residence on Davisville Avenue then greeted onlookers at the Golden Mile Plaza. Metro Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner presented her with a $5,000 cheque in her name to the Canadian Cancer Society, while other local dignitaries gifted her with heavy wool cardigans for Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Scarborough Reeve Albert Campbell invited her to shop at the strip mall’s Loblaws, but the tour had to move on. “I’d like to go shopping in it,” she told a Loblaws official, “but unfortunately I don’t have the time.” Later accounts suggest she might have briefly roamed the store.
Heading back west, the Queen stopped along Bayview Avenue at the Canadian Institute for the Blind, where she took extra time to talk with those welcoming her. At Sunnybrook Hospital, the Queen prevented an RCMP handler from stopping a war veteran from approaching her in his wheelchair. She also surprised veteran Walter Crossmith when she recognized his medals as Boer War vintage. After reuniting with Prince Philip, the couple stopped at the Etobicoke municipal officials for a meet-and-greet with local officials led by Reeve H.O. Waffle. The Globe and Mail called it the most formal presentation of the entire visit, “perhaps caused by the fact that all of the dignitaries were done up in toppers and such finery.”
Like the royals, these snappy dressers made their way to the new Woodbine Racetrack for the 100th running of the Queen’s Plate. When the royal party was over half an hour late, jokes flew that the entourage visited the old Woodbine track by mistake. While temperatures had dropped 10 degrees, the threat of rain reduced the expected crowd from 35,000 to 25,000. After a ceremony featuring the Governor-General’s Horse Guards, the Queen and Prince Philip joined business tycoon E.P. Taylor in the royal box. He was good company for the couple, as his horse New Providence won. Signs hadn’t boded well for the horse: he had won once in 13 starts that year, while his usual jockey, Hall-of-Famer Eddie Arcaro, was injured during the Belmont Stakes. Replacement jockey Bobby Ussery called his victory “the second biggest thrill of my life. The first was when I won my first race.” Smythe’s Major Flight finished second, while race favourite Winning Shot placed third.
The royals departed for Ottawa via an RCAF VIP plane from Malton Airport at 6:18 p.m. Before they left, Premier Frost observed that the Queen’s reception during her two days in Toronto was the opposite of indifference. An estimated 500,000 people came out to see the royal visit. Unlike past tours, the couple seemed to reach out more to their subjects, going over allotted time at many stops to talk to them about their lives and their city. Conversely the experience, combined with the Seaway opening and the city’s 125th birthday, provided, as a Star editorial noted, “an occasion for Toronto and Torontonians to celebrate themselves.”
Additional material from the June 19, 1959, June 30, 1959, and July 1, 1959 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 18, 1959, June 20, 1959, June 22, 1959, June 27, 1959, June 29, 1959, and June 30, 1959 editions of the Toronto Star, and the June 19, 1959, June 20, 1959, June 26, 1959, June 27, 1959, June 29, 1959, and June 30, 1959 editions of the Telegram.