Thoughts on the 2012 Royal Visit
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Thoughts on the 2012 Royal Visit

What our latest opportunity to host the royal family says about the emerging Canada of Stephen Harper.

By one o’clock in the afternoon on May 22, two entirely opposing groups of spectators had formed in the Distillery District awaiting the arrival of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. One of them lined Trinity Street all the way down to Distillery Lane: camera-toting clumps of people checking watches and straining to see back toward the main gate as broadcast crews took position. Elsewhere, another group—much smaller, but no less intent—had already come together at the south end of the area, across the parking lot from where the government reception was about to begin. They too were there to see the royals, but placards with messages like “Sever the Ties,” and the watchful presence of a riot squad, indicated that their reasons weren’t entirely welcoming.

In its small measure, it was a condensed sampling of the reception Charles and Camilla have encountered throughout their 2012 tour of Canada, from New Brunswick to Toronto and on to Saskatchewan. And for Canadians, it was also a taste of our country’s lamentable priorities.

You really only had to see the procession of His Royal Highness through St. James Town to get the gist of this. One of the highlights of the royal stopover in Toronto was a round trip from the Yonge Street Mission through St. James Town using the peoples’ conveyance: a TTC bus. The way much of the media had been previewing the spectacle, you’d think Prince Charles would be waiting at Parliament and Gerrard for a bus with tokens in hand, ready to ride the Rocket through our streets like a true Torontonian. Instead, escorted by a parade of units from the OPP, the Toronto Police, and the RCMP, an Orion VII Next Generation hybrid-electric TTC bus pulled up, its route signage replaced simply with “HRH: St. James Town.” Traffic slowed to a near-standstill. Meanwhile, police formed a human barricade along the length of the sidewalk.

Once this repurposed, private motorcade got underway, there were very few intersections in a three or four-block radius not under tight control. At Spruce Street and Sackville, a motorcycle-mounted officer from the OPP stopped us with a shriek of his whistle, making way for this cavalcade of the state as it approached. When it rolled through, lights blazing and sirens squawking, the sight was a little unsettling—a small army of police, the executors of state authority, leading a vehicle carrying a representative of the Canadian state itself as if it were a chariot.

What was unsettling was knowing that this chariot belongs to the public, and what the appearance of a public ride privately serving the embodiment of the state says about Canada in 2012. Specifically, it raised questions of who is ultimately serving as figurehead for whom.

Of course, chartering a public TTC bus is something anybody with the coin to afford it can do. But with the Conservatives of Stephen Harper, there’s a very fine line between “chartering” and “commandeering,” and a royal tour like the one we just experienced felt like more than a celebration of the Queen’s 60th year of rule. For Stephen Harper, returning to Canada’s monarchist roots all over again is an integral part of his stealthy re-invention of Canada, something that reached a climax with the near-annihilation of the Liberal Party in May 2011 and continues with the incremental re-calibration of our national culture. Recall the gigantic, 40-yard Canadian flags draped across the playing field at last year’s Grey Cup, cannons booming, with Peter McKay taking a very ham-fisted half time bow for Canada’s military role overseas. Recall the supplanting of Bill Reid’s Haida Gwaii with a depiction of Vimy Ridge on the new twenty-dollar banknote.

Like these, the royal visit to Toronto was a chance to roll out Harper’s idea of Canada as the new normal, from east to west—and with the Queen visiting in 2010, or the royal honeymoon of 2011, Harper has had a chance to do it more than preceding governments. In 2012, however, Charles and Camilla had the dubious honour of visiting a Canada where the monarch, for the first time in a long time, has ceased to be a figurehead—at least for the ruling party.

In a dockside Halifax ceremony last August, McKay announced the return of all things “Royal” to national defence after forty years. In 1968, the government of Lester B. Pearson unified the Canadian military under the singular title of “Canadian Forces,” with the navy as “Maritime Command,” the army as “Land Force Command,” and the air force as “Air Command.” But since August, 2011—a month after portraits of the Queen replaced Quebecois works at Foreign Affairs, and a month before a deadline for all Canadian embassies to prominently display the same—these simplified organizational titles have become history, replaced by the “Royal Canadian Air Force,” the “Royal Canadian Navy,” and the “Canadian Army.”

Even in the media packages distributed to journalists before this week’s royal visit, the federal government’s emphasis on the monarchy as a matter of present-day nationalism, not bygone heritage, was all over the pages. “In Canada,” it read, outlining the objectives surrounding immigration events in Saint John, New Brunswick, “we profess our loyalty to the Sovereign, not to a document (such as a constitution) or an inanimate object (such as a flag) or a geographic entity. Canada is personified by the Sovereign just as the Sovereign is personified by Canada.”

“In return for their allegiance, the Canadian state, personified by our queen, guarantees to protect their rights and freedoms.”

But the role of the monarchy in Harper’s Canada goes beyond ceremonial niceties like swearing allegiance to the Crown. It is part of an aggressive, muscular campaign to force a narrative (back) into the Canadian mainstream, one that exalts Commonwealth heritage over that of Francophone or multicultural society. It presents the pot into which the Harper Conservatives expect new Canadians to melt, and the template for patriotism—along with other jingoistic talking points—that landed Canadians are expected to embrace. When the state rides by in a TTC bus, its escort making as much noise as possible, Canadians are expected to stand there, jaws appropriately agape, and watch it pass.

“Stephen once said to me that a conservative party in any country ought to be a party of patriotism,” Tom Flanagan, a mentor to Stephen Harper and a professor at the University of Calgary, told the Canadian Press. “He is now creating a conservative version of Canadian patriotism.”

For a couple of days this week, that version made the rounds throughout Toronto. To be fair, there were some memorable moments, and some great gestures on the part of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. Charles’s visit to UforChange, now famous for images of the future King spinning vinyl with headphones on, comes to mind. It was also undeniably excellent for such an embodiment of the Canadian state, so presented, to turn out at the Yonge Street Mission to begin with, highlighting his “Seeing is Believing” program, partnering business leaders with at-risk youth. Happily, we can report that the Prince and Duchess seem like stand-up people. Somewhat conflicted, we can also report that very little of the 2012 Royal Tour, for reasons of national context, seemed to have much to do with the royals themselves.

What we’ll remember best, though, is an exchange that happened over the noise of idling police engines and the general din of traffic outside the Yonge Street Mission, when Charles was getting ready to ride the Rocket.

“That’s Prince Charles!” a woman shouted to the driver of a school bus, held up in traffic at the snarled intersection.

“Well, tell him to get out of the street! He’s blocking traffic!”

CORRECTION: May 25, 2012, 11:05 AM This post originally stated that the image of Prince Charles spinning vinyl while wearing headphones was taken at the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University, when in fact it was taken at UforChange. We regret the error.