‘The King is dead. Long live the Queen.’
Platinum Jubilee: Elizabeth II marks 70 years on the throne
She looks back at us from coins, stamps and the $20 banknote. Her portrait is displayed in schools, post offices and Legion halls across the country. She has drawn our attention to every corner of Canada through more than 20 tours as our sovereign. Closer to home, her name is immortalized on Princess Elizabeth Crescent in Lindsay and Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park north of Norland. And this month, she will mark 70 years on the throne.
It’s hard to imagine a time when the Queen was not part of our national life. Yet as many older residents will remember, Elizabeth’s reign began in sadness, with the unexpected death of her father, King George VI, on Feb. 6, 1952.
For many Canadians, the King’s historic tour of Canada in 1939 — a tour organized, he said, “to give my Canadian people a deeper conception of their unity as a nation” — was still fresh in their memories. Freda Kelly vividly recalls leaving Fenelon Falls at 5 a.m. to make the trek to Toronto, where the King was scheduled to visit. “In our family there were five of us,” Freda remembers. “We took chairs down to the Danforth and waited for the parade to come.”
George VI was a shy but beloved monarch, and when he died at 56, communities across the country were plunged into mourning. “The message of the King’s death was transmitted by telephone in the country, perhaps because many people ate breakfast without media,” recalls Rae Fleming, whose parents ran the general store in Argyle. “The phone rang. My mother took the news in silence. When she brought details to the nearby table, I remember wondering how we would continue living without George. At age 7, I knew only one King, and perhaps I thought that he would live forever.” In keeping with tradition, Victoria County MPP and Premier, Leslie Frost, concluded a press conference with the phrase “The King is dead. Long live the Queen.”
Lindsay-area schools were closed for the funeral, as were businesses. “Out of respect to our Late Sovereign King George VI, the Century and Academy [Theatres] will remain closed Friday Feb. 15, until 6:30 p.m.,” read one advertisement. Hundreds of people filled St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to capacity for an ecumenical memorial service at which Frost delivered the eulogy, and more than 40 county officials assembled in the County Court House to swear allegiance to the new Queen.
Happier moods prevailed 14 months later, on June 3, 1953, when Elizabeth II was officially crowned. The coronation was historically significant in that Elizabeth was the first monarch to be proclaimed as Queen of Canada, a role distinct from her status as Queen of the United Kingdom. Also making history was the fact that the whole ceremony was televised. Those who wanted to watch the service but didn’t own a television were welcomed into the auditorium at St. Andrew’s in Lindsay, where George Williamson Radio-Electric had supplied TV sets for public viewing purposes. Linda Thomson grew up at 69 Peel St. and remembers taking in the proceedings at a neighbour’s. “I recall sitting quietly on the Plattens’ linoleum kitchen floor intently listening to the Queen’s coronation while consuming brown sugar sandwiches and tea.”
The coronation was celebrated in a variety of ways across the community. Special services were held at Victoria Road and Woodville. The West Ops Women’s Institute sent cake mixes to its equivalent in Wellington, England, for use in the latter’s Coronation Day party. Led by local dignitaries, over 500 people gathered immediately north of Lindsay Collegiate Institute to plant a Coronation Tree at the northwest corner of Kawartha Park. That night, local Brownies, Cubs, Guides and Scouts assembled at the Lindsay Exhibition Grounds, where W.S. Battersby, a local school principal, reminded them that the young Queen “has declared with her own mouth that her whole life will be devoted to our service. What a task she has set herself, and what a task she has given us.”
Seventy years later, and the age of deference is long past. Canadians are now more than ever likely to question their institutions – and certainly the colonial legacy of the monarchy. Monarchy is perhaps an oddity in contemporary Canada. Neither the Queen nor her Canadian representatives can make public policy, and the few powers they retain are seldom used. Unlike many heads of state, however, a hereditary monarch such as Elizabeth II is unique in that their selection is free from partisan influence; what is archaic in a modern democracy paradoxically ensures that regal and vice-regal neutrality isn’t compromised. Yet this neutrality is essential to a modern monarch’s most important role: nurturing civil society through the country’s honours system, leading charitable initiatives, and fostering dialogue among people from all walks of life.