The visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) to Canada in 1939 was truly historic, the first time a reigning monarch had visited this country. For Mackenzie King, it was one of the momentous events of his life. As Prime Minister, he travelled with the royal visitors for their entire tour, across Canada and back, sharing the spotlight and taking part in all the festivities. As Minister in Attendance, he also accompanied the King and Queen on their visit to the United States.
In Europe, it was apparent that war was looming, and one of the main reasons for the royal tour was to stimulate Canadian affection and support for Britain in the coming conflict. President F.D. Roosevelt invited the King and Queen to visit the United States as well, and, especially in light of the international situation, the British gladly seized this opportunity to strengthen their friendship with the Americans.
Mackenzie King felt particularly pleased to be chosen as the sole Minister in Attendance for the U.S. stage of the tour. Normally, for a royal visit to a non-Commonwealth state, the monarch would be accompanied by one of his British ministers, but on this occasion, King was given the honour. In his diary, King expressed delight at the "poetic justice" of his accompanying the great-grandson of Queen Victoria to the United States, since King's grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, had been forced to flee to the United States after Queen Victoria placed a £1000 price on his head. (Diary, April 10, 1939)
An enormous amount of work went into the preparation of the royal tour. The King and Queen would arrive in Canada by ship and travel across the country by train. Both the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railways offered their services, and a royal train was assembled, using some of their best carriages. Two specially fitted convertible McLaughlin-Buicks would whisk the royal couple around in towns and cities.
One protocol question to be resolved was what role the Governor General, as the monarch's representative in Canada, should play in the tour. The Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, respected the increased powers that the Statute of Westminster of 1931 had given the Dominions, and he felt it appropriate that Canadians should be in charge of the royal tour of Canada. Nevertheless, he considered it his role to greet the King and Queen on their arrival in Canada, and escort them to Ottawa. The Prime Minister would then accompany them for the rest of their journey. Mackenzie King, however, wanted to be the one to welcome the royal couple when their ship arrived. The staff at Laurier House and Rideau Hall debated this point furiously in the weeks leading up to the royal visit. In the end, the Governor General's role was diminished even further than he had anticipated. He did not greet the King and Queen until they reached Ottawa. There they stayed with him and his wife at Government House, and he joined them later for the farewell in Halifax. At other times the Governor General was not involved, and Mackenzie King played the predominant role as host.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King and officials awaiting the arrival of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Quebec City, 1939
From left to right are Mr. Arnold Heeney, Principal Secretary to Mr. King; Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King, Prime Minister; Sir A.S. Redfern, Secretary to the Governor General; and Dr. E.H. Coleman, Under Secretary of State.
The tour began on May 17, 1939, when the King and Queen, sailing aboard the Empress of Australia, arrived in Quebec City. Mackenzie King and Ernest Lapointe were there to greet them.
In Quebec and in Montreal, huge crowds of well-wishers greeted the King and Queen. It was to be the same everywhere they went. At every ceremony, for every motorcade, the numbers of spectators were phenomenal. Never far from the touring royal couple, in any situation, was Mackenzie King, relishing his position in the limelight.
Mackenzie King frequently recorded the conversations that he enjoyed with the King and Queen during the trip. Among the subjects they discussed were the pressures of public life, the difficulty of dealing with the press, and the seemingly unavoidable war with Germany. In regard to the press, the King mentioned especially the caution needed with the new broadcast technology of radio. Sometimes the conversation was lighter. For example, on one occasion in Montreal, Mackenzie King was concerned that the Queen might be cold. "I said to the queen I hoped she was warmly enough clad. She was not going to take her wrap but I said she should. She then pulled at her dress a bit and said to me she had woollies beneath." (Diary, May 18, 1939)
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth meet Mackenzie King at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, 1939
The unveiling of the National War Memorial in Ottawa, 1939
In Ottawa, the royal couple went to Parliament, where the King gave royal assent to nine bills. They also dedicated the new War Memorial. As well, they accepted Mackenzie King's invitation to a private lunch at Laurier House. Mackenzie King took great pride in playing host to the King and Queen and showing them around his house. In his diary, he described the visit in detail, including this incident: "Little Pat found his way up and stayed under the Library table while we were there. During dinner he was at the Queen's feet. She said she liked to have him to put her feet on." (Diary, May 20, 1939)
After Ottawa, the King and Queen went to Toronto, where huge, enthusiastic crowds greeted them. They also met Canada's sweethearts of the day, the Dionne quintuplets. Mackenzie King wrote: " I confess I enjoyed this part of the trip almost as much, if not more, than any excepting, of course, the great events. The little children were dressed in white, wearing little bonnets, and looked extremely fascinating. They were natural and very intelligent.... The children, one by one, were presented to the King and Queen. Made their little courtesies. I then shook hands in a very nice way. I could see both the King and Queen were very much taken by them." (Diary, May 22, 1939)
Joyce Evans, daughter of the City Clerk of Port Arthur, presents a bouquet to Queen Elizabeth, watched by Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King, Hon. C.D. Howe (Minister of Transport, Member of Parliament for Port Arthur) and Mayor C.W. Cox, 1939
The royal tour then proceeded westward, visiting most of the major Canadian cities and many smaller ones. In Winnipeg it was raining heavily, but the King insisted on using an open car for the motorcade. (Diary, May 24, 1939) In Brandon, Manitoba, Mackenzie King described a heartwarming scene: "Wonderful cheering. A long bridge overhead crowded with people. The hour: 11 at night." (Diary, May 24, 1939)
All across the prairies, the story was the same. "The turn out was splendid in Regina," King wrote. (Diary, May 25, 1939) In Calgary, "The day turned out bright; the cheering was good.... The Indian Chiefs were, ... in their full costume, very colourful." (Diary, May 26, 1939)
In Banff, the King and Queen took delight in the spectacular scenery. When they posed for pictures with the mountains in the background, Mackenzie King was included in the photos. (Diary, May 27, 1939)
Mackenzie King felt occasional unease about his participation, but he rationalized this as an assertion of the importance of Canada. "I ... told [the Queen] that I felt somewhat embarrassed about taking in the entire trip with Their Majesties; that it looked like pushing myself to 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 then said: The King and I felt right along that you should come with us." (Diary, May 27, 1939)
In British Columbia, Mackenzie King was very enthusiastic. "The day in Vancouver was one of the finest of the entire tour," he wrote. (Diary, May 29, 1939) Of Victoria, he wrote: "Without question, Victoria has left the most pleasing of all impressions. It was a crowning gem...." (Diary, May 30, 1939)
The tour then proceeded eastward, back across Canada. In Jasper, King recorded the royal couple "walked a good deal on the mountain sides." (Diary, June 1, 1939) In Edmonton, there was a great reception, with "Cheering all the way," King wrote. (Diary, June 2, 1939) In Saskatoon, "There were great crowds on the drive through the streets...." (Diary, June 3, 1939) In Sudbury, "the Queen met a soldier named Bennett who had been with her brother at the time he was killed in the war." (Diary, June 5, 1939)
The royal tour then headed south and into the United States, visiting Washington, New York City, and President Roosevelt's home at Hyde Park. At a reception held at the British Embassy in Washington, Mackenzie King was pleased to present several of his long-time friends, Julia Grant, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Peter Gerry, to the King. (Diary, June 8, 1939)
Returning to Canada, the royal tour visited eastern Quebec and the Maritimes. They were warmly greeted everywhere. "Fredericton...was a beautiful sight," King wrote (Diary, June 13, 1939), one of many observations reflecting his satisfaction with this part of the tour. In Charlottetown, King noted, "The proceedings ... were in the chamber where the Fathers of Confederation met in 1864." (Diary, June 14, 1939)
At a farewell luncheon in Halifax, the King and Queen each delivered an address of thanks. That evening, they boarded the Empress of Britain to return home. Mackenzie King wrote: "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 sun was shining very brightly.... The King and Queen were at the very top of the ship and kept waving.... No farewell could have been finer...." (Diary, June 15, 1939)
The King and Queen stopped for a visit to Newfoundland, and then returned to Britain, completing a very successful trip. In strengthening Canadian support and affection for the monarchy, the tour had succeeded beyond the organizers' most optimistic expectations. For the King and Queen, it was highly gratifying that this, their first major tour, had gone so well. For the thousands of Canadians who were able to catch their first-ever glimpse of the King and Queen, it was never to be forgotten. For Mackenzie King, delighted to be able to spend so much time with the royal couple and to share the attention and luxury, the tour was both a political and a personal triumph.