TORONTO – Flag-raisings, speeches and medal ceremonies are hardly the trappings of a typical party, but the festivities surrounding the start of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee herald celebrations that royal watchers predict will be among the most enthusiastic in the world.
Revived political interest in the monarchy, coupled with residual glow from last year’s blast of royal star power, has whet the country’s appetite for four months worth of activities honouring one of the longest reigns in the institution’s history.
The festivities got underway on Monday – the anniversary of the Queen’s ascension to the throne – with cross-country ceremonies to distribute Diamond Jubilee medals to Canadians for their work in community service.
Recipients at a ceremony in Ottawa included Olympic freestyle ski gold medallist Alexandre Bilodeau, Terry Fox’s brother, Darrell, Leslie Natynczyk, the wife of Canada’s top soldier and celebrity entrepreneur Brett Wilson. Honourees at the Ontario legislature included singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, journalists Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson, and ballet dancers Karen Kain and Rex Harrington.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper paused from distributing awards to pay tribute to the Queen.
“Over the past 60 years, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has served our country with distinction and dedication and continues to show Canada her generosity and affection,” Harper said.
“These medals honour those Canadians who follow the fine tradition of service so exemplified by Her Majesty.”
Royal commentator Rafal Heydel-Mankoo said Canada’s long-standing love for its official head of state will continue fanning the flames of royal fervour in the coming months.
“It’s been absolutely remarkable to see this resurgence of support and enthusiasm for the crown,” Heydel-Mankoo said in a telephone interview from London. “I think that’s a sign of maturity … a mature nation doesn’t tamper with a tried, tested and proved formula which has given Canada stability and good government.”
The Queen’s elevation to reigning monarch took place on Feb. 6, 1952, and happened automatically with the death of her father King George VI.
Heydel-Mankoo said Canada’s privy council hailed her as the new sovereign hours before any other realm, including the United Kingdom.
Her official coronation was held 16 months later to allow time for preparations and a period of mourning for the late king.
Worldwide celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee began Monday and will continue for four months, culminating in a lavish ceremony in London on the anniversary of the coronation.
Members of the royal family will fan out to various commonwealth countries to take part in global festivities.
Canada will play host to Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, in May, and will also mark the occasion through smaller local ceremonies in the coming months.
The Prince of Wales’ visit is the third royal tour of Canada in as many years, following a glamorous nine-day sojourn by Prince William and his wife Kate last summer and a visit from the Queen herself in 2010.
Canada’s regular presence on royal itineraries, Heydel-Mankoo said, is a clear sign of the country’s place in the family’s affections.
“In three successive years they’ve had the three biggest-ticket items in the royal family,” he said. “I think that’s clearly a sign of the regard with which the Canadian people are held.”
Royal commentator Richard Berthelsen said Charles’ May visit will be a lower-key affair than William and Kate’s whirlwind tour, which saw crowds of several thousand strong descend on the newlyweds and shower them with praise.
Charles and Camilla lack the novelty and glamour associated with the younger generation, but will have a driving purpose to their agenda, he said.
“The Prince of Wales has been here many times since probably about 1970. Those visits to Canada have undergone various stages over the years,” Berthelsen said. “It’s going to be a tour that will have, in the background, the focus on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.”
Such a focus seems appropriate for a monarch who is enjoying the second-longest reign in British history and who has had a front row seat to many seminal Canadian moments of the past half-century.
The Queen attended the country’s centennial in 1967, appeared at Canada’s first Olympic games in Montreal eight years later, and has been present for numerous smaller celebrations over the years, Berthelsen said.
Her frequent visits have bred a familiarity that spans many generations, he added.
“For a lot of Canadians, I think she is sort of that great aunt figure who is in your family somewhere and who you like to see periodically … almost a third of the time the country’s been in existence, she’s been in this position,” he said.
Even the monarchy’s detractors acknowledge the Queen’s reign deserves some acknowledgment.
Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, said commemorative ceremonies are entirely appropriate for a woman of such prominence in Canadian cultural and political tradition. But such ceremonies, he argues, should not come with the multimillion-dollar price-tag the federal government has committed to.
Ottawa has pledged $7.5 million to help fund the months of commemorative activities across the country.
Freda said contributions to a commonwealth charity would be a more appropriate way of acknowledging the Queen’s rule, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty.
“In light of these tough times when there are budget cutbacks everywhere and the government is pinching pennies and putting people out of work … yet they feel it’s necessary to put this amount of money into celebrating the Queen’s reign,” he said.
Discontent spilled over into political circles as well. Six Quebec MPs – all four Bloc Quebecois members and at least two New Democrats – are simply refusing to hand out the Diamond Jubilee medals in their home province.
At a time when the government is talking about reorganizing the pension system and slashing department budgets up to 10 per cent, one Bloc MP called the Diamond Jubilee budget a waste of money.
“I find that to be exaggerated spending and it’s unacceptable,” Bloc MP Louis Plamondon said.
Heydel-Mankoo, however, feels the government’s support for the Diamond Jubilee is a tribute to the characteristics that have made the Queen only the second monarch in British history to attain 60 years on the throne.
“The Queen’s life has really been one of dedication to duty, of self-sacrifice and service,” he said. “She took an oath when she became queen to dedicate her life to her peoples, and she’s lived up to that expectation and shows no signs of letting that down.”