VANCOUVER — My nieces and nephews can barely credit it, but when my four brothers and I went to school in a small town in northwestern Ontario back in the 1950s and early 1960s, every morning began with God Save the Queen.
As we stood at attention and sang our national anthem, we stared at a map of the world that had Canada, Australia, New Zealand, huge swathes of Africa, parts of Asia and specks in the Caribbean, South Atlantic and South Pacific daubed in the gaudy pink that depicted the British Empire.
Curiously, although few know or acknowledge it today, the sun still has not set on the British Empire. The closest it comes to that is in the winter equinox of the Southern Hemisphere. The sun sets on Pitcairn Island — remember Captain Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty — a couple of hours after it rises over the British Indian Ocean’s Diego Garcia archipelago. Ditto for nightfall on Diego Garcia and daylight at South Georgia Island, the Falklands and St. Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte spent the last five and a half years of his life in exile.
Arguably the greatest military genius ever was free to go wherever he pleased on St. Helena. But it was tiny and Napoleon could hardly go anywhere. Few ships called at St. Helena and it was a 2,000-kilometre swim to the nearest landmass in what is now called Angola.
Not surprisingly, the general — who had ruled France, fought in the Battle of the Nile and spent years at war in Russia and Germany — grumbled constantly about the dampness and the tedium of his not-so-gilded cage. Some say he died of arsenic poisoning. Others said he died of a broken heart.
Exiles seldom end happily, as Prince Harry’s great-great-uncle, the Duke of Windsor, could tell him if he was still alive. The situations of the Duke of Windsor, also known as Prince Edward and briefly as King Edward VIII, and Harry, who is also the Duke of Sussex, are not exactly comparable but there are similarities.
Edward abdicated after only 11 months on the throne in order to marry an American divorcee. Prince Harry has sought refuge in Canada because he, beguiled by Meghan Markle, a divorced American television actor who had difficulty adjusting to life as a royal in Britain, with all its tabloid newspaper snares and an endless round of engagements with worthy citizens. The couple also faced the reality that with every new child produced by his older brother, Prince William, and his wife, Kate Middleton, Harry moved down another notch in the royal succession.
Not to be churlish, but it feels as if Harry and Meghan’s plan to emigrate to Canada was an attempt to try to break free of their often numbing royal responsibilities in the United Kingdom and earn some serious money of their own as celebrities, while getting Queen Elizabeth to agree to Harry retaining most of his privileges by undertaking a few public appearances. That Canada was their destination may have been because they thought that living in a Commonwealth country might somewhat mollify the Queen.
If that was the intention of their gambit, Harry did not fully comprehend the potential second- and third-order effects of the move and the invidious position he had put his grandmother in. The more we learn about what was agreed to at an emergency royal summit last week in Britain, the more clear it becomes that Her Majesty was not amused.
I keep reading that most Canadians are ambivalent about Harry and Meghan’s move to Canada. That may be true. But it sure seems like the couple’s exile and their future here is a “white-hot” topic of conversation and speculation, especially in British Columbia, where they plan to make their home.
What may have hurt Harry the most is that his grandmother stripped him of his military titles. The prince was an Afghan combat veteran who since then has been a staunch backer of the military and has personally done a huge amount to make the Invictus Games for wounded warriors a success.
As noted on Tuesday in Britain’s Daily Mail, sometime this spring Harry will no longer be the Captain General of the Royal Marines, a position to which the Sovereign appointed him only two years ago. That appointment allowed Harry to wear a uniform with the same rank as Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein. It was also the military rank that King Edward VIII held for a few months before he abdicated.
Appointing women as colonels-in-chief or honorary colonels flows from the prime minister’s often-repeated priority of bringing gender balance to government. While Harry is obviously not a woman, perhaps the prime minister would be willing to make an exception and name Harry as the honorary colonel of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s old outfit, the British Columbia Regiment or one of Canada’s storied fighting regiments that saw duty in Kandahar at the same time he was in neighbouring Helmand as an Apache helicopter pilot-gunner. As an aside, fellows who have held similar honorary positions in Canada tell me that the Queen is not part of the Canadian approval process.
With Harry’s arrival on Vancouver Island on Monday, the couple’s move to the New World is a fait accompli. However, some things never change. Just as the sun has not quite set on the British Empire, the royals are hounded to the far corners of the earth by photographers.
Even Meghan going for a walk in a park near Victoria with their baby, Archie, has already caused them to issue a strong rebuke to British paparazzi that have inevitably followed them to Canada.
The couple, like most commoners, will, of course, have to find something to do with themselves. It is possible that they will find fulfillment in offering their support to Canadians living difficult lives and to the environmental causes that they hold dear. But doing so may be a bit jarring, given that they are fond of living in waterfront mansions of billionaires, attending glittering soirees and taking chartered aircraft.a
Hollywood is not even as far away as Napoleon was from Africa when he was in exile on St. Helena. But the French emperor could not swim across the South Atlantic. In the jet age, it may be that the Sussexes regard our fair Dominion as a way station.
Since British punters take bets on almost anything, including the names and sex of the next baby royals, are they taking odds on whether Harry and Meghan will bother staying a year in beautiful British Columbia on their way to California and Nirvana — where even more paparazzi will inevitably be waiting for them?
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas