The 1939 royal tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was undertaken in the build-up to World War II as a way to emphasise the independence of the Dominion from Britain. The royal tour lasted from May 17 to June 15, covering every Canadian province, the Dominion of Newfoundland, and a few days in the United States. There had been previous royal tours in Canada, but this was unprecedented in its scope. The tour was an enormous event, attracting huge crowds at each new city.
The king and queen arrived by ship in Quebec City and travelled west by rail, accompanied throughout their journey by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. The party visited most of the major cities, finally arriving in Vancouver. Then they travelled through the United States. The tour ended with a visit to the Maritimes and Newfoundland, departing from Halifax.
It was one of the first visits of a reigning monarch to Canada, and also the first time a British monarch had set foot in the United States. This tour marked the first time that the sovereign's official Canadian birthday was marked with the monarch himself present in the country; the occasion was marked on Parliament Hill with a celebration and a Trooping of the Colour.
In 1985, during a tour of Canada, Queen Elizabeth, by then the Queen Mother, stated in a speech: "It is now some 46 years since I first came to this country with the King, in those anxious days shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. I shall always look back upon that visit with feelings of affection and happiness. I think I lost my heart to Canada and Canadians, and my feelings have not changed with the passage of time."
Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir, in an effort to foster Canadian identity, conceived of a royal tour by the country's monarchs; the Dominion Archivist (i.e., official historian) Gustave Lanctot wrote that this "probably grew out of the knowledge that at his coming Coronation, George VI was to assume the additional title of King of Canada." Tweedsmuir's desire was to demonstrate with living example the fact of Canada's status as an independent kingdom, having Canadians "see their King performing royal functions, supported by his Canadian ministers." Prime Minister Mackenzie King, while in London for the coronation in May 1937, formally consulted with the King on the matter. According to biographer Janet Adam Smith, the task for Tweedsmuir, and the Canadian government, was "how to translate the Statute of Westminster into the actualities of a tour... since this was the first visit of a reigning monarch to a Dominion, and precedents were being made." The tour was also designed to bolster trans-Atlantic support for Britain in the event of war, and to affirm Canada's status as an independent kingdom, sharing with Britain the same person as monarch.
Elizabeth's mother had died in 1938, and so Norman Hartnell designed an all-white wardrobe for her delayed state visit to France that year. In Canada in 1939 she wore elements of this white mourning, which forms a distinctive feature of the black and white photographs of the tour.
The first portion of the royal tour occurred from 17 May 1939, when the royal couple arrived in Quebec City, to 7 June 1939, when George VI and Mackenzie King departed Canada to conduct a state visit to the United States. The first portion of the Canadian royal tour, saw the royal couple visit every province in Canada, excluding the provinces in Atlantic Canada, which was toured following George VI and Mackenzie King's return from the United States on 12 June.
The arrangements were made, and on 17 May 1939, the royal couple arrived in Quebec City for their tour of Canada on board the Canadian Pacific liner RMS Empress of Australia; the reception at Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal were positive beyond expectations, and the King impressed Quebeckers when he responded to the welcoming remarks in French.
Their Majesties took up residence at La Citadelle, where the King performed his first official tasks, amongst which was the acceptance of the credentials of Daniel Calhoun Roper as the American envoy to Canada. The King also held audience with Quebeckers in the Legislative Council chamber of the Legislative Assembly Building. Two Boer War veterans of Scottish heritage, in order to settle an argument, asked the Queen when presented to her: "Are you Scots, or are you English?" Elizabeth's response was reported as being: "Since I have landed in Quebec, I think we can say that I am Canadian."
The royal party traveled to Ottawa on 20 May, where the Queen laid the cornerstone of the Supreme Court building, the King dedicated the National War Memorial in front of 10,000 war veterans (amongst whom the Queen requested she be able to walk,), and the couple went to Parliament. There, the King personally granted Royal Assent to nine bills in the traditional manner which was still being used in Canada at the time - in the United Kingdom, Royal Assent has not been granted by the Sovereign in person since 1854. Following the ceremony, His Majesty stated: "No ceremony could more completely symbolize the free and equal association of the nations of the Commonwealth." After two days in Ottawa, the royal couple began travelling westward.
The couple travelled to Toronto on 22 May, where they attended the King's Plate horse race and dedicated Coronation Park. The couple dedicated the soon-to-be completed Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, and unveiled a monument at the site to mark the occasion. They also inaugurated the Queen Elizabeth Way (which was named for George's royal consort) as well as various monuments along the route, including a set of decorative stone pillars on the eastern approach to the Henley Bridge in St. Catharines, each consisting of a regal lion bearing a unique shield, and the Queen Elizabeth Way Monument, which had inscribed on its base words prophetically referring to the hostilities that would break out later that year:
The Royal Train was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway on the western leg of the tour and the couple continued to be greeted by throngs of Canadians, even in the immigrant-rich but Depression-battered Prairies.
The couple visited Winnipeg and Brandon on 24 May. Upon their arrival in Winnipeg, on the King's official birthday, the royal couple was greeted by an estimated 100,000 people (including several thousand Americans), and, to allow them all a view of himself and the Queen, His Majesty requested that the convertible roof of their limousine be opened, despite a record rainfall that day. While staying at Government House in Winnipeg, the King made his longest-ever radio broadcast to the British Empire; the table at which he sat remains in the Aides Room of the royal residence. Then, Prime Minister Mackenzie King described the arrival of the royal train at Brandon: "Wonderful cheering. A long bridge overhead crowded with people. The hour: 11 at night... the finest scene on the entire trip." The Queen herself said the reception was "the biggest thrill of the tour."
Continuing westward across the Prairies, the Royal Train arrived in Regina on 25 May, followed by Calgary on 26 May and Banff on 27 May. A minor gaffe occurred at Calgary, as described by one of the military officers on parade with the Guard of Honour:
The King and the Queen stopped in Vancouver, Victoria, and a number of other smaller communities in British Columbia. Mackenzie King was enthused, stating in his diary on 29 May 1939, "the day in Vancouver was one of the finest on the entire tour," and, the following day: "Without question, Victoria has left the most pleasing of all impressions. It was a crowning gem..."
When the royal couple arrived in Edmonton, the regular population of 90,000 swelled to more than 200,000, as Albertans from surrounding towns came in to catch sight of the King and Queen, 70,000 people sat in specially constructed grandstands lining Kingsway, which had been renamed to honour the King, to see the royal motorcade.
The royal train arrived in the town of Melville at 10:00 pm on 3 June, attracting over 60,000 people to the town of 3,000. The stop was only meant to last ten minutes, after which the train would stay overnight for servicing. But, with the throngs of people who arrived, the royal party decided to extend the visit to a half-hour, after which the train pulled away, returning a few hours later, once the crowds had dispersed;Canadian Press reporter R. J. Carnegie said of the stop: "Never throughout the tour did I see such unbridled enthusiasm as then." On 4 June, the King and Queen took a brief walk around Unity, and in Saskatoon, where the royal couple visited the University of Saskatchewan, some 150,000 people turned out to see the monarchs, and hundreds of teenage girls dressed in red, white, and blue assembled in the image of a Royal Union Flag and sang "God Save the King".
At one night time stop in the Rocky Mountains, the royal couple sang along with an impromptu a cappella rendition of "When the Moon Comes over the Mountain" that broke out amongst the gathered crowd when the moon emerged from behind the clouds.
In the United States 7-12 June, the King and Queen visited Washington, New York, and Poughkeepsie; they were accompanied by the Canadian prime minister, still Mackenzie King, as the sole minister in attendance to the King, rather than by any British minister, by way of reinforcing that George VI's visit to the United States was a state visit from Canada, despite the point that the King and Queen were presented by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "Their Britannic Majesties." For Mackenzie King, this assertion of Canada's status as a kingdom independent of Britain was a key motive behind the organization of the tour; he wrote in his diary on 17 May 1939: "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."
Another factor, however, was public relations; the presence of the King and Queen, in both Canada and the United States, was calculated to shore up sympathy for Britain in anticipation of hostilities with Nazi Germany.
The itinerary included visits to Mount Vernon on 9 June, the 1939 New York World's Fair on 10 June, and dinner at FDR's estate at Hyde Park on 11 June, at which President Roosevelt served hotdogs, smoked turkey, and strawberry shortcake to their Majesties. The 2012 film Hyde Park on Hudson contains a lengthy fictionalized depiction of the royal couple's visit to the Roosevelt estate.
On 12 June the royal couple returned to Canada to continue their royal tour of the country, visiting the Maritime provinces. The King and the Queen stopped in Doaktown, New Brunswick, to take tea in a local teahouse, where, upon finishing, they proceeded to the kitchen and took the proprietors by surprise.[n 1]
Accompanied by the Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Humphrey Walwyn, the King and Queen were driven to St. John's to attend various official events, causing the city's population of 50,000 to double as visitors came in to see the royal couple. For the departure of the monarch, the residents of St. John's built a large bonfire on Signal Hill.
After a visit to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the royal couple ended their tour at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 June, where a farewell luncheon was held, and the King and Queen each delivered a speech of thanks. That evening, the royal couple boarded the RMS Empress of Britain to return to the United Kingdom; of their departure, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: "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 King and Queen were at the very top of the ship and kept waving.... No farewell could have been finer...."