Queen Elizabeth graces my historic Canadian $1 bill
Today we mourn and remember a great Queen. My late friend, Dr. Valerie Giles, researched the Queen in Canada and shared personal memories that I believe she would have been pleased to share here. We learn about Princess Elizabeth’s first visit to Canada in 1951, her 1953 coronation, and her 1994 visit to open the new University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, B.C.
These fascinating stories were shared in Valerie’s “Remembering…” history column in the Prince George Citizen, and republished in her 2014 book of the same name.
Swans for the Queen
During the summer of 1951, Princess Elizabeth visited British Columbia. There were many sights which delighted her as she toured the province. She was promised she could have some of our swans.
The following February, the princess was on an official tour in Kenya when news came of her father’s passing. On Wednesday, February 6, 1952, King George VI died, and Elizabeth assumed the role of Queen.
Throughout the Commonwealth, people mourned the King’s death. In Prince George, all places of business were closed on Friday. Members of the Canadian Legion paraded to the cenotaph at 11 a.m. The Prince George Ministerial Association led a civic memorial service at the Princess Theatre.
The Citizen’s editor wrote an affectionate tribute, referring to George VI by declaring “We honour a modest, kingly man.” Of the new Queen, he stated: “Following in the footsteps of her father will not be an easy task, but in the hearts of the people of the Commonwealth is the feeling that Elizabeth will be a wise and sympathetic ruler. This community and district joins with reverence and sincerity in the salute: 'The King is dead! Long live the Queen!'”
Within days, the British Columbia government began to make good on its promise that Elizabeth should have her swans.
On Saturday, February 9, five rare trumpeter swans were captured from Lonesome Lake in Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park west of Williams Lake. The large 30-pound birds had been making their winter home at that location. The combination of low water levels and a cold winter caused the lake to be frozen over. A local resident had taken to hand-feeding the birds. Specially made netted crates were brought to the site and the birds were caught as they came up for their evening feeding of barley. They were quickly loaded onto the small plane.
The special cargo arrived that same day at the Prince George Airport aboard a B.C. Airways Junkers ski-plane. Twenty people met the flight. Pilots on that first 200 mile leg of the trip were Harry Bray and Bob D’Easum. Also accompanying the birds were two Canadian Wildlife Service fieldworkers, Ron MacKay and Dave Munro.
At the airport, some switching around was done to ensure that the two potentially aggressive males were in separate crates. Then, the birds were loaded onto a Canadian Pacific Airlines flight for Vancouver, where they arrived Saturday evening.
The crates were transferred to a third airline, Trans Canada, for a flight to Newfoundland. There, the birds were transferred to a fourth carrier, British Overseas Airways Corporation, for the flight over the Atlantic to London.
By Monday evening, the jet-lagged creatures were given a treatment designed to acclimatize them more quickly to the new environment. They had their wings clipped to prevent any attempt at flying away.
On Tuesday morning, the majestic, regal birds were released in a peaceful part of the River Thames.
It was a present fit for a Queen.
Celebrating the coronation
With all the pomp and majesty the British could muster, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place the morning of Tuesday, June 2nd, 1953 in London’s stately Westminster Abbey. Half a world away in Prince George, that event touched off a week of celebration carried out here in the schools, the social clubs, the streets and city hall.
Mayor Garvin Dezell issued a proclamation which read “On the occasion of the Coronation of Our Gracious and Loving Queen Elizabeth II, we the Mayor, Aldermen and Loyal Citizens of Prince George pledge our loyalty and allegiance to our Queen. With joy and affection, we celebrate this solemn and happy occasion with due ceremony and public festivities. God save our gracious Queen!”
And Prince George did celebrate! Some lucky youngsters were chosen to travel to London to witness the coronation parade.
One was Queen Scout Larry Bell, chosen to join a contingent of Boy Scouts sailing from Montreal to London for the event. Another was Shirley Creuzot, who was one of 50 Canadian girls chosen for outstanding scholarship and leadership ability who would benefit most from the experience.
That contingent was financed by industrialist Garfield Weston in the interests of promoting good relations with Commonwealth countries.
A less lucky youngster was Prince George’s May Queen for 1953, Evelyn Holzworth. It was thought inappropriate to crown her in deference to the royal coronation. All the other celebrations were to go ahead, including the May Day parade and maypole dancing, games and refreshments. The May Queen would still be presented a keepsake bracelet and she and her attendants would be provided with full-length gowns.
The city devoted $2,000, a considerable budget for the times, to coronation celebrations. The expenditure was for bunting and flags and purchase of 2,500 coronation medallions at a total cost of $600.
The medallions were the size of 50 cent pieces, bearing the image of the Queen. Suspended from smart red, white and blue tricolour ribbon and hanging from a golden pin bar they were topped with a British crown. Each school child received a medallion from the city as a souvenir to honour the occasion.
The Department of Education also distributed its own version of a commemorative gold medal at coronation programs in each of the schools.
The city-wide celebrations included a large parade of floats and military units, the Legion, the RCMP, scouts, guides and cadets. There were children’s shows and masquerade balls. A large civic ceremony in Duchess Park attracted throngs of citizens.
The Queen opens UNBC
Valerie had a bird’s eye view of this event, which she attended as assistant to UNBC’s President Geoffrey Weller. I missed the event, but was one of the school’s founding students in a night class before the campus was built. The completed campus was stunning with natural and First Nations designs.
Early in 1993, UNBC had extended a formal invitation to Canada’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, to preside at the opening ceremonies in August. A response was expected, but it came as a surprise in an unexpected form. UNBC administrator Alistair McLean’s 10-year old daughter, Sarah, had written extending her own invitation to the Queen.
Back came the response, dated 9 December 1993 on Buckingham Palace stationery: The Queen’s secretary, Kenneth Scott, informed Sarah “The Queen has received your kind letter of 28th November inviting her to come to tea at your house when she is visiting Prince George next August. Her Majesty was grateful for this kind invitation, and has asked me to thank you but to say that unfortunately it looks as if she is going to have a very busy day in Prince George and will not have time for any private calls. The Queen hopes, however, that you and your friend Laura will have an opportunity of seeing her during the day.” Alistair brought that precious letter in to share with the other administrators, and for a while, that was an exuberant and delicious secret kept by university employees. Thanks to Sarah McLean and Laura Coates, there was advance notice that the Queen was really coming.
Finally, in January 1994, founding President Geoffrey Weller made the long awaited official announcement: “We are delighted that Her Majesty has consented. It will be a most auspicious start to the life of Canada’s newest university, and a testimony to the commitment of the people of northern B.C. The grand opening at UNBC will be a prominent and proud day for all northern British Columbians.” And so it was….
In the summer of 1994, the university was still very much under construction. Work proceeded at a hectic pace and the roadwork was scheduled right up to the last minute. Completion of the 15th Avenue access to the campus and paving of Tyner Boulevard was accomplished literally days before opening day.
Planning the official opening had been a momentous task. Then MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly in British Columbia] Lois Boone served as chair of the Prince George Royal Visit Organizing Committee. Through many months, they worked to assure that every detail was anticipated and arranged. There was a planning visit by protocol officials from the Queen’s staff at Buckingham Palace.
The RCMP in Ottawa took the lead on security arrangements in cooperation with city RCMP. Over the planning period, protocol officers from London, Ottawa and Victoria became involved. Upon Her Majesty’s arrival, five-year old Erin Beckett presented the Queen with a bouquet of flowers. Erin had been the youngest local runner in the Queen’s Baton Relay, held in advance of the Commonwealth Games in Victoria August 18 to 28.
A highlight during the university’s opening ceremonies was the sight of Her Majesty, accompanied by then Chancellor Iona Campagnolo, both walking unassisted in high-heeled shoes straight down the steep ceremonial staircase to the courtyard below. That walk had not been rehearsed, yet they carried it off with aplomb. Anyone who thinks descending that long staircase elegantly and without experiencing vertigo is invited to try.
Under brilliant sunshine, faculty members sweltered in academic regalia and the large crowd came equipped with sun hats and even some umbrellas for shade. The Queen charmed the audience with her speech, in which she described the UNBC campus as “a matchless setting.”
Following the formal opening, Her Majesty was shown through some completed parts of the university. She saw the Library, strolled down Student Services Street, entered the architecturally spectacular Winter Garden, and had a brief glimpse into one of the classrooms. She took time to have tea with some students. Afterwards, she was bade farewell by Geoffrey Weller and former premier Mike Harcourt as she left by car for the Prince George Airport.
The celebrations continued with cultural performances and a food fair. The day ended, appropriately, with an impressive fireworks display.
Following the excitement of the official opening, the UNBC campus was closed to the public for a three week period. This was necessary to allow construction to continue in readiness for registration week. Students attending during the fall of 1994 will remember that finishing carried on well into the term. At last, Prince George had become a university town.
Do you have a memory of the Queen? Mine was at a young age: in elementary school, our teacher had us walk from school several blocks to Granville Street in Vancouver, where the Queen would pass in her vehicle convoy. The teacher said we would remember it for the rest of our lives. The glance was fleeting, but indeed memorable!
My favourite public recording is probably Princess Elizabeth's 21st birthday speech in 1947. There is much to inspire in the speech given so soon after the war. Here she dedicated her life, whether it be long or short, to our service; adding, "But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it."