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Royals take quick taste of our city

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The future king fed a polar bear, crafted the perfect paper airplane and nearly lost his voice during an understated but jam-packed visit to Winnipeg Wednesday.

Though it lacked the huge and hyped-up crowds that greeted Queen Elizabeth several years ago, Charles and Camilla's visit was arguably more cerebral and relevant. The royal couple's tour subtly highlighted the stigma of mental illness, the need for business innovation, the power of the arts to heal and even the abandonment of inner-city neighbourhoods by Canada's big banks.

It was the Prince of Wales' fifth visit to Manitoba, one that was scripted to the minute, tightly controlled and saw everyone on their stiffest behaviour. Door-openers were designated at each location. Media were hustled behind rope lines, and police officers kept the modest number of well-wishers in check.

And, while the royals hopscotched around the city, from the airport to Assiniboine Park to the Exchange District and beyond, a minor scandal brewed at home. Charles allegedly compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler during a private conversation in Halifax, according to a media report, prompting a Labour MP to call for Charles to abdicate and run for office if he wants to make statements on geopolitics.

Under slightly gloomy skies, Charles and Camilla packed in visits to nearly a dozen spots. Here are some highlights:

RRC's Stevenson Hangar

Amid flashbulbs, cellphone cameras and a sea of hooting students, the Prince of Wales said much has changed in Winnipeg since his last visit in 1996.

"But what has not most assuredly changed is the vitality of the province," he said in his first of two speeches Wednesday.

The prince and the Duchess of Cornwall kicked off their whirlwind day at Red River College's Stevenson Hangar, where future aerospace workers train on real planes and helicopters. In his speech, Charles harked back to his days flying fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, joking he had a great deal of respect for the engineers who often fix the stuff pilots break.

Charles also spoke briefly about the need to fill the skills gap and said the issue is one he's been working on, but that it's like "pushing water up a hill." Technical-training programs such as Red River College's fit the bill.

He also praised the "wonderful, patient, energetic teachers" on hand to corral the elementary-schoolkids, many of whom waved paper flags. Those same kids let out a big "awww" when dignitaries handed the royal couple a gift for Prince George, the son of William and Catherine, a baby-size flight jacket.

Charles and Camilla ventured into the depths of the hangar, spoke with some of the college's students and learned how to fold the perfect paper airplane, which they launched playfully at the media.

"The day we all threw paper airplanes with their royal highnesses is one we won't soon forget," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who also praised the monarchy's role in Canada's parliamentary democracy.

Manitoba Jobs and the Economy Minister Theresa Oswald had a brief chat with the prince as he made his way through the handshake line.

"Jobs and the economy? You must also care a lot about all these children and what they're going to do in the future," Charles said to Oswald.

"They are splendid, every one, and so excited to see you," she replied.

Oswald said she met the Queen years ago and wasn't expecting to be star-struck, but said the Queen was like a rock star. This time, Oswald said she knew what to expect.

"My heart was pounding," she said.

Journey to Churchill

Prince Charles can add zoo animal trainer to his many titles after participating in some "positive-reinforcement training" with Hudson, the polar bear at Assiniboine Park Zoo.

Unlike the dozens of royalty fans gathered outside the zoo gates waiting for a glimpse of His Royal Highness on Wednesday, Hudson was decidedly nonchalant. He lay down with his chin on the ground and tucked his feet underneath him, ignoring the gaggle of camera operators and reporters. Given a bath just before his audience with the future king, Hudson rolled around in his enclosure just to dress down a bit.

The Prince of Wales was led directly to a bear enclosure upon arriving at the zoo's near-completed Journey to Churchill exhibit, where he aided zookeeper Sean Ellis in a bear-training exercise. All that separated the prince and Winnipeg's zoo royalty was a chain-link fence.

Part of Hudson's training is to voluntarily put a paw on the fence so zookeepers can check his feet and, one day, draw a blood sample.

So on Wednesday, when Hudson dutifully placed a front paw on the fence, Prince Charles, tongs in hand, rewarded him by feeding him a morsel of capelin, a type of fish, through the fence.

Ellis said later the exercise went off without a hitch.

Margaret Redmond, president and chief executive officer of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, said the group was thrilled to welcome its "first official visitor" to Journey to Churchill, a $93-million project that opens to the public July 3.

"It was wonderful. It was a real honour to have him come here, no question," she said.

While touring Journey to Churchill, Prince Charles met 22 Grade 4 students from Angus McKay School, who were at the Aurora Borealis Theatre learning about polar bears.

His Royal Highness was also introduced to aboriginal painter and sculptor Allan Chapman, who helped create some of the interpretive components of the exhibit. Chapman presented the prince with an original painting of a snowy owl.

Park pavilion and the Pooh

Before the zoo, the Royal Couple stopped in at the Assiniboine Park Pavilion to loud cheers from about 150 well-wishers, then toured a small gallery of artwork, books and other materials connected to Winnie the Pooh.

The bear is named after Winnipeg, which inspired the Winnie the Pooh stories, including drawings by illustrator Ernest Shepard.

"They're so familiar," Charles said to Camilla.

Outside, sisters Meagan and Jillian Gillis presented the Duchess of Cornwall with a bouquet of sweet peas, carnations and roses.

"She said 'thank you for the flowers,' " Jillian, 8, said.

"We'll remember this the rest of our lives," added Meagan, 12.

The sisters are the daughters of Assiniboine Park CEO Margaret Redmond and husband, Greg Gillis.

Despite their brief moment with royalty, they said they had to head back to school.

Prince Charles also chatted briefly with veteran Peter Corcoran, who served in the Parachute Regiment of which he said Prince Charles is the supreme commander.

"He said, 'I see you're keeping yourself pretty fit,' " said Corcoran, 73, who came dressed with his maroon beret of the regiment he belonged to for 20 years.

Place Bernadette Poirier

Prince Charles and Premier Greg Selinger opened the Sara Riel Foundation Inc.'s Place Bernadette Poirier in St. Boniface Tuesday, which will provide supportive housing for people with mental-health issues and new immigrants.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate the enormous amount of effort that so many people have put into this project," the prince said at a reception of about 120 people after a brief tour of the facility on Kenny Street.

"It's a wonderful example of so many people working together for such an imaginative and valuable project. I do hope it makes an enormous difference to people's lives in this part of Winnipeg."

The 28-unit Place Bernadette Poirier is operated by the non-profit Sara Riel organization established by the Grey Nuns. It cost $8.9 million to build.

Sister Jean Ell said it was a pleasure to have the prince mark its opening.

Prince Charles spoke to as many people as possible during the reception, carefully balancing a cup of tea as he moved from person to person.

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Chris Swan, confined to a wheelchair after a car crash four years ago, allowed quietly that his favourite royal was always the Queen Mother.

But he said he was quite taken by the Duchess of Cornwall, who visited the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and took in a special dance performance of the ExplorAbility program for disabled adults.

Swan, along with a dozen other adults in wheelchairs or behind walkers, clapped and shimmied, then later gathered around the duchess for a visit.

"How long have you been coming?" Camilla asked Swan. "Do you find it helps you?"

"I was wowed," said Swan later.

During an impromptu speech to unveil a commemorative RWB coin, Camilla said she hoped to one day see the dancers at London's famous Covent Garden.

"I've heard so much about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and it lived up to my expectations," said Camilla, who also took in a traditional pas de deux.

Credit union

Highlighting the exodus of mainstream banks from Winnipeg's North End, Camilla paid a visit to the Assiniboine Credit Union's new branch on McGregor Street in the city's North End, meeting with some local kids who are saving for a "furry pet" and who presented her with a drawing.

About 75 people waited across the street and by the entrance of the credit union to catch a glimpse of the duchess. She shook hands with a small group of those gathered before going inside to meet with representatives from the credit union. She listened intently as they told her about the history of the credit union.

She then went into a private meeting with clients of the credit union before chatting with Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard.

Innovation Alley

After touring a hub for new entrepreneurs in the Exchange District Wednesday, Prince Charles turned to his guide and asked if he had done well. The answer was an overwhelming yes.

His Royal Highness visited AssentWorks on Adelaide Street, meeting more than 75 young entrepreneurs, business leaders and educators on the third floor of an old warehouse building. The business incubator near Red River College's downtown campus has been coined Innovation Alley.

Charles chatted briefly with students and looked at a "mirage mirror" that projects advertisements. It was developed by two young entrepreneurs who say it can measure how long each message is viewed.

The prince smiled, then tried out new software called VisualSpection by a local entrepreneur. It's voice-activated and allows inspectors in the energy sector to record video, take notes and track global positioning systems in cases where, for example, hydro lines are downed.

One of the hopes of organizers Wednesday was the royal visit would provide the entrepreneur initiative a boost by encouraging more seasoned business people to become mentors.

Joelle Foster, local director of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, accompanied the prince on his AssentWorks tour. On the way down the three flights of stairs and back onto the street, Charles asked her: "Did I find you more mentors for your program?"

Foster responded: "Yes, you did!"

Charles next popped across the street to Red River College, stopping to shake the hands of well-wishers, including Gibril Koroma and his son, Gibril Jr. The two were on their way to the passport office and detoured to Red River just in case they could catch a glimpse.

The Order of Manitoba

In a speech following the investiture of 14 Manitobans into the Order of Manitoba, Prince Charles praised the inductees and said they each in their own way have made an enormous difference to the lives of Manitobans.

He also said Manitobans are known for the ability to conquer adversity.

"I know very well of the reputation for extraordinary resilience acquired by the citizens of Manitoba, a province so often tested by adversity," he said. "By way of a reminder, on our way to Winnipeg yesterday evening we flew over Duff's Ditch, defending this community against the might of the Red River."

Following the ceremony, Prince Charles and his wife walked through and greeted many in a crowd of about 1,000 people, one of the larger gatherings during their trip to Canada.

Legislature and the end

After a day of grey skies, the sun finally shone on Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall as the couple arrived at the legislature Wednesday evening.

A crowd of 1,000 were waiting as the royal motorcade drove up to the front steps, led by the Royal Canadian Air Force Band and a composite guard of Canadian Forces.

Among the crowd was Major Harry Tucker, 88, a Second World War navy vet and meritorious service medal winner. He stood outside for two hours.

But in the end, he didn't get his chance to meet royalty. Running about half an hour late, the Royal Couple, accompanied by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other dignitaries strode by.

-- with files from The Canadian Press

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca, bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca, maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Should Prince Charles be criticized for what he says in a private conversation? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press

An enthusiastic crowd waitied patiently for an appearance of Prince Charles and Camilla at the Legislature Wednesday evening.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2014 A3

History

Updated on Thursday, May 22, 2014 at 8:52 AM CDT: adds video

9:42 AM: adds video

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