OTTAWA—In her 60 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has presided over 20 Parliaments in Canada, featuring 11 prime ministers and 11 governors general.
What is it like to work for the Queen? An array of former prime ministers and governors general offer glimpses of working life under Her Majesty’s rule.
No one tells you when you are named governor general that you might end up doing dishes with the Queen. But this is exactly what happened in early September 2005, as Michaëlle Jean was preparing to take up her new role as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
About three weeks before her formal installation, Jean flew across the Atlantic to spend some time with the Queen at her summer residence, Balmoral Castle. Rather unusually, in terms of protocol and precedence, Jean had asked to make it a family visit; to bring along her husband, filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond, and their daughter, Marie-Eden, then 6 years old. There was much fuss and back-and-forth among the protocol people about this business of bringing the whole family. Usually appointees arrive for these visits with only a spouse, if anyone at all.
"We had to negotiate that; it was an ‘adjustment,’" Jean said. In addition, Jean and the family received extensive, detailed instructions on all the protocol minutiae for dealing with that first meeting. "It was pretty heavy."
So it was a pleasant surprise for Jean to pull up at Balmoral, family in tow, and find the Queen and Prince Philip standing at the front door like any weekend hosts, casually walking out and extending their hands. Philip pulled Marie aside and asked if she wanted a Coca-Cola. Marie said she wasn’t allowed to have this at home. "It’ll just be between you and me," Philip replied.
Jean realized, then and there, that she could start breathing.
The Queen led the family to their quarters, which happened to be Queen Victoria’s old suite, and showed them how to use the tub, including the fussy new faucets installed after a recent renovation. "She wanted to greet us in her home, herself," Jean said.
The entire stay, in fact, turned out to be a remarkable glimpse into the warm family life of the royals.
The Queen told Jean that they would be dining at a favourite cottage on the property, about a half-hour’s drive from the castle. And the driver turned out to be none other than the Queen herself, behind the wheel of a new, fully outfitted Range Rover, which clearly was a prized possession. Tearing along the road, with Lafond in front, Jean and Marie in the back seat, the Queen told of how she had learned to take apart car engines in her service as a volunteer mechanic during World War II.
"She drives very fast," Jean said. "(Yet) she handles the car very well … We got a great sense of her character and her independence."
Pulling up to the cottage, Jean noticed a man by the barbecue, wearing hunting plaid, who had obviously been given the task of cooking the dinner. While the Queen and the rest of Jean’s family went inside the cottage, Jean wandered over and discovered another surprise — Prince Philip doing barbecue duty. They chatted and Philip gave Jean a bit of advice: compliment the Queen on her salad dressing. Apparently it’s a recipe that Her Majesty invented, and she is quite proud of it.
Walking inside, Jean discovered a hive of kitchen activity. "And who do I see cooking? The Earl of Wessex (Edward, the Queen’s youngest son), cooking the appetizers."
No staff members were in sight — this was a dinner entirely created by the royals, for their Canadian visitors. It was one family, dining with another. "It was great conversation, fun … no protocol," Jean said.
It also happened to be Jean’s 48th birthday — a fact she hadn’t disclosed. But a cake was magically produced at the end of dinner, with "21 Forever" written in icing.
And at the end of the dinner, both families gathered up the plates, went into the kitchen and did the dishes.
"It was probably the best birthday of my life," Jean said.
The Queen’s last big anniversary was in 2002, when she marked half a century on the throne. In honour of this milestone, all the Commonwealth governors general were invited to spend some time with the Queen at Windsor Castle that April. Canada’s governor general at the time was Adrienne Clarkson.
The Queen had lost her mother and her sister in the preceding months of that year, and was officially in mourning, but the ceremonies were going ahead regardless.
Clarkson arrived with the other governors general and was guided to her room. Along the way, they were taken through a gallery featuring the royal collection of art — including works by great masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian. Once in her room, Clarkson decided she had a little time to kill before formal tea with the Queen, and she set out on her own to take a closer look at the paintings.
Entranced by the art on display, Clarkson kept walking down the castle’s cavernous corridors, not really bothering to take note of her route. "I didn’t take any thread with me, to mark my path. Suddenly, I thought: ‘How do I get back to our room?’" Realizing she was now completely lost in the castle, Clarkson decided to keep looking at the paintings, while watching for any possible exit.
All at once, to her left, came a pack of dogs — a dozen of the Queen’s corgis, and dachshund-corgi mixes. Clarkson recognized the dogs from her visit to Balmoral several years previously. She made a snap decision — if she followed the corgis, she would find her way out of the art-lined maze.
"I sort of rushed behind them, we turned a corner … and there is Her Majesty, standing in riding clothes, looking hale and hardy," Clarkson said. "She had a riding crop in one hand and in her other hand, she had little treats that she was giving to the corgis."
Unruffled by the surprise encounter, the Queen said a friendly hello and then a breezy: "See you at tea time." The corgis swarmed behind her, and Clarkson was left to find her own way — successfully — back to her room.
That particular stay, however, had an abrupt end, when Clarkson learned that four Canadian soldiers had been killed in a "friendly fire" incident from U.S. forces in Afghanistan. With the help of the Queen’s royal aircraft, Clarkson was able to travel immediately to Germany, where some of the wounded soldiers had been transported. It meant that Clarkson missed a memorial service for Princess Margaret, but "it was important to me to be right there on the ground (in Germany)," Clarkson said.
Clarkson has nothing but fond memories of working for the Queen. "She’s always been an extremely acute and aware woman," she said. "She has a great knowledge of the past and of Canadian prime ministers."
It should be noted, Clarkson said, that the Queen never discusses politics — at least in her experience. "We only discussed personalities," she said. "The Queen stays completely out of (politics and government.) … She never inquires and never says things like: ‘Gee, you have an awful lot of minority governments,’ or anything like that. She is totally appropriate."
During his brief time as prime minister, from mid-1979 to early 1980, Joe Clark didn’t have much of an opportunity to deal with the Queen directly. But the Royal Family made some lasting impressions on Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, through his long political career.
McTeer’s decision to keep her own name stirred up plenty of controversy in Canadian politics in the late 1970s. Some people registered their disapproval by calling her Mrs. Clark anyway.
Shortly after Clark became prime minister, the Queen Mother visited Halifax, and McTeer was put through the "Mrs. Clark" routine all through a formal lunch. "All the Liberal women at my table called me Mrs. Clark," McTeer wrote in her book, titled In My Own Name.
The Queen Mother, ever astute, was the exception. After the lunch, McTeer escorted the Queen Mother to her limousine, and got some advice. "I always tell my grandchildren that they must be themselves and do what they believe best in life. Don’t be bothered by criticism." And then, as parting words, the Queen Mother said: "Good Luck …. Ms. McTeer."
A few years later, after Clark failed to get more than a bare 66 per cent approval from his party at a leadership review and stepped down as Progressive Conservative leader, he was present at Rideau Hall for the visit of Prince Charles and Diana. When Clark’s turn came to shake the royals’ hands in the receiving line, "Prince Charles’ first words to me were: ‘Why wasn’t two-thirds enough?’"
Long before his brief stint as prime minister in 1984, John Turner had struck up his own friendship with the Royal Family — famously, with Princess Margaret.
The two met while the princess was on a tour of B.C. They danced all night at a fancy, formal ball, and British tabloids speculated about a budding romance between the handsome, young lawyer and the Queen’s sister. The romance never happened, but the friendship endured, and Turner visited Balmoral Castle a few times in subsequent years, shooting pheasants with Prince Philip and mixing drinks for the Queen Mother.
More than 20 years later, after Turner won the Liberal leadership and the prime minister’s job, he was faced with an awkward situation. He felt he had to call a general election, but that would require a postponement of a planned visit to Canada that summer by the Queen. Turner could have made the request by phone, but in deference to his long friendship with the family, he decided he should go in person. "It was a matter of courtesy," Turner said.
So off Turner flew to Windsor Castle in early July, accompanied by his wife, Geills. The Queen was reportedly very understanding, and agreed to postpone her trip until the fall — when, as it happened, Turner would no longer be prime minister. During this visit, Turner and his wife dined with the Queen on the terrace of the castle. And during lunch, the Queen asked Turner’s views on the monarchy. "I’m with you 100 per cent," Turner told the Queen.
In 2000, when the Queen Mother turned 100, Turner sent her a note, wishing her a happy birthday. Not long after, he received a formal reply — with a personal postscript from the Queen Mother. She said she remembered him fondly. "You make the best martinis," the Queen Mother wrote.
In his nine years in office, from 1984 to 1993, Brian Mulroney had an opportunity to forge a deep friendship with the Queen. He dined with her and other world leaders at Buckingham Palace in 1986, at the height of efforts to free Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa.
And on many occasions, during the Queen’s trips to Canada, Mulroney would convene small, convivial dinners with Her Majesty at 24 Sussex Drive, often with just his family and perhaps a couple close friends as guests. The eldest Mulroney children, Ben, Caroline and Mark — Nicholas was then too young — were included as well.
"The kids loved her. She was terrific with them, too," Mulroney said.
One memory stands out. It was Canada Day 1992, and the country was celebrating its 125th birthday. The Queen had a busy day of events, but had explicitly asked to clear some time in her schedule to relax with the Mulroneys at 24 Sussex.
They laid out a low-key lunch on the second floor of the residence, which has a spectacular view overlooking the Rideau River and Quebec on the far shore. The Queen, a modest glass of wine in hand, kicked off her shoes, put her feet up, and started to chat with Brian and Mila Mulroney about "free spirits" — people who throw off their societal obligations and go where their hearts take them.
"I thought it was fascinating, because she’s so constrained by protocol and all the stuff she has to do," Mulroney said.
She spoke in particular about Susan Barrantes, mother of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. (Ferguson was married at the time to the Queen’s son, Andrew.) In the 1970s, Barrantes shocked English high society by deserting her family and running off to Argentina to marry professional polo player Hector Barrantes. She earned the nickname "the bolter" for the decision and was largely ostracized by the upper class in Britain.
But the Queen, in conversation with the Mulroneys that afternoon, pronounced no judgment whatsoever. "She was almost wistful," Mulroney said. She spoke of the need to understand such free spirits, to respect their life decisions. "It was almost as if she was saying: ‘Don’t make hard and fast value judgments on people just because they’re not like you.’ I was taken by this."
Was this a hint of the Queen’s preoccupations with her own family at the time? Two of her children’s marriages were crumbling — Prince Charles and Diana, famously, as well as the marriage between Andrew and Sarah. If so, she betrayed no hint of it to Mulroney. "I don’t remember it being apropos of anything," Mulroney said. "It wasn’t like I brought it up."
Mulroney’s friendship with the Queen has endured. He’s seen her socially on occasions over the past few years. "She’s delightful. She’s known everybody since Adam. She’s shrewd and thoughtful and incisive," Mulroney said.
Canada’s first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, didn’t stay in office long enough to have any direct dealings with the Queen.
But Campbell does have some strong views, informed by her years in government, about the importance of the Queen in this country.
Through the Queen and her representatives in Canada — governors general and lieutenant governors in the provinces and territories — Canadians have celebrated the diversity of the country. "It’s interesting that we had our first woman governor general (Jeanne Sauvé) before we had our first woman prime minister," Campbell says. The royal representatives in Canada have also included aboriginal people, people of colour and more diversity than one often sees in the political class, she notes.
The Queen has also come to represent duty and a life of public service and charity, Campbell says, and these are what Canadians celebrate with the pomp and circumstance surrounding the royals.
Campbell says no prime minister can remain unaware of the links between the Crown and Parliament. The royal presence is felt when ministers and governments are sworn in at Rideau Hall and it is also ever-present when prime ministers consult with their governors general. The monarchy infuses the job with dignity and discretion, Campbell says.
"My audiences with (the late governor general) Ray Hnatyshyn were ones in which you knew you could discuss what you were doing and what you were thinking about things, with the absolute assurance that what you were saying would never go out of that room."
One prime minister can claim a very special relationship with the Queen — Jean Chrétien, who has the title to prove it. In 2009, Chrétien was made part of the Queen’s Order of Merit — an elite group with just 24 members, described as "individuals of exceptional distinction in the arts, learning, sciences and other areas such as public service."
And in 2012, in deference to that relationship, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Chrétien as Canada’s representative to the Diamond Jubilee Trust.
Some of Chretien’s stories about the Queen are legendary. There was the famous signing of the Constitution on Parliament Hill in 1982, for instance, when Chrétien was justice minister and the Queen was present for the ceremony. When it came time for Chrétien to put his signature on the document, he found that his prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, had broken the nib of the pen. "Merde," Chrétien proclaimed, just before he realized he had sworn in front of Her Majesty. While he was red-faced, though, the Queen was laughing.
As well, in Chretien’s second biography, My Years as Prime Minister, he tells a couple more anecdotes about his long association with the Queen.
As prime minister, his first encounter with her was at Sandringham in January 1994, when he learned that the Queen and the Queen Mother loved to speak French. In Chretien’s mother tongue, they spoke of Her Majesty’s first trip to Canada in 1939, when she was a child, and long before her coronation.
Less than six months later, Chrétien lent his counsel to the Queen, advising her not to agree to a request to apologize to Maoris in New Zealand for their treatment under the colonial regime. Chrétien said it would set a precedent, which would find the Queen obliged to apologize to more than 600 First Nations bands in Canada as well. "You’ll be on your knees for quite a long time," he told her. With some quiet diplomacy in the direction of his New Zealand counterpart, James Bolger, Chrétien managed to get the apology request withdrawn.
Chrétien and the Queen also shared some laughs in 1995 about a Montreal radio prank, which had inadvertently revealed the monarch’s affection for the Canadian prime minister. A comedian named Pierre Brassard, pretending to be Chrétien, had managed to get the Queen on the telephone and kept her on the line for 15 minutes, asking whether she would make a nationally televised speech in the midst of the Quebec referendum.
"I will probably be able to do something for you ... No problem, no, I can do that," the Queen told the fake Chrétien. The conversation also included nonsensical rambles by Brassard about the Queen’s picture on Canadian Tire money and what she was wearing for Halloween.
In his biography, Chrétien recalls the Queen’s lack of amusement at Brassard’s prank. But she did reportedly tell Chrétien: "I didn’t think you sounded quite like yourself, but I thought, given all the duress you were under, you might have been drunk."
In 2005, Saskatchewan and Alberta were celebrating their 100th year as provinces in Canada. The prime minister was Paul Martin and the Queen arrived in May to lend her royal presence to the anniversary festivities in the West.
In Regina, a torrential rain was pouring down on May 17 when the Queen and Prince Philip pulled up at the Legislature. Undeterred by the downpour, the Queen went ahead with her remarks and then proceeded, according to plan, on her walkabout, accompanied by the prime minister.
Martin has a reputation for courtly good manners around women and in the midst of the deluge, guiding the Queen on the rain-slick surface of the Legislature grounds, he reached out and touched her on the back. Chivalrous perhaps, but it was also a big, diplomatic no-no. One does not place one’s hands on Her Majesty.
"Protocol gave me the heights of hell," Martin said.
Later, the Queen sat down with Martin at the Hotel Saskatchewan and the two had a good laugh over his alleged protocol blunder. She didn’t mind at all, apparently, and they had a wide-ranging conversation that included talk of Martin’s parents. Paul Martin Sr. and his wife, Nell, got to know the Queen when the elder Martin served as Canada’s high commissioner to Great Britain in the 1970s. "They liked her very much," Martin said. "So we talked about them, and we brought it all home."