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The Queen And The North

The Queen And The North

On her 90th birthday, we look back at Queen Elizabeth’s four Northern visits
By Up Here
Aug 23
2016
From the August/September 2016 Issue

1959: Yukon visit causes panic and consternation back in Britain

If you’d come across a newsstand in London in July 1959, you might be alarmed to see a headline screaming “Save the Queen”; next to it, “The Queen is exhausted—bring her home”; below that, paired with a dour-faced picture of the monarch, “Never again!” Amidst a 45-day, 2,600-kilometre tour of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II had been laid up for two days in Whitehorse and public concern was being applied thickly. A “well-travelled American,” having looked at the freshly crowned regent’s itinerary (90 towns in 45 days), was quoted in the press as saying, “Are they trying to kill the Queen?” The Queen’s press secretary was unable to quell the furor with a statement that she was just suffering from a “slight upset stomach.” One reporter is said to have blamed it on “bad moose meat.” He must have been embarrassed to learn later on that her sickness was caused by a yet-to-be-announced pregnancy; Prince Andrew was born eight months later, and it’s unlikely he would have appreciated the comparison.

She was supposed to fly from the Yukon to Yellowknife, but royal-watchers in the Northwest Territories had to contain their disappointment when her husband Prince Philip stepped onto the tarmac instead. Still, all the ceremonies took place and, according to the account of then-NWT Commissioner Gordon Robertson, her visage did make an appearance in the Sir John Franklin High School gymnasium—famed Inuk carver and printmaker Osuitok Ipeelee presented Prince Philip with a beautifully carved likeness of the monarch. Ipeelee had based it on one photograph, of the Queen at her coronation in 1952, but as her gown obscured her footwear, Ipeelee had to use his imagination. So there she stood, 18 inches tall and made out of stone, with a crown, scepter, dress and bare feet. –TE

John McNeill / The Globe and Mail/cp images

1970:  Until you have seen the North, you have not really seen Canada’

The windows of the old Apex church had fogged over. Outside, a crowd of Inuit worshippers sang hymns oblivious to the near-freezing temperature, pesky winds and the throng of press, gawkers and Mounties; inside, 80 regular congregation members joined political and royal dignitaries in a Sunday evening service. The Queen, wearing a parka presented to her earlier that chilly July 1970 day, sat in the front pew with her husband, Prince Philip; her children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne; Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and future head of state Jean Chrétien. The service was simple and sincere. “Throughout the proceedings, a husky wandered about, receiving the occasional pat from Her Majesty and Prince Philip,” according to the Montreal Gazette.

This was the Queen’s second trip through the North—her first through the Arctic. When asked of his first impressions of what was then still called Frobisher Bay, a 21-year-old Prince Charles told the press: “It seems like the moon, really.”

From Iqaluit, the royal family flew north to Resolute, where locals were overjoyed the fog—which had smothered the community for ten days—lifted and let the plane land. The Queen mingled for an hour or so before leaving for Inuvik, then Tuktoyaktuk. The family would go on to visit Yellowknife, Fort Smith and finally Fort Providence to kick off a canoe race down the Mackenzie River. Royal planners were itching to get that last stop over with. The community hadn’t sprayed to kill bugs because DDT was recently banned and malathion (another insecticide) was deemed too expensive. A suit-and-trouser combo were assembled for the Queen and “a powerful commercial personal repellent” was given to each royal family member. Still, photos back in Great Britain showed the Queen and her daughter swatting away mosquitoes and black flies.

In truth, the tour was a not-so-veiled exercise in Arctic sovereignty, following the controversial crossing of the Northwest Passage by the American SS Manhattan tanker the previous summer. And though much of the press coverage obsessed on the vast expanse of uninhabited land and condescended on the perceived quaint people encountered, the trip made an impact on the Queen. In a radio address from Yellowknife, she supported the careful development of the North—but by the people who lived there: “It is most important to bear in mind that thoughtless meddling and ill-conceived exploitation is just as bad as wanton destruction.” –HM

Yukon Archives, Eric Wienecke fonds, 82/457, #1.

1994: So much for Northern hospitality in Yellowknife 

The Queen’s late-summer visit to Yellowknife, Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit in 1994 was anything but smooth. Touching down in the Northwest Territories capital, she was greeted with threatening graffiti painted on two of the city’s highways, and a number of bomb scares.  “There was an incidence where they said bombs were placed in certain areas where in fact there wasn’t,” RCMP spokesperson Dave Grundy told a reporter at the time. “Our bomb dog went through and didn’t identify anything. The visit took place without incident.”

The Queen also took heat from the NWT first peoples. Dene Nation leader Bill Erasmus told the Queen—the living embodiment of the Crown—that their relationship with the Crown was “tarnished and sullied” because the treaties signed by previous monarchs nearly 100 years ago had not been honoured. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, accompanying the Queen on her visit, fielded the comment from Erasmus, though treaty issues remained unresolved. The Gwich’in Tribal Council also boycotted her visit, citing England’s protests against the fur industry.

But it wasn’t all death threats and politics. The Queen dedicated the NWT’s new legislative assembly building and was greeted joyously by nearly the entire population of Rankin Inlet. She celebrated the upcoming creation of Nunavut, and enjoyed music and culture from Inuit and Dene performers.  And upon leaving Yellowknife, she acknowledged all the drama she encountered with typical aplomb:  “You have your differences, linguistic, cultural or geographical,” the Queen said in a speech at the NWT legislative assembly, “May these differences long remain, but may they never be cause for intolerance, or give rise to acrimony.” – DC

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and then-prime minister Jean Chretien take in a high kick demonstration during the Royals' 2002 visit to Iqaluit. Photo Jonathan Hayward/CP Images

2002: In Iqaluit on official business

Manitok Thompson welcomed the Queen to her territory twice. The first time, in 1994, Nunavut had not yet formed. She ran a radio show in Rankin Inlet teaching locals how to curtsy and warning the men to shine their shoes. She recalls how the Queen was laughing, relaxed. The children yelled out, “Queen Elisapee! Queen Elisapee!” since that’s how they’d say it in Inuktitut. 

“I was a volunteer in Rankin, and I was a leader the second time around,” says Thompson, who was the MLA for Rankin Inlet South in 2002. The Queen’s visit to Iqaluit in 2002 that year was much more formal—she was in her “queen mentality,” says Thompson. Because the government of Nunavut had recently formed, the purpose of the Queen’s visit was less relaxation and more commemoration.

The Queen, in the 50th year of her reign, was present to dedicate the legislative building and to shake hands formally with MLAs and dignitaries. Iqaluit marked the visit by naming a street after her: Queen Elizabeth II Way.

Even though there was business to be done, there was still time for gifts. Leevee Arlooktoo presented the Queen with a bouquet of Arctic flowers complete with Arctic cotton, Thompson remembers fondly. She crafted a similar bouquet in 1994, which she gave to Her Majesty. (She kept an identical one for herself, too.)

“She spoke a little in Inuktitut. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Qujannamiik.’ And she said it very well,” says Thompson. “I really appreciated that she pronounced it right. The ‘q’ is unfamiliar to the English language. Even one word made a huge difference, that she respects our territory and our language. She really made an effort.”

“Your land is indeed your strength,” the Queen said in a speech in the legislative assembly. She spoke about how Nunavut’s separation from the Northwest Territories would be the last change to the Canadian map she’d see in her lifetime, after Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949. The televised event gave the new Nunavut government some publicity and momentum. As Thompson puts it, “the world was watching.” -KW