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King Charles III has long history with Canada, but must step into the spotlight

Expert: new King faces daunting challenge in a country that has become skeptical of the monarchy
Prince Charles leaves a roundtable event with business leaders in Ottawa, during the Canadian Royal tour, on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

As he stood between wind-whipped Canadian flags on a podium in Iqaluit in 2017, Prince Charles recalled his official first visit to Canada’s North nearly half a century earlier.

“I have never forgotten the warmth of the welcome from the Inuit people, which made me feel instantly at home, as indeed I have with all Canadians on my subsequent visits,” said the Royal, who drew applause from the crowd in Nunavut’s capital with a halting attempt at an Inuktitut greeting.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth II announced Thursday, King Charles III, as he’s now known, is poised to take over as Canada’s new head of state and form a new relationship with the country.

On trips to Canada as prince, he has stressed a connection to Canada that stretches back decades, encompassing nineteen official visits, family trips and brief stopovers during his military service.

Most recently, Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, travelled to Canada in May as part of the celebrations of the Queen’s platinum jubilee. The three-day tour was focused on climate change, literacy and reconciliation efforts with Indigenous peoples.

The jubilee tour began in St. John’s, N.L., with a solemn moment of reflection on residential school deaths and ended in the North with a meeting with First Nations chiefs on climate change.

Prince Charles said he was deeply moved by conversations with survivors who courageously shared their experiences at residential schools.

“I want to acknowledge their suffering and to say how much our hearts go out to them and their families,” he said during the visit, which some considered a step forward in Crown-Indigenous relations.

But a royal expert says the new King nevertheless faces a daunting challenge in establishing himself in a country that has become skeptical of the monarchy, and in a role that has been so inextricably linked to his mother in many Canadians’ minds.

His relationship with Canada stretches back to his first official visit in 1970, which included touring Manitoba and the Northwest Territories with other members of the Royal Family. During his more recent visits, he has been accompanied by Camilla, whose distant Canadian ancestry he has mentioned.

“Every time I come to Canada … a little more of Canada seeps into my bloodstream – and from there straight to my heart,” he told a crowd in Newfoundland in 2009.

Those official visits have often featured the photo ops and official ceremonies the Canadian public has come to expect from the royals — including Prince Charles feeding a polar bear named Hudson in Winnipeg, trying out DJ equipment in Toronto, playing pickup street hockey in New Brunswick and attending countless artistic performances and military ceremonies.

Among the pomp and pageantry, there have been events that hint of a deeper connection.

Over the years, Prince Charles’ visits to Canada have often featured events and conversations centred around climate change — a domain in which he’s become increasingly outspoken.

In November 2021, Prince Charles urged world leaders gathered at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland to put themselves on “a warlike footing” to reduce emissions.

While Prince Charles’ speech at the climate conference drew headlines, he’s been delivering the same message for decades, including in Canada in 2009 when he described climate change as a “threat posed to all humanity.”

“We are at a defining moment for our civilization,” he told the crowd in Newfoundland.

“Unless we can all, both individually and collectively, take the actions which we now know are necessary, the future is going to be very bleak indeed.”

He highlighted the issue once again during the 2017 stop in Nunavut, when he warned that global warming was “bringing rapid and damaging changes to the Arctic way of life” that had long sustained the Inuit people.

Prince Charles has made several visits to Canada’s north, where he was so moved by the ”matchless beauty” of the northern lights on a visit to Whitehorse that he said he tried to capture them in a painting.

More recently, he’s taken a particular interest in efforts to preserve the Inuit language and culture, including issuing an invitation to an Inuit group to travel to Wales in 2016 to discuss efforts to standardize the writing system for Inuktitut.

He is president of the Prince’s Trust Canada, a charity which focuses on “preparing young people and members of the military and Veteran community for the transforming world of work, championing sustainable solutions for a green recovery and empowering our people and our partners to strengthen our collaborative efforts,” according to its website.

The eldest son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip was born in 1948 at Buckingham Palace and was proclaimed heir apparent at the age of three when his mother took the throne.

After graduating university in 1970, he trained as a military pilot, which included a stint at a Canadian Forces Base in Gagetown, N.B. where he trained “at an exercise area in the middle of nowhere,” he would later say.

Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based historian and royal expert, believes that despite a long and seemingly genuine connection to Canada, the King will have his work cut out for him when it comes to gaining acceptance as monarch. His approval ratings have been consistently lower than those of the Queen, who was widely respected even by those who disapprove of the monarchy.

As prince, he had to recover from the beating his image took in the 1990s following the messy public breakup of his marriage with his first wife Diana, and her death a few years later, as well as rumours of a more recent rift with his younger son, Harry.

And while his reputation has recovered somewhat since the Diana days, the fact remains that he has spent most of his life as a King-in-waiting.

“One of the challenges that Charles has faced throughout his life is that he’s often been overshadowed by other members of his family: first by his parents, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and then by his first wife Diana, the Princess of Wales,” Harris said. More recently, Charles’ sons, William and Harry, and their spouses have drawn greater attention.

Harris said that unlike his famous mother, who became Queen at a young age, Charles has been given greater opportunities to pursue his own interests, including some that were originally viewed as eccentric but have since turned mainstream. His early interest in issues such as organic farming and sustainable development have, improbably, earned the pinstripe-suit wearing heir to an inherited crown a reputation as a man ahead of his time. But he’s also faced criticism for an enormous carbon footprint that includes frequent private jet flights.

“When he first became interested in these causes, they were seen as fairly niche, and now he’s seen as having been ahead of the curve,” Harris said.

While he has been a more outspoken champion of some causes than his more private mother, Harris believes the pending royal transition is likely to be more about continuity than change.

In recent years, the then-prince and other royals gradually took over a greater share of the Queen’s duties — a move Harris believes was made to emphasize a smooth transition among the generations.

Some recent opinion surveys have indicated support for the Royal Family is dropping in Canada. Opposition is strongest in Quebec, where the royals have faced protests, and it will be a tall task to convince the public to change that view, despite the King’s very good grasp of French.

Harris believes that the King is likely to try to cement his reign early, likely via a royal tour, but that the decision in recent years to reduce the number of working royals means Canadians will see less of him than before — at least in person.

While he won’t be feeding as many polar bears, Harris believes the King will maintain the trend that began during the COVID-19 pandemic, and keep in touch with Canadians via video conference.

—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press