Reminder of Canada’s connection to monarchy — it’s more than just a civic holiday

by Bruce Cherney

The holiday just passed is a time when people open up their cottages for the summer season, travel to provincial parks to camp out, go on a fishing trip or visit family.

But, the actual reason for Victoria Day is shrouded in mists of the past — going back to the time known as the Pax Britannica. If Canadians are unfamiliar with the origin of the holiday, the visit of Queen Elizabeth last week — primarily to Saskatchewan and Alberta which are both celebrating their 100th anniversaries as provinces — served as a reminder of this nation’s connection to royalty.

Victoria Day is a commemoration of the birthday (May 24) of a long-dead queen who reigned when Britain ruled the waves. It was a time when red, the colour of the British Empire on the map, stretched to the four corners of the globe.

The Empire started when Sir Humphrey Gilbert took nominal possession of Newfoundland in 1583 and went on to comprise nearly a quarter of the world’s landmass and a quarter of its population — 372 million people and 11 million square miles which was 91 times the area of Great Britain.

It was during her reign that Canada became the first nation in the British Empire to become a self-governing country, though with certain limitations such as having London still control foreign policy, choosing only to occasionally consult the leadership of Canada on international diplomacy when it suited the Empire’s goals. Still, the creation of Canada would serve as the template for later emancipation of the “white” colonies in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

And, Victoria, years before Canadian Confederation, had personally selected the capital of Canada as Ottawa when it was still a sleepy backwater called Bytown. The British North America Act, creating Canada in 1867, was enacted and signed in the name of “Victoria Regina” in the 30th and 31st year of her reign. Any laws and bills passed by the Canadian Parliament from that point on were enacted in her name and those of her successors. An official act of the Canadian Parliament still is given Royal assent, though by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in the name of Queen Elizabeth, the sovereign head of state of Canada.

Through much of its early history,  Canadians had their own country but they were still officially British citizens and for the most part took pride in that citizenship. After all, Britain was the most powerful nation in the world and proved it time and time again by sending its fleet and forces to quell native uprisings wherever they occurred, and did this with continual success. 

Many Canadians, at least the English-speaking segment of the population, were just as jingoistic as Londoners when it came to things British.

James Morris in his book Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire, called the Empire, “a wild jumble of territories, and ranged from proper nations like Canada, negotiating its own commercial treaties and announcing its own tarrifs, to backwaters like British New Guinea, into whose murky hinterland no Englishman had ever penetrated.”

Author Rudyard Kipling — famous beyond the borders of the Empire and a died-in-the-wool imperialist — wrote about the “white man’s burden” to bring civilization to the so-called savages. What he should have mentioned is that the burden had more to do with preserving British global trade and exploiting native labour and resources for the benefit of white man’s commerce.

Rebellious subjects such as the Sepoys in India, Sikhs in the Punjab, Afghans in Afghanistan, Maoris in New Zealand, Burmese in Burma, and Zulus in South Africa were fought and overcome by British arms. The British with their French allies defeated the expansionist forces of imperial Russia in the Crimea. And, China was made safe for trade in Opium through war. 

British regulars and Canadian militia led by Colonel Garnet Wolseley, a British officer who would go on to glory and fame as the enforcer of the British Empire, went west in 1870 to quell the so-called Red River Rebellion in what would become Manitoba.

The British roamed the Seven Seas as if they were their personal possessions. And why not, they were the top dogs. “Ever since the triumphant conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars they had seemed to be the arbiters of the world’s affairs, righting a balance here, dismissing a potentate there, ringing the earth with railways and submarine cables, lending money everywhere, peopling the empty spaces with men of the British stock, grandly revenging wrongs, discovering unknown lakes, setting up dynasties, emancipating slaves, winning wars, putting down mutinies, keeping Turks in their place and building bigger and faster warships,” wrote Morris.

“We send a boy out here and a boy there, and the boy takes hold of the savages of the part he comes to, and teaches them to march and shoot as he tells them, to obey him and believe him and die for him and the Queen ...,” wrote G.W. Stevens in the London Daily Mail.

The rule of law typified by the British presence empowered people to demand their full measure of citizenship. A black leader in Nova Scotia during the Victorian Era proclaimed, “We are Britishers and we have the law and constitution of our glorious Empire to support us, and our rights we claim and our rights we demand.”

When Canadian natives signed treaties with the Canadian government, they signed them with the expectation of receiving the protection of the “Great Mother,” their name for Queen Victoria.

There was a mystical quality to enjoying the benefits of citizenship, even if those who expressed their pride had never stepped onto the soil of the British Isles.

The Great Seal of Canada was designed in 1869 to show Her Majesty Queen Victoria seated, crowned and holding a sceptre in her right hand and the orb in her left with the coats of arms of the then four provinces making up Canada surrounding her.

Prime ministers of Canada, such as Sir John A. Macdonald, who was born in Scotland, firmly believed in the British Empire. “A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die,” was the expression used by Macdonald during his last election campaign.

When Britain went to war with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, Wilfred Laurier, leader of the Opposition in the Canadian Parliament and a French-Canadian, indicated his support with the oft-quoted, “Ready! Aye, Ready!” 

At this time, when Britain went to war, Canada went to war. The young nation still didn’t have complete control over its own foreign affairs. But, that didn’t seem to bother Canadian politicians — except many French-Canadians, though not Laurier — who strongly identified with Britain and Empire. It would take the death of tens of thousands in the trenches for Canadians to activity seek a break with the foreign policies dictated by Britain.

The railway spanning a nation and promoted by Macdonald was in his fertile imagination an extension of the Empire, creating a land route to the Orient so that the dangerous passage around Cape Horn could be avoided.

Of course, sharing the glory of the British Empire was one thing, and sharing in the responsibilities of its maintenance were another. Macdonald’s government even imposed a high tariff on the importation of British goods to protect Canadian manufacturers.

“Why should we waste men and money on this wretched business?” queried Macdonald, when asked to send Canadian soldiers to the Sudan. “Our men and money would be ... sacrificed to get (British Prime Minister William) Gladstone and Co. out of the hole they have plunged themselves into by their own imbecilities.”

Gladstone had sent General Charles “Chinese” Gordon to Sudan to investigate an uprising by the Madhi, “Expected One,” who had embarked upon a holy war against a corrupt Egyptian government and its British protectors. He was also to evacuate the Egyptian troops stationed in Khartoum.

Gladstone, who served as prime minister for at least some time during every decade from the 1830s to 1890s, was a freetrader and espoused “the equal rights of nations and the blessings of peace.” Despite his anti-imperialism leanings, he was continually thrown into the fire — British Empire expansion had a life of its own that was virtually impossible to control.

Gordon, a Christian mystic, overstepped his authority and attempted to outlast the Madhi who was besieging Khartoum in 1885. 

At the recommendation of Wolseley, who remembered the hardiness of voyageurs from his time in the Canadian wilderness, a decision was reached to approach Canada to send boatmen. Macdonald was eventually persuaded to send 386 Canadian voyageurs, including some Manitobans, on the express order that the boatmen be fed, clothed and paid by the British. 

Their task was to pilot boats containing British regulars down the Nile River and relieve Khartoum. But, despite their best efforts in traversing the Nile and its treacherous cataracts, they arrived three days too late — the Madhi had captured Khartoum and Gordon had been killed.

It wasn’t until 1898 that Lord Kitchener brought the Sudan back into the British Empire.

When the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign was celebrated on June 22, 1897 in London, among those in attendance was Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, who was knighted on jubilee morning by the Queen.

The Times of London called the jubilee the first great pan-Britannic festival, adding, “History may be searched, and searched in vain, to discover so wonderful an exhibition of allegiance and brotherhood amongst so many myriads of men ... The mightiest and most beneficial Empire ever known in the annals of mankind.”

Writing about the jubilee, the French newspaper Le Figaro said that the ancient empire of Rome has been “equalled, if not surpassed, by the Power in which Canada, Australia, India, in the South Seas, in Egypt, central and Southern Africa, in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean rules the people and governs their interests.”

“It was a properly Roman sight,” wrote Morris, “a pageant of citizens and barbarians too, summoned from the frontiers to that grey and eternal city ... As a tribute to Victoria it was a moving reminder of all that had happened to the British since she had come to the throne, so long ago that most of the spectators could hardly imagine a Britain without her.”

The Queen was said to have gone to bed rather pleased by all the fuss that was made over her.

But, the Empire was disintegrating just as it was being feted in the guise of Victoria Regina, and had truly gone into remission when she died in 1901, though its apogee is said to have been in 1920. At the same time that the Victorian Era was being celebrated, the United States was emerging as the richest nation to have ever arisen on the globe, and other European nations were challenging Britain with their own overseas colonies. 

In the end, maintaining a far-flung Empire was simply too costly and the aspirations of those within its fold proved too much for the government in London — the British Empire simply faded away. When free trade began to dominate, the old economy of Empire was rendered meaningless.”

The great exports of Empire —  democracy and constitutional law — were used to advantage by the white-dominated colonies to charter their own course toward self-determination.

The name of Victoria was exploited at the zenith of the Empire’s expansion. The phrases “Great White Queen” and “Great Mother” resonated, and acted subliminally to support its propagation. Potentates of far off lands could identified with her as a kindred ruler, and with the disappearance of tribal totems and chiefs in Africa, the Queen seemed to be the one institution that they could hold onto as a remnant of what had been lost.

Her name was further used by those in power for their own purposes, such as the Canadian government when it was negotiating treaties in Western Canada.

“Your Great Mother wishes the good of all races under her sway,” Manitoba Lieutenant Governor Adams Archibald told the chiefs who were negotiating Treaty One at Lower Fort Garry in 1871. “She wishes her red children to be happy and contented. She wishes them to live in comfort.”

Archibald invoked the queen as a guarantor that the treaty they signed will be honoured “as long as the sun shall shine...”

Even Sitting Bull, after wiping out Custer and his American troops, fled across the border to Canada, seeking the protection of the “Great Mother.”

Propaganda had its place in the Victorian Era, and British politicians and Empire builders used Victoria’s name to great effect.

The wealthy diamond merchant and promoter of Empire, Cecil Rhodes, used her name to swindle a local king out of what became Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Evoking Victoria, Rhodes endowed the new country with his own name and declared it part of the British Empire. As the paramount imperialist in an age of imperialism, it was Rhodes’ dream that the British Empire would one day reabsorb the United States of America.

But, Victoria was also more than the embodiment of Empire — she was also celebrated as the champion of morals. Today, those accepting the values espoused by the era would be called prudes in the extreme. Yet, Victoria served as a breathe of fresh air to a monarchy that had been previously plagued by kings and their relatives of loose moral character who kept stables of mistresses or struggled with bouts of insanity.

Victoria and her husband Albert had nine children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom became the monarchs, or married the rulers, of Europe thrones. This was also the root of her being called the “Great Mother.”

When her husband Albert died in 1850, she mourned for decades, shunning public appearances until sage politicians convinced her that public appearances would enhance her popularity, while also knowing that their own careers would be furthered through her reflected glory.

Having ruled since she was 18 for 64 years, the greatest time of any British monarch, her longevity helped reinforce the stereotype of Victorian England and the might of the British Empire that has come down to us today.