Canada Day at Rideau Hall

Photos by Sgt. Johanie Maheu 

By Jane Rowland

My limbs felt a little numb in combination with an out of body sensation as I stood in one of the ceremonial rooms at Rideau Hall, the official residence of the governor general of Canada, waiting for The Prince of Wales to enter the room. I thought about what I might say in the unlikely event that I would be talking to him, and then began to pare down the modest speech I had prepared in my mind to something that wouldn’t last more than about thirty seconds at most. My mind raced as I mentally rehearsed the lines.

My interest in the Royal Family and all things monarchical go back a long way. In fact, I think I was a toddler when I found a commemorative booklet belonging to my mother on The Queen’s Coronation of 1953. Even the black and white pictures fascinated me. To my shame though, I was a scribbler and the pencil marks are still there today. I well remember my mother and my Auntie Marie, both British ladies, trading British women’s magazines through the 1960’s. In turn, they would arrive on major holidays with arms piled high straining under the weight and I would eagerly devour the stories and pictures of The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, and their young family. The magazines have long since gone, but I still have that booklet of the Coronation.

My mother was a Veteran of the Second World War. She volunteered to join, what was then called, the WAAF or Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in England in 1942. My parents came to Canada in 1951 so, my mother had seen many Remembrance Day services in Canada. I had often wondered how the veterans got to meet various members of the Royal Family on their visits to Canada, and pondered how I could arrange for my mother to be present on one of these occasions. I asked her if she would like me to write to the Governor General to inquire if it was possible for her to be presented to any member of the Royal Family that might be coming to Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. I wrote at the beginning of April but heard nothing through the rest of that month. May arrived and again, we had no answer.  By mid-May the whole notion of meeting royalty had slipped from our minds.

Quite suddenly one May morning my mother was taken ill and she was duly admitted into hospital where she died two weeks later. My wonderful brave and dearly loved mother was gone from our lives. The dreaded day had arrived which I thought might never come to pass. My hopeful fantasy was that we could all go on without the ‘keeper of the gate’ ever noticing that her allotted time was nearing its end. It was not to be.

On a warm June evening, I was routinely going through emails and I happened to notice a name I did not recognize. I opened it and there it was – Their Excellencies the Right Honourable David Johnston Governor General of Canada, and Mrs. Sharon Johnston, wish to invite you to join them and Their Royal Highnesses, The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall for the inauguration of The Queen’s Entrance with a dinner reception to follow. I opened the attachments and there was the Governor General’s crest with our names emblazoned on the invitation. To say I was stunned is the understatement of the year. I was in shock and it took some considerable time for my head to absorb what I had just read. I think for a full five minutes I just sat with my mouth open staring at this invitation totally uncomprehending what I was reading. Everything had turned into slow motion and time stood still. I think the earth actually faltered and stopped rotating for a few seconds. Then I closed everything up and sat there in contemplative mood, until I opened it all again and read through it a second time, then closed it again. The full blunt force hit me with the painful and bittersweet consequences of my April letter to Rideau Hall.

My wardrobe was not only malfunctioning there was a distinct lack of it, so I was off to the Rideau Centre in short order. I saw the dress almost instantly hanging on the rack. It was waiting for me and calling to me. The shoes echoed the same clarion call, so I bought them too. I was sartorially complete for July 1st thanks to my friend Annette, whose sewing skills made some slight but necessary alterations. I had been in contact with Rideau Hall and explained to them about my mother, and they could not have been more sympathetic and kind. They suggested that I take a framed photograph of my mother if I had one, and show it to either The Prince or The Duchess if the opportunity should present itself.

Armed with my mother’s photograph in her WAAF uniform, and myself resplendent in the new dress and shoes, I climbed the front entrance stairs of Rideau Hall. Lining the corridors were staff welcoming the guests and directing us through the residence to the magnificent Tent Room. I tried my utmost to assume a nonchalant demeanour as I walked carefully through the room on the marble floor, and played it safe by taking a glass of water from a tray from one of the servers who mingled amongst the guests with various refreshments. The grand atmosphere of Rideau Hall has the immediate effect of making one feel special, important, and alive with excited anticipation of the evening ahead.

The guests were then shepherded back outside to form in front of the building where the doors, specially commissioned in celebration of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Sapphire Jubilee and her dedicated service to Canada, were inaugurated as The Queen’s Entrance. The Prince and The Duchess came into view from around the back of Rideau Hall, each made the token shovelful of earth onto a sugar maple and then proceeded to inaugurate The Queen’s Entrance. I was a few feet away and able to see clearly their Royal Highnesses, and The Governor General and Mrs. Sharon Johnston. I thought it doesn’t get better than this as I recalled many uncomfortable events at which I had seen royalty from afar in either Canada or the UK.

The invited guests, all 150 of us for Canada’s birthday, reassembled inside just before one of many of the day’s torrential downpours. We were free to roam between various ceremonial rooms, partake of the buffet, sparkling wines, soak up the atmosphere and perhaps meet royalty. My excitement was reaching pinnacles not attained since Christmases past when I was about age four. So, I thought it was a good idea to have a glass of wine. I wandered around until I found myself with a group of people of varying backgrounds. Among the group was an individual who organized something for one of The Queen’s last visits to Canada, the author of a biography about Lord Tweedsmuir, former governor general of Canada, a former director of the Governor General’s Footguards Band, and another was a paralympian. I was just me, never having done anything particularly noteworthy, with a picture of my mother under my arm.

A Rideau Hall official then approached the group of remarkable people that I had surreptitiously joined, and began to instruct us to form a sort of ‘U’ shape open circle. She told us to stay put, and that The Prince of Wales was deep in conversation in the other room but would be coming into our reception room to speak with us. My immediate thought was I should be found out in short order as an imposter. I was going to be told that the game was up and be unceremoniously chucked out.

We stood in our letter ‘U’ holding pattern as I rehearsed what I was going to say and all the while thinking, could this really be happening to me? I had practiced curtseying in my living room, but I was slightly concerned about my tricky knee. Oh well, too late now I thought, as The Prince of Wales came into the room and began shaking hands and talking to each person in the line. My eyes must have looked like saucers at this point, as I took in as much as I could about him. He is a stocky man, not tall, with a very ruddy outdoorsman complexion, attributable no doubt, from time spent on highland moors sketching his watercolour drawings. He was now talking to the gentleman next to me. I was glad I had had that glass of wine as it gave me that extra bit of composure. The Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, and Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, and Baron Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland was now standing directly in front of me. He held his hand out and I grasped it and managed to pull off a little bob. The knee held. He looks at you very directly and I heard myself saying “Your Royal Highness, I am here representing my mother, who was invited here tonight but sadly died after a brief illness in May. She was a volunteer with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in England during the war, and I was asked by Rideau Hall to bring a photograph of her which I have with me”. He made a sympathetic little sighing sound at the sad story I was relaying to him, and looked at the picture of my mother. I told him which RAF station she had served with, and I think he said he was familiar with it, smiled and moved on to the next person. That was it!

Honestly, I don’t remember much of what came immediately after Prince Charles left our group. I think everyone dispersed to find the buffet and I was sort of left standing by myself wondering if what had just happened, actually had happened! Then suddenly the Governor General appeared before me, shook my hand and as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared. I went off feeling weak in the knees and tried to find something to eat, but I was really still too excited to have much of an appetite.

The Band of the Royal Regiment of Canada was playing in one of the rooms as the guests milled around and sat at various tables tucking into the buffet. It was very noisy and as I headed for the buffet, I began to recover and felt quite blasé at this juncture, when I spotted Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall, as one does on these occasions, talking to a group of people. I stopped and wondered if I should try to slip into that group and meet Camilla as well, but then I thought better of it. Ho hum, I said to myself, one royal meeting a day is probably enough.

As the evening drew to a close, thoughts of my mother came into my mind and how pleased and proud she would have been that I had been able to be present on her behalf. Thanks Mum for all you did during the war, and all that your generation did. The privilege of being here at Rideau Hall on this day was all due to you, Bless you.