Prince Philip’s last visit to Canada was a short one in 2013 — without his wife, the Queen — to present a ceremonial flag to the Royal Canadian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion. It came as something of a surprise.
Philip, who died on April 9, 2021, at age 99, was 91 at the time. He had experienced a few health scares in the 18 months before. So overseas travel was not necessarily a given for the Duke of Edinburgh, who was already the longest-serving consort to a monarch in British history.
“During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations [in 2012], the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh remained in the United Kingdom while their children and grandchildren toured the world,” Toronto-based royal historian and blogger Carolyn Harris said at the time. “So I think a foreign visit from the Duke of Edinburgh at 91 was unexpected.”
But given Philip’s feisty personality, dedication to his role and some of the interests he showed over the years, his return to Canada — he made more than 70 visits or stopovers between 1950 and 2013 — may not really have been a complete surprise.
The 2013 trip was billed as a private working visit and was only a few days long.
But while he was here, he was finally able to pick up the insignias he had been awarded as companion of the Order of Canada and commander of the Order of Military Merit from David Johnston, then Canada’s governor general.
Stephen Wallace, secretary to the Governor General, said during the ceremony that Philip “has long embodied dignity, loyalty and service to others” and has helped advance the personal achievement of young Canadians through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
Philip also presented a new regimental colour to the Petawawa, Ont.-based Third Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment on the grounds of Queen’s Park.
The brevity of that trip was not unprecedented. Philip made several short jaunts to Canada through the years.
“There have been visits related to his charitable patronages, fundraising dinners for the World Wildlife Fund Canada or presenting Duke of Edinburgh awards or holding Commonwealth Study conferences to address issues throughout the Commonwealth,” said Harris. “So it’s interesting that he has been a very constant presence in Canada in the past 60 years.”
Philip’s longstanding interest in Canada and its military forces was on display as early as 1951, said Harris, when he accompanied Elizabeth, then heir to the throne and standing in for her ailing father, King George VI, on their first visit to the country.
In a speech during that visit, Philip “commented that he admired that Canada had preserved its independence being so close to a powerful neighbour such as the United States, and that Canada had developed a distinct culture and had its own scientific innovators and cultural innovators,” said Harris.
Philip’s “admiration” for the Canadian Forces dated to the Second World War, said Harris.
Philip, who gave up a naval career at age 29 to support his wife, put his own wartime experience front and centre in his 1951 speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.
“In the British Isles, the Canadian army will always be remembered for the security they gave when invasion threatened and the gallantry [displayed] in the fighting in Italy and North Europe. I can speak from personal experience as I was serving in a destroyer off the beaches at Sicily when the Canadian division landed there in 1943.”
‘Never pass a fault’
Philip was made colonel-in-chief of the Royal Canadian Regiment on Dec. 8, 1953, taking on a role that had been vacant for more than a decade. He presented the 3rd Battalion’s first colours on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1973.
That flag was ripped when its display case was damaged in 2006. For the soldiers who watched Philip present the new heavy silk tapestry at Queen’s Park during that 2013 visit, his presence was significant.
“For us, as a regiment, to have a member of the Royal Family come to do this for us is important,” said Lt.-Col. David Quick, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion.
Philip, Quick suggested, also embodied the qualities that are reflected in the battalion’s slogan: “Never pass a fault.”
“From what I understand, certainly what the popular media reports, that’s exactly the kind of man the Duke of Edinburgh is. So I’m really excited to meet a guy that’s lived his whole life in the same manner as this regiment believes in.”
Robert Finch, chair of the Monarchist League of Canada, said Philip’s final visit to Canada was a testament to his dedication to Canada, and to his stamina.
“I really thought that his age and recent health concerns would have made such a visit impossible,” Finch said in an email.
“But how wrong I was. And I bet he gets a kick out of people talking about his health and age, [and] probably says to himself, ‘I’ll show them.'”
Politics and the prince
The Duke of Edinburgh always kept his eye on Canadian politics, too, and unlike his wife, he occasionally had something to say publicly.
“When there was hostility to the monarchy coming out of French Canada,” said royal historian Harris, “Prince Philip spoke quite frankly that if there was going to be a break between Canada and the monarchy, to let it be an amicable one.”
At that point, in 1976, Philip made one of the controversial remarks he became known for.
“It was at the end of those comments that he made the remark: ‘We don’t come here for our health; we can think of other ways of spending our time,’ ” said Harris.
She argued that the remark, often considered one of Philip’s verbal faux pas, was taken out of context.
“It was within the context of him talking about how the monarchy was there to serve the people and would be there as long as the people wanted.
“In his position as the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip’s been able to speak much more frankly, whereas the Queen as an impartial constitutional monarch cannot comment publicly about Canadian politics.”