HALIFAX — Prince Charles reflected on Canada’s contribution to the Second World War before he and his wife Camilla went on a royal walkabout Monday among hundreds of people in Halifax, their first stop in a tour of three provincial capitals.
Canada’s military involvement was a central theme of the royal couple’s tour of Halifax, a naval city where 500,000 military personnel embarked on transatlantic journeys to serve during the Second World War.
Charles commented on the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen from Canada who fought to liberate Europe as the 75th anniversary of the start of the war approaches, calling it “an extraordinary contribution” from a country with a small population.
Later, Charles and Camilla met military families at a resource centre that helps them with a number of programs ranging from nutrition to mental health services while their loved ones are on deployment. They watched a ball hockey game in a parking lot outside the centre and inside Camilla shook hands with a puppet who was entertaining a group of children.
Ordinary Seaman Matthew Hunt, 23, who volunteers at the centre, met the royal couple dressed in a yellow banana costume to promote healthy eating.
He said he didn’t hesitate to wear the brightly coloured costume when asked.
“I’m a little lost for words, it’s something I never thought I would do,” Hunt said after the meeting.
Puppeteer Melissa Connell, 35, also met the royals.
“They were very nice, they interacted with all the families, that was really exciting to see,” said Connell, who works at the centre. “It was great to see them shake hands and chat with the children.”
Charles commented on her puppets. “He actually said that they looked a little bit scary,” she said with a laugh.
The Duchess of Cornwall made a separate visit to the Northbrook Community Centre in suburban Dartmouth for a private meeting with representatives of Alice Housing, which provides shelter and counselling for women and children escaping domestic abuse.
The prince also planted a tree at the city’s Public Gardens, continuing a tradition started by King George VI in June 1939.
The visit by the Prince of Wales and the duchess is meant to celebrate Canada’s past and future at a time when a number of significant anniversaries will be commemorated over the next few years, including the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
Another is the 150th anniversary this year of the Charlottetown Conference, which led to Confederation in 1867.
“Our visit will focus on Canadian achievements as part of a major celebration of the past and the future,” Charles said in the first of four speeches he will make during the trip.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, the foundations for a new country, which would be proud of its traditions and excited by its future, were first laid in Charlottetown and Quebec City. Based on the principle of freedom and justice inherited from two great European nations, the Dominion of Canada was to become a reality three years later.”
People were bundled up against chilly weather and a light mist hung over Grand Parade as Charles and Camilla were officially welcomed to Canada on Monday morning by Gov. Gen. David Johnston, politicians and an aboriginal elder. A booming 21-gun royal salute echoed through the city’s downtown as the prince inspected an honour guard.
Charles used the grey, overcast day to get a laugh from those who lined the square.
“It is, as always, a special joy to be back in Canada again, a place that is very dear to us both,” he said. “This time to be in Canada’s historic ocean gateway to the Atlantic at the official start of summer.”
The royal couple also laid a wreath at the city’s cenotaph.
This is their second Canadian tour since 2012, but it’s the first time Camilla has visited the three provinces on the schedule: Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Manitoba.
Charles was last in Manitoba 18 years ago, and he visited the two Maritime provinces in 1983. They have a full day of events scheduled for Winnipeg on Wednesday after arriving the night before from Charlottetown.
The prince said he has fond memories of an unplanned visit to Halifax 42 years ago through “an act of God” when the propeller of the ship he was serving on became tangled in miles of fishing net and cable.
“An American net, of course,” he joked.
Canada’s wartime history also featured Monday as Charles and Camilla visited Halifax’s Pier 21, the home of Canada’s National Museum of Immigration, where they met war brides. The federal government estimates about 48,000 young women married Canadian servicemen during the Second World War, most of them from Britain.
Stella Pierce, 90, of Mahone Bay, N.S., said she told Charles she came to Canada as a 20-year-old war bride.
“I came on a French ship, there were only three women who didn’t have any children and I was one of them,” she said afterwards.
“We landed in 1944, we had to go south as far as Bermuda to avoid the U-boats,” she continued, her voice breaking with emotion. “We landed in Halifax, which was very exciting, very exciting.”
Pierce said she knew an invitation to a war brides event was on its way and was delighted to discover the guests of honour were royalty. She returned early from a trip to Ottawa to visit her new great-grandchild so as not to miss the tea party.
“I was surprised and honoured when I got the invitation,” she said. “I thought, ’Oh yeah, another war brides thing. I must try to go.’ When I found out it was the prince and Camilla, I was very thrilled.”
The royal couple ended their brief stay in Nova Scotia at a celebration of Pictou’s Celtic heritage at the quay that houses a replica of the ship Hector, a three-masted cargo vessel that landed in the community in September 1773 carrying Scottish Highlanders. Its journey marked the start of a wave of immigration from Scotland.