By Bill McLeod
In the late 1930s there was a lot going on in the world. King Edward VIII had abdicated in December of 1936 and was replaced by his brother Bertie who took on the new name of George VI. The official reason for Edward’s abdication was that he was messing around with an American divorcee named Wallace Simpson and wanted to marry her. Since the British sovereign is also head of the Church of England, whose crank was not turned by divorce, Edward chose Wallace over the throne.
But there were other issues that were causing great concern to the British establishment. Apparently Fast Eddie the King wasn’t too swift. War was looming on the horizon, and Eddie didn’t seem to be twigging to the gravity of the situation. Also, the British Government was worried that he was getting a bit too chummy with his German cousins and with senior members of the Third Reich. Getting rid of Eddie solved a number of problems but created some new ones. They sent him off to be Governor of the Bahamas – out of sight and almost out of mind. While Eddie was presiding in the Bahamas, Harry Oakes, the fabulously wealthy discoverer of Lakeshore Mines was murdered. No one was ever charged with Oakes’ death, but rumors swirled for many years that Eddie the Governor might have known a bit more about the case than he let on.
If all this seems like it has no connection with Northern Ontario, bear with me.
In 1939, the new King and Elizabeth, his Queen were sent on a tour of Canada. In addition to introducing the new royal couple to Canadians, the junket had another purpose. Since Bertie and Liz had not been trained or groomed for the throne, they needed to get accustomed to all the scraping and bowing. If they goofed, the bumpkins in the Canadian boondocks might not even notice.
Fast forward to July of 2000. The Queen Mother, now well into her nineties, gave a rather extensive interview to the Globe and Mail. One of the events the old Queen related to the interviewer was the 1939 tour of Canada. She specifically mentioned Chapleau.
Apparently the Royal train had to stop in Chapleau at 2:00 a.m. to take on water. The reeve of Chapleau at the time was a highly regarded man named George Fife. For many years Mr. Fife ran the town’s hydro generating plant and power distribution network. I remember him as a jovial man who liked to tease kids. He was the grandfather of Phyllis Crang of Sudbury, one of Northern Ontario’s best ever athletes. And one of his grandsons is Bob Fife, CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief.
When word came to Chapleau that the Royal Train would be stopping there, George Fife sent word to the crew that he would like to meet the King. Probably without much enthusiasm, George VI hauled his butt out of the sack, put on his suit and tie and went out on the station platform to meet Mr. Fife. After making some small talk, the King asked the reeve (mayor) if he had a chain of office. Not a man to pass up the chance to have a little fun at the expense of the sovereign, Fife replied that he did have such a chain “but he only wore it on special occasions”. That cracked the King up and, sixty-one years later, the Queen Mother laughingly told the Globe and Mail about her brief visit to Chapleau and about how funny the King found Mr. Fife’s comment.
There may well be another version of this story as I found out when I read Jean Chretien’s memoir, My Years as Prime Minister. Over his long career Mr. Chretien became quite close to the Royal family. One of the reasons they liked him and Mrs. Chretien was that they could speak French with them. On page 243 Chretien describes a January, 1994, luncheon with the Queen Mother at Sandringham. The old Queen got to reminiscing about the Royal tour of 1939. She recounted a dinner one evening with Camillien Houde, the colorful mayor of Montreal. She inquired as to why he wasn’t wearing his chain of office. Like George Fife, Camillien told the Queen that he did have one but wore it “only on special occasions”.
It’s difficult to figure out how the Queen Mother could confuse George Fife with Camillien Houde. But maybe this was an “all purpose” story she used whenever what she deemed an appropriate occasion arose. Who knows? It is a very funny tale.
On a more serious note, Camillien Houde was interned during World War II probably because he wasn’t as sympathetic to the war effort as he might have been. Something like Pierre Trudeau, only Trudeau wasn’t incarcerated. One of the jobs Houde was given involved dismantling some urinals to be melted down and used in the war effort. He was quoted as saying that he was required to “turn urinals into arsenals”. A pretty good line.
Bill McLeod has a new book coming out in 2010. For details email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org
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