Prince Charles Visits Canada

For a week, the nation was caught up in the mystique of the monarchy. At every stop on the tour, thousands of flag-waving admirers gathered to catch a glimpse of royalty.

Prince Charles Visits Canada

For a week, the nation was caught up in the mystique of the monarchy. At every stop on the tour, thousands of flag-waving admirers gathered to catch a glimpse of royalty. Remember those days? That was 1991, when the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, visited Canada amid widespread outpourings of affection. Cut to last week. A sombre Charles - alone - stepped off the airplane in Ottawa to the cheers of only about 100 people, including an entourage of Girl Guides and Brownies. "I saw him up close," gushed seven-year-old Ottawa Brownie Rose Frouin, "and he looked good." But not many Canadians - or Brits, for that matter - shared Frouin's enthusiasm. One example: the British press took only three of the 10 passes available for the trip. "Most of the tabloid press," said Timothy Rooke, a British photographer who followed the Prince to Ottawa, "found that this wasn't a particularly interesting visit."

Actually, it was - at least as an indicator of how much has changed in five years. With his soon-to-be-ex-wife back in England, Charles's weeklong visit hardly took Canada by storm. Part of the reason is a string of royal scandals, which has taken its toll on the Royal Family's popularity among Canadians. And then there is the Di factor: Charles can no longer borrow the shine of the glamorous Diana, with whom he is negotiating a messy divorce. And yet, for all its status as a media bust, the 47-year-old prince's tour also highlighted his gentle humor and his humanism - a man who, if and when he becomes king, might well bring the monarchy down to earth.

Gone was much of the pomp and ceremony of the 1991 tour, as sparse crowds greeted Charles at almost every stop. And the weather mimicked the lacklustre public response. It rained in Ottawa. It snowed in Winnipeg. And it was cold and windy in Toronto. Charles had better weather - and a warmer reception - the next day in Hamilton, where he gave a speech before 15,000 people, most of them youngsters given time off school. But back in Toronto early on the weekend, Charles was greeted by more cold and gloom.

Despite the lack of glitter, those who bothered to show up and meet the Prince of Wales were largely impressed. "He's a man you can look up to," said Cpl. James Cameron of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, an armed forces regiment Charles inspected. "He looks like an honest man." In Churchill, Man., about 1,000 people - the entire population of the Hudson Bay seaport - turned out as he oversaw the signing of an agreement to establish Wapusk National Park. "My only regret is that I, as usual, seem to have chosen the wrong time of year to come, because there was not one single, solitary sign of a polar bear or a beluga whale," Charles later said, with typically self-deprecating humor. "Being the Prince of Wales, I feel particularly responsible for them."

Back in England, Princess Diana was doing what she seems to do best: making headlines. She sat in on a heart operation, conducted by British surgeons, on a seven-year-old boy from Cameroon. Her televised appearance in an operating room - while decked out in makeup and earrings - touched off a hail of criticism that Diana was taking her self-appointed role as "queen of people's hearts" too far.

By contrast, the low-key response to Charles's visit seemed in keeping with the man himself - introspective, and preferring substance over ceremony. Without Diana, his appearances were more like intimate gatherings than photo ops. At Children of the Earth High School in Winnipeg, aboriginal students showed him how they paint spirit rocks and weave dream-catchers, and they gave him a spiritual name: Leading Star. For a prince decidedly lacking in star quality, that seems a misnomer. But Tina Lands, a Grade 11 student, paid Charles a bigger compliment. "He's nice," Lands said simply. "He listens and understands."

Maclean's May 6, 1996