People can tell you where they were when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in the Canada-Russia summit series on Sept. 28, 1972. Or when American astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969. Or when American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
These events have left a lasting impression on people’s memory and are easily recalled as if they happened yesterday.
But what about Dec. 11, 1936? That was the day King Edward VIII announced in a radio broadcast that he had abdicated the British throne because he could not rule “without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock was in Saskatoon, staying at the Bessborough Hotel, when he was directed to the lounge to hear the king’s address at three that afternoon.
“There I heard him,” Leacock recalled in his book, My Discovery of the West. “There were just five or six of us, strangers to one another and without talk. We listened as did other groups all over the world.”
Edward’s announcement came as a surprise. Canadian newspapers had provided little coverage of the king’s deepening romance with the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson through the summer and fall of 1936. The public was consequently unprepared for the December abdication crisis.
His departure as king also marked the end of a close relationship with Canada.
In the aftermath of the Great War, Edward Prince of Wales had been sent to the dominions to shore up support for the British Empire. His 1919 tour of Canada, captured on silent motion picture newsreel, was an unparalleled success.
Whereas his father King George V appeared stuffy and aloof, with one foot stuck in the Victorian era, the fashionably dressed prince cut a modern, dashing figure as the most eligible bachelor in the world.
Adoring crowds turned out to see the twenty-five-year-old heir to the throne wherever he went.
Canadian officials also went out of their way to ease Edward’s sensitivity about his short stature. For the official photograph at the Saskatchewan legislature, for example, Premier William Martin stood on a lower step.
The prince reciprocated the warm greetings by meeting and exchanging words with as many as he could.
The Regina Morning Leader declared that Edward “won his way into the hearts of the people in a way never before approached in this country.”
The prince returned to Canada three times in the 1920s. In 1923 and 1924, he holidayed at the E.P (Edward Prince) Ranch he had purchased in the Albertan foothills during his 1919 tour. He made time for several public appearances.
Then, in 1927, he represented his father at the diamond jubilee celebration of confederation in Ottawa.
This bond between Canada and Edward was expected to flourish when he became king in January 1936.
That was certainly the case at the dedication of the Vimy Monument later that summer. France had donated the land, and when Edward arrived to unveil the memorial to Canada’s war dead, he was welcomed to Canadian soil.
The king personally received Canadian mothers who had made the pilgrimage to see their sons’ names inscribed around the base of the monument.
But then, his abdication in December 1936 abruptly ended this Canadian connection.
There was little sympathy, let alone support, for the king and Mrs. Simpson.
“Apparently, it was all over in nine minutes,” Leacock wrote about Edward’s address, “The six strangers in the [Bessborough] lounge got up and went away. Round the town people listening in their offices said, ‘That’s too bad, eh?’ ”
“But mostly,” Leacock remembered, “people didn’t say much about the abdication and mostly haven’t yet.”
There was just polite acceptance after the initial shock that the popular Edward would be succeeded by his stuttering younger brother Bertie (George VI).
“The point is,” Leacock later mused, “that the people — the ex-king’s subjects — didn’t know just how they felt and don’t know yet.”
This article originally in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Premier William Martin stands on a lower step to avoid drawing attention to the Prince of Wales’ height during his visit to the Saskatchewan legislature.
Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board
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