In early May 1939, King George VI and his wife Elizabeth (the mother of the current Queen with the same name) sailed from England to Canada on a month-tour of North America. It was the first visit by a reigning sovereign to Canada or, for that matter, to any overseas Dominion. It was also the first time that a British monarch had visited the United States of America.
With the clouds of war darkening Europe, the tour had tremendous political significance as Britain sought allies in the expected conflict with Nazi Germany. Lesser known is the constitutional significance of the trip, with the King visiting Canada, not as the King of Great Britain, but as the King of Canada.
On May 17, 1939, the royal couple arrived in Quebec City for their tour of Canada on board RMS Empress of Australia. The reception at Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal were positive beyond expectations, and the King impressed Quebeckers when he responded to the welcoming remarks in French.
They moved on to Ottawa and Toronto as they made their way west via train across the width of Canada. They eventually arrived at the Pacific province of Vancouver. All along the way, thousands of well-wishers greeted the King and Queen at every stop.
The trip was an overwhelming success. The handsome, young couple charmed their Canadian subjects. With the world on the brink of war, they pushed the grim international headlines to the back pages and reminded Canadians of their democratic institutions and their strong ties to The Commonwealth.
The US itinerary included visits to Mount Vernon on 9 June, the 1939 New York World’s Fair on 10 June, and dinner at Roosevelt’s estate at Hyde Park on 11 June, at which President Roosevelt served hot dogs, smoked turkey, and strawberry shortcake to the royal couple.
On June 12, the royal couple returned to Canada to continue their royal tour of the country, visiting the Maritime provinces. Accompanied by the Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Humphrey Walwyn, the King and Queen were driven to St. John’s to attend various official events, causing the city’s population of 50,000 to double as visitors came in to see the royal couple.
After a visit to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the royal couple ended their tour at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 15, where a farewell luncheon was held. That evening, the royal couple boarded the RMS Empress of Britain to return to the United Kingdom.
The presence of the King and Queen, in both Canada and the United States, was calculated to shore up sympathy for Britain in anticipation of hostilities with Nazi Germany. Their visit was none-too-soon.
On September 3, a German U-boat deliberately sank the SS Athenia, a 526-foot, 13,500-ton passenger liner—the first British ship lost in the war as it left Glasgow for Montreal. In total, 98 passengers and nineteen crew members died, including 54 Canadians and 28 Americans.
World War II had begun.