Thousands crowd legislature grounds to greet royal couple

The Duchess of Cambridge greets a large crowd of admirers during the welcoming ceremony at the B.C. legislature on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.   Photograph By DARREN STONE, Times Colonist

Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, began their week-long tour of British Columbia and the Yukon in Victoria Saturday with a welcome ceremony that honoured Canadian military service, young people and First Nations in front of a lively crowd of thousands.

“Catherine and I have asked to meet as many people from as many walks of life as we can while we’re here,” he said in a speech at the legislature, where an estimated 25,000 people were in the crowd. “We’re very much looking forward to learning about how Canadians are tackling some of the biggest challenges of the day.”

The prince recalled his visit to B.C. as a teenager in the late 1990s, when he was a heartthrob greeted by screaming girls. “We feel very fortunate to have time to get to really know parts of this country that we did not get to visit in 2011 but of which I have very happy memories as a shy teenager,” he said, pausing and grinning. “A few of you remember it too well, I think.”

At the legislature, the crowd’s biggest screams came at the first sight of the royal couple’s children arriving at 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron at Victoria International airport, shown on a large screen. The Royal Family arrived 10 minutes ahead of schedule on a military plane carrying Prince William’s seal. They were greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, Premier Christy Clark and her bowtie-sporting teenage son Hamish, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife Sharon, and Lt. Gov. Judith Guichon.

The Prince William emerged from the plane holding the hand of three-year-old Prince George, dressed in a light blue sweater and shorts. Kate — wearing a blue maple leaf hat by British design house Lock and Co. and the Queen’s maple leaf brooch — carried 16-month-old Princess Charlotte. Prince George appeared more interested in a Sea King helicopter landing at the base than he did in the official receiving line, while Princess Charlotte waved goodbye to the plane.

This was the first of two public appearances the children will make during the visit. The second will be at their departure from Victoria at the downtown seaplane terminal on Oct. 1.

The family left in a motorcade of two dozen vehicles that stopped at Government House, where they will stay for the week, before heading to the legislature. People stood on the side of the highway from the airport to downtown Victoria cheering and taking photos as the royal motorcade passed. Overpasses were packed with waving people. The windows of the car carrying the royals were down so that they could wave back.

Some of the thousands waiting at the legislature lawn had staked out spots before dawn.

“We got here around 6:15 a.m. and a few other ladies were already here,” said Sarah Larson, who drove down from Courtenay with her mother Gloria Zimmer Friday night.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see them … I’ve been researching royal stuff all week,” said Larson, who sat on a blanket alongside the red carpet walkway with snacks, travel Boggle and enough crosswords to fill the day. Larson also prepared a bouquet with the Canadian and Union Jack flags and small picture of a friend who died. “She was a major royals fan. She would have loved this.”

Emily Emery and her mother Jill Boudreau drove from Mount Vernon, Washington, for the event. “I admire their work and how they use their celebrity for good. They’re big on children’s health and as a nurse, I admire them,” Emery said.

Patrick Wilson stood for nearly 12 hours at a metal gate along the red carpet to see the royal couple. He said as a First Nations person, from the north Island Kwakiutl First Nation, it is meaningful for him to see the Royal Family’s interest in B.C.’s Indigenous peoples. “I don’t have the words for it but it’s good,” said Wilson, wearing a cedar bark top hat.

The royal couple arrived at the legislature around 5:30 p.m., about a half hour behind schedule.

A solemn ceremony at the legislature cenotaph marked the start of the ceremony, featuring the skirl of bagpipes and a lone bugler.

The cheerful crowd grew silent as Kate and William placed a wreath at the cenotaph. Retired colonel Paul Paone, who was with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, was happy to see a new plaque honouring Afghanistan veterans unveiled. “It’s absolutely wonderful,” he said. “It took long enough.”

William and Kate spoke at length with three veterans, including Gordon Quan, who served as a commando in Burma during the Second World War.

Also meeting the royal pair were Afghanistan veterans Cpl. Mireille Poulin and Petty Officer Wayne Clarke. Prince William, who flew helicopters in the Royal Air Force, asked Poulin what kind of helicopters were used in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The royal couple was welcomed to traditional Lekwungen territory by Esquimalt and Songhees dancers as they walked the red carpet to the stage with the prime minister and his wife, the Governor General and his wife, the lieutenant governor, and the premier and her son. They were met by a line of local politicians, including Mayor Lisa Helps, First Nations chiefs, Victoria MLA Carole James and federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

In his speech, the Governor General noted that the royal couple first came to Canada in 2011 as newlyweds of three months, “and now you’ve come back as a family. We couldn’t be happier for you,” he said. For Canada, the monarchy “represents a family and reminds us that people come first.”

Trudeau got a few laughs when he jested about travelling with kids. “As any parent who has travelled with children knows, it is a whole different experience when you bring your family with you. I want to commend you and thank you for introducing our part of the world to Prince George and Princess Charlotte,” he said.

“Though let me caution you from my own experience, if they’re anything like our kids, getting them back on a plane after a visit to our beautiful West Coast will really be a challenge.”

William and Kate rewarded many of the fans who’d spent hours waiting to see them with greetings as they walked along the red carpet after the ceremony.

“He said he liked my flower,” said Teresa Bell, who shook Prince William’s hand on the walkabout. Bell and her friend Kisha Cook, both from Nanaimo, wore black decorative fascinators. “I can’t believe it.”

Standing next to them, Lori Hitchcox said she was shaking after her encounter with the prince.

“He asked if I lived in Victoria. I said yes. And he said, ‘I see we’re taking up most of your city,’ ” said Hitchcox, wearing a maple leaf scarf. “I told him I loved his grandmother. He was so sincere. They really are as nice as they look.”

Monique Girard was surprised to be approached by the duchess while holding her six-month-old daughter Scarlett. “She told me that after this small stage, it only gets better,” Girard said. “I told her that she’s beautiful. It was like this goddess in front of me.”

Kate told Girard and Loreen Topping that she wished she had brought her children, particularly Prince George, so that they could enjoy the lights on the legislative buildings.

Dayna Mottishaw and her friend Courtney Simcoff were decked out in pearls, fascinators and tea cups.

“We’re both moms of young kids so it’s not easy to get out and do something like this,” said Mottishaw. It panned out. They saw the royal couple up close and shook the prince’s hand. “He really looks you in the eye.”

Mottishaw said it was a once in a lifetime chance to see the royals, then quipped, “Although I am off to see the Royals tonight. They’re playing Prince George,” she said, referring to the local hockey game.

After the one-hour ceremony, the duke and duchess returned to Government House, where they had private meetings with the prime minister and Governor General. They are scheduled to leave Victoria today at 10 a.m. by seaplane for a day of events in Vancouver.