King George VI and Queen Elizabeth undertook a month-long tour of Canada in May and June of 1939, visiting every province, the Dominion of Newfoundland, and they also spent a few days in the United States. The tour was more ambitious than any of the previous Canadian tours. But the King’s speech on May 24th, 1939 from Government House in Winnipeg was a historic occasion.
The King and Queen arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 24th, 1939, by train. Crowds greeted them in every city and stop of the tour, and Winnipeg was no exception. A crowd of 100,000 people were out to greet the royals, and despite the rain, the King asked for their limousine roof to be kept down for well-wishers to see them.
When visiting Canadian capitals, it was customary for members of the Royal Family to stay at the Lieutenant-Governor General’s residence, as they are The Queen’s representative in that province. Government House in Winnipeg is the Manitoban Lieutenant-Governor General’s official residence. Built in 1883, Government House is approximately 20,000 square feet in size, has 23 rooms and is in the Victorian style with French influences. It is from Government House that King George VI made a historic speech.
Although the King’s September 1939 speech to the nation at the outbreak of the Second World War (dramatised in The King’s Speech) is his most remembered speech, it is not his only notable speech. On May 24th, from Government House in Winnipeg, the King gave his longest speech to the Empire from a ground-floor room. Although The King’s Speech shows him having much difficulty in the run-up to his September 1939 speech, his Empire Day speech from Winnipeg went off without a hitch.
“Winnipeg, the city from which I am speaking, was no more than a fort and hamlet upon the open prairie when Queen Victoria began to rule. Today it is a monument to the faith and energy which have created and upheld the world-wide Empire of our time.
The journey which the Queen and I are making in Canada has been a deeply moving experience, and I welcome this opportunity of sharing with my subjects in all parts of the world some of my thoughts and feelings which it has inspired in me”. (Excerpt, Winnipeg Evening Tribune, May 24, 1939)
And this speech still holds a place in modern royal relations today. It is customary for Lieutenant-Governor Generals to give visiting royals a gift. Queen Elizabeth II was given the gift of a photograph of her father giving his speech from Government House in 1939. It is said that The Queen was touched by the thoughtful gift, especially as she had not seen the photograph herself. A copy of the photograph remains in that room to this day, where Winnipeggers and visitors can see if they tour Government House.
Government House isn’t open to the public all the time, but you can visit on Winnipeg’s Doors Open weekend. Although the Royal Family stays at the Fort Garry Hotel or the Fairmont Hotel now, it is quite amazing to be able to walk through such an important place in Canadian royal history. I find it particularly poignant, given how much the Queen Mother loved Canada. Although Manitoba doesn’t often get royal visits, it is lovely to know that we do share a relationship with the Crown.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had a particularly strong relationship with Canada, and their 1939 tour with this major milestone played a large role in that relationship.