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At St. Albert city hall, Queen's portrait waits to make way for successor

More than a year after her death, the late Elizabeth II's image still hangs in council chambers
The last Canadian royal portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, taken in 2019 at Windsor Castle. She was “wearing her Canadian insignia as sovereign of the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit,” according to a Government of Canada website. CHRIS JACKSON/GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

It could come down any time.

More than a year after her death, a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II still hangs in St. Albert’s city council chambers, her stately visage overseeing the business of government. It’s draped with a black scarf to acknowledge her passing.

Technically, says Canadian Heritage, municipalities are not obliged to adorn the halls of local government with a royal portrait.

“The late Queen’s official Canadian portrait was to be removed from all federal buildings after her funeral,” a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage said. “Other levels of governments and private organizations were invited to follow suit.”

But in St. Albert, as in many other municipalities across the country, the Queen still holds sway.

Her sharp gaze and pursed smile will continue to greet St. Albert’s city council until an official Canadian portrait of King Charles III arrives to replace the former monarch.

That could be some time away. Although Canadian Heritage says it has no updates on when a Canadian portrait of Charles will arrive, Buckingham Palace recently announced that Charles has been diagnosed with cancer. According to the BBC, Charles will continue with his constitutional duties, but he will not make any public appearances in the foreseeable future. There is no word on what type of cancer he has.

His portrait, once it arrives, must be a bespoke, Canadian work.

“It is the tradition to offer to Canadians a Canadian portrait of their sovereign, distinct from the ones in the United Kingdom or in other Commonwealth realms,” Canadian Heritage said. “Over the decades, official Canadian portraits of Canada’s sovereign often featured Canadian elements: they were taken by Canadian photographers, they featured our sovereign wearing their Canadian insignia, or they were taken on Canadian soil, during a Royal Tour.” The last Canadian portrait of Queen Elizabeth was taken in 2019 at Windsor Castle. She was “wearing her Canadian insignia as sovereign of the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit,” according to a Government of Canada website.

Mayor Cathy Heron said council never considered taking the portrait down.

She also “hadn’t ever really thought about” why the portrait is in city council chambers in the first place.

“It’s always been there,” she said. “I'd like to say it's more than just tradition. The Canadian constitution was an agreement with England. And so it's just who we are.”

Canada is a constitutional monarchy, she said, “and I don't question that, and I’m actually proud to be part of the Commonwealth.”

The city won’t keep the old portrait once a new one arrives.

“It will be retained by an individual on a personal basis,” said a city spokesperson in an email to the Gazette. “Several folks are interested, and at this time we do not know exactly who will be keeping it as a souvenir.”

Why have a royal portrait?

Portraits of the head of state remind citizens that public offices are “government places,” according to Mariel Grant, a history professor at the University of Victoria who specializes in British history.

But they’re also meant to suggest that such spaces are not run by a particular government in office. Rather, they’re run by a nonpartisan “Crown.”

“It’s a representation of where the authority lies -- the authority lies with the Crown,” she said.

In its lofty place near our nation's levers of power, the portrait can act as a type of surrogate for the public. And, like a certificate hanging in a doctor’s office, it also lends the government legitimacy, Grant said.

The spread of the monarch’s portrait coincided with the growth of photography, the rise of the nonpartisan bureaucracy and the establishment of public spaces, such as city halls, according to Grant.

“The head of state represents all of us, regardless of our political affiliation, our ethnicity, or religion,” she said. “It's supposed to be the person who can stand up and represent every single Canadian, no matter who they are.”

For some, it also has a personal and emotional significance.

Past St. Albert Legion president Doug Delorme said the royal portrait serves as a symbol of remembrance of soldiers’ and veterans’ duty to their lost comrades. The monarch is technically the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the St. Albert Legion still has Queen Elizabeth’s portrait on display.

“All of our military members have sworn an oath of allegiance to the Queen, or in the future to the King,” Delorme said. “They have some respect for the monarchy. And we show a picture of the monarch in respect not only for the monarch, but to the 120,000 Canadians that have died in serving the sovereign and the country in times of war.”

The Legion is also waiting for King Charles’s portrait to arrive.

“People like the Queen, because they've known her for so long,” Delorme said. “But eventually, her photo will be replaced by the new sovereign. And time goes on.”

Time to wave goodbye to monarchy?

Some Canadians feel that it’s time to take the monarch’s photo down for good.

For Pierre Vincent, a Calgary-based representative of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, royal icons represent a violent colonial history.

“When you invade another country, to try and install your dominance over the conquered nation, you plaster it with symbols of your domination everywhere. Which is essentially what's happened here,” Vincent said.

By refusing to sever ties with Canada’s colonial past, we’re failing to cultivate a real Canadian identity, he said. Canada should have its own head of state, perhaps someone who is elected.

More Canadians than ever feel that it’s time for our country to retire the monarchy. An April 2023 Angus Reid poll found that 52 per cent of the country doesn’t want Canada to continue as a constitutional monarchy, and 60 per cent are opposed recognizing Charles as King.

It’s a changed sentiment from the 1940s, when the Canadian government feared ditching the Union Jack in favour of a distinct, Canadian flag would cause political instability.

“Can you imagine Canadians trying to go back to our old flag today?” Vincent said. “Once you've turned the corner, you'll never go back. You’ll wonder what the heck took you so long.”

But sometimes old royals die hard.

In 2019 the town of Sidney, B.C. removed Queen Elizabeth’s portrait from its council chambers. It received backlash from the Monarchist League of Canada and members of the community.

The portrait was taken down temporarily until a town crest and a work of First Nations art were ready to be installed in chambers, town officials said at the time.

The portrait eventually went back up. It had been down from May to September of 2019 before someone pointed out that it was missing.

For five months, her majesty’s absence went unnoticed.  

About the Author: Riley Tjosvold

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