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‘You couldn’t get away from it’: 1953 Coronation was major topic at Canadian schools

Schools across the country have no special plans or curriculum to mark Charles III coronation May 6
A group of students from Mount Joy School attends the 1911 coronation celebration of King George V and Queen Mary at Markham fairgrounds in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Markham Museum

Ahead of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, Kenneth Munro’s Grade 2 class studied the history of the monarchy, staged a play about the Royal Family and all 700 students at his northern Ontario school listened live on radio as she took her oath.

But with King Charles set to be formally crowned on May 6, school boards across the country contacted by The Canadian Press said they had no special plans or dedicated curriculum to mark the occasion – yet another indication of widening apathy towards the monarchy.

Munro, a retired former history professor at the University of Alberta, recalled the crepe paper robe – complete with cotton balls and bunting – that he wore as a seven-year-old when cast as the incoming queen’s husband, Prince Philip, for the performance at his school in Longlac, Ont.

“The whole community was really geared toward this event, and certainly at school, so that you couldn’t get away from it,” Munro, 77, said.

“We were really steeped in coronation lore. It was very much as if we were part of this great celebration.”

Observers say that, beyond the apparent lack of pomp, there is a larger issue with Canadian schools’ muted approach to the upcoming coronation.

While feelings about the monarchy’s rightful place in Canadian society and governance have grown increasingly mixed, the coronation offers an occasion to inform residents about the institution, said Nathan Tidridge, vice-president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.

It’s “an important moment,” that Canadian schools are not taking advantage of, said Tidridge, who is also a Grade 10 civics teacher in the Hamilton area

“It’s a chance to talk about all kinds of things, like colonial structures, Crown-Indigenous relationships, what the Crown does here in this country,” he said.

“We could be talking, having those conversations, and unfortunately, it’s not happening.”

Munro said 70 years ago, students would have been hard-pressed to avoid talking about the monarchy.

“We had a picture of the queen, Prince Philip, and actually Prince Charles and Princess Anne as well, in the classroom,” he said. “We would sing O Canada in the morning, but in the evening, God Save the Queen.”

As the 1953 coronation approached, everyone at school was given a coin adorned with the queen’s image.

After listening to the ceremony on the radio, “we went over to the schoolyard where the ceremony was taking place, and we sang and danced and had speeches from local dignitaries,” he said.

The celebratory atmosphere existed in other school districts as well, according to archival material and officials.

The curator of the York Region District School Board’s heritage schoolhouse museum and archives, Rebekah Mitchell, said the board had special programming for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation as well as for her father King George’s assumption of the throne, in 1937.

She said the board’s records indicate “school closures were a tradition in York County for the coronation of a British monarch,” throughout the 20th Century. Students “were expected to participate” in the festivities, Mitchell said.

“Parades, choirs, drill demonstrations are consistently shown in records of student activities,” she said. “The Girl Guides and Scouts organizations are also often mentioned as marching in the parades.”

Tidridge said the contrast for Charles’ coronation is stark.

That is a problem, he argued, because “the coronation and just the Crown in general is something that is, whether people like it or not, intrinsically important to the federation.”

“What I fear is we’re gonna have this (coronation) and a lot of people watching it and not having any connection to it, not understanding it, even though it actually very much does touch on the political life, the treaty life, the very foundations of our federation,” said Tidridge.

He questioned the usefulness of surveys asking people if they would like to remain part of the Commonwealth, arguing the public isn’t well informed about the monarchy’s function in Canadian public life, or what transitioning to a republic entails.

“It’s important for our federation to understand what it is that we’re tinkering with and what it is that we have,” he said. “And then we can have that conversation, and it’s an important conversation to have.”

—Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press

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