Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state, dead at 96

Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state and the longest-reigning British monarch, has died.

She died on Thursday afternoon at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, Buckingham Palace said in a short statement. She was 96.

“The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow,” the palace said, in reference to the Queen’s son Charles, who automatically became king upon her death, and his wife, Camilla.

Her husband, Prince Philip, died in April 2021.

Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, at the relatively tender age of 25, and presided over the country and the Commonwealth, including Canada, for seven decades. Those 70 years of her as monarch were recognized during this year’s Platinum Jubilee events, which reached their height in London in early June.

In her time as monarch, Elizabeth bore witness to profound changes at home and abroad, including the decline of the British Empire and decolonization of many African and Caribbean countries, along with the end of hostilities with Irish republicans.

As one of the most famous women in the world, she was also under great public scrutiny during some of the most painful moments of her life, including the death of her father, King George VI, the marriage breakups of three of her four children and the death of her former daughter-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales.

But Elizabeth always had a keen sense of her role.

“I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice,” she said during her first televised Christmas address in 1957. “But I can do something else: I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.”

That sense of duty was central to her life, even before she ascended the throne. In a speech broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa, on her 21st birthday in 1947, she made that clear.

“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said.

The path to the throne

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born in London on April 21, 1926, the first child to Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duke and Duchess of York. At the time of her birth, Elizabeth stood third in line of succession to the throne and was not expected to become monarch.

But that changed when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Elizabeth’s father became King George VI, making Elizabeth the presumptive heir.

It was around this time that Elizabeth met her future husband, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip wave goodbye as they leave Canada from Pearson International Airport in Toronto on July 6, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Their wedding at London’s Westminster Abbey in 1947 was a grand event that helped lift the spirits of the British public at a time when it was still reeling from the destruction of the Second World War and the rationing that followed the end of the conflict.

The couple’s first child, Prince Charles, was born in 1948 and the second, Princess Anne, arrived two years later. (Another two children, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, were born in 1960 and 1964, and the family has now grown to include eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.)

King George VI died in 1952, at which point Elizabeth became Queen as well as head of the Church of England and the Commonwealth.

Although her grandmother, Queen Mary, died in February 1953, Elizabeth’s coronation went ahead that June. It was a lavish spectacle, and in a significant first, was televised worldwide to an audience estimated at 277 million.

Watch and listen to full live coverage on CBCNews.ca, CBC News Network, CBC Radio and the CBC News and Listen apps.

The role of a queen

Because Britain has a constitutional monarchy, the King or Queen is head of state but has no ability to make or pass legislation.

Throughout her reign, Elizabeth had a weekly audience with the British prime minister. While the substance of these discussions remains confidential, it is thought that it was an opportunity for the sitting prime minister to solicit her advice.

Elizabeth refused to be drawn into policy debates in public, but over the years, the British media sometimes alleged differences of opinion between her and the prime minister of the day.

For example, there are reports that Elizabeth was concerned about the anti-strike measures and reduction of social programs under Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 until 1990.

As much as Queen Elizabeth kept her distance from politics, there were times she let her views be known — or appeared to. For example, she favored sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney has said.

And in the days leading to the Scottish referendum in 2014, there was much attention focused on her saying that she hoped people would think “very carefully about the future.” At the time, Buckingham Palace said the Queen “maintains her constitutional impartiality. As the Queen has always said, this is a matter for the people of Scotland.”

While Elizabeth remained largely apolitical, countless trips abroad made her something of a royal diplomat. In addition to more than 20 visits to Canada, Elizabeth spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, the US Congress and met several popes.

Arguably her most significant diplomatic mission was closer to home. In 2012, she visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she shook the hand of Martin McGuinness, a one-time commander with the Irish Republican Army and at the time the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

The meeting, although brief, was seen by many as a key moment of reconciliation between Britain and Irish republicans.

Elizabeth has “been astonishingly effective as a diplomat and as a statesperson,” Ninian Mellamphy, a professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., and a longtime royal watcher, said at the time.

Largely Inscrutable

Renowned as much for her composure as the colorful clothing she wore to make sure she could be seen in a crowd, Elizabeth rarely showed her true emotions in public. As a result, she was seen by many as a symbol of British resilience.

Even so, she had her dark years, particularly 1992, which she called her own “annus horribilis.” That year, among other events, the marriages of three of her four children dela crumbled, a tell-all book about Diana was published and a fire devastated part of Windsor Castle, a royal residence she particularly favoured.

Queen Elizabeth, left, Prince George, Prince William, Princess Charlotte, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Louis are seen at Buckingham Palace during the Platinum Jubilee Pageant on June 05. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Diana divorced Prince Charles in 1996, and a year later, she died after a car crash in Paris. Elizabeth was heavily criticized for not responding publicly immediately following Diana’s death, but days later she delivered a heartfelt speech on TV in which she expressed admiration for her former daughter-in-law.

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