In a hot stuffy ballroom at Toronto’s Royal York hotel, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled of the gift she received from her Canadian government: a regal display of hockey souvenirs, including the puck she dropped at a 2002 game in Vancouver, that is bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame. She is “Canada’s most valuable player,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in his official remarks. And that marrying of twin national institutions—the monarchy and hockey—brought a crowd decked out in glittering evening gowns and black-tie tuxedos to their feet for a sustained round of hooting and hollering rarely seen at such a rarefied events as a state dinner.
The Queen, dressed in a dazzling white beaded dress that featured silver diamanté maple leaves trailing down the right side of the gown’s bodice, back and sleeve, responded with a heart-felt speech: “On my first visit, before I was Queen, I remarked that ‘from the moment I arrived on Canadian soil any apprehension I had disappeared because I was not only among friends but among compatriots.’ Today, after so many years, I still feel as much affection and admiration for Canada.”
The dinner for 356 guests capped a dramatic day at the Royal York, the venerable home away from home for the royal family. In the late afternoon, less than two and a half hours before the pre-dinner reception was to start, the hotel and much of Toronto’s downtown was plunged into darkness when an electrical substation caught fire. At the time Prince Philip, who’d just sat down on a stage in another ballroom at the hotel, was listening to opening remarks at a Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme presentation. When the power went out the room went black. There was a gasp from the packed room of guests and then silence until the emergency generators kicked in, bathing the room in a dim gloom. The police, standing at every entrance, watched the room nervously. The prince, however, ignored the fuss and carried on meeting the 120 gold medal recipients and their parents. He spent so long talking to them that he ran 25 minutes over his allotted schedule.
While that event continued as planned, the rest of the hotel itself was plunged into “chaos,” one harassed worker said. The hotel had a huge state dinner to pull together and its lobby was stuffed not only with a convention of Shriners—many wearing their trademark red fezs— and guests arriving for the night’s big event. With no air conditioning, the inside temperature kept rising on one of the hottest days of the year. Formally-clad RCMP offers could be seen outside the ballroom drinking ice water in a vain attempt to stay cool.
While the hotels’ kitchens ran mainly on gas, the biggest impact of the outage was reportedly lights in the guest rooms. That was doubly bad for the Royal York since, at that moment, the evening’s guest of honour was getting ready in her suite. With the ballroom’s big chandeliers unlit, workers hastily strung temporary lighting in the ballroom walls while a government spokeswoman conceded that “it was going to be candlelight dinner for sure.” Just 20 minutes before the reception started, the full lights flickered and then turned on.
By then the carefully scripted timetable had been virtually abandoned. When Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore made his first plea for guests to sit down, the dinner was already 20 minutes behind schedule. Everyone ignored his summons; they were too busy schmoozing or still trying to find their seats. Another ten minutes dragged by until the Queen and Prince Philip arrived with Harper and his wife Laureen. It might not have been the most dignified state dinner the royal couple has ever attended, but its fair to say that it isn’t one they’ll soon forget.