How Kate and Will broke the rules

With canoe, chopper and charm, the duke and duchess set a new course

Pulling together

Andy Clark/Reuters

By the time William and Catherine waved au revoir from Calgary’s airport, they’d set a new standard for royal tours, shredding the fetters of precedent, protocol and stifling formality. From the first event in Ottawa to wheels-up in Calgary nine days later, the duke and duchess signalled that past practices were made to be broken. Let us count the ways:

Royals don’t apologize: That one went by the wayside with the duke of Cambridge’s first credible attempt at speaking French in Ottawa. “It will improve as we go on,” he said, with a self-deprecating grin. In Quebec there was another winning smile: “Thank you for your patience with my accent, and I hope that we will have the chance to get to know each other over the years to come.” The fact that William and Catherine, in her rookie performance as a touring royal, would visit both Montreal and Quebec City, tells you all you need to know about the confidence the palace places in the young couple. The largely positive reception there, while allowing the inevitable anti-monarchist protesters to make their point, also ended the myth that Quebec is a royal pain for the Wales family.

Royals like to watch: Aside from tree plantings and ribbon cutting, touring royals generally limit their activity to bland small talk and limp handshakes. No one expects 85-year-old Queen Elizabeth II to become an action hero, but grandson William and his bride are not above plunging into activities. They donned chef outfits in Montreal and helped prepare their dinner. William skimmed one of Canada’s aging Sea King helicopters atop a lake in Prince Edward Island, where he and Kate also proved adept and competitive as dragon boat racers. Granted, William’s hockey shootout attempt in Yellowknife was lame, but they looked comfortable and strong paddling a canoe across choppy Blachford Lake in the territory. In Alberta they stole away to rustic Skoki Lodge above Lake Louise to hike the high alpine. The next day they donned cowboy duds for a preview of events at the Calgary Stampede, with William clambering up the rails of the metal chute for a perilously close look at a massive, snorting rodeo bull.

Royals love protocol and pomp: There was little bowing and scraping on this tour. The etiquette primers about bows, curtsies and “your royal highnesses” went forgotten as crowds chanted “Will and Kate” and they responded by pressing the flesh at every opportunity. As for Catherine, who chucked “obey” from her wedding vows, she conducted herself as an essential member of the brand, almost, but not quite, Will’s equal. It was still the duke’s role to make the public remarks, but at each event their teamwork and chemistry put everyone at ease.

Royals stick to the script: Your typical royal schedule is a choreographed ballet, timed to the minute. Good luck with that. Will and Kate let walkabouts, planned and otherwise, run long. British media in Yellowknife, used to a regal sense of order, were gobsmacked when organizers announced the couple had changed plans and were flying the next morning to meet residents and emergency personnel in fire-ravaged Slave Lake, Alta. Where in hell is that?

That three-hour diversion from the couple’s one free day bought immense goodwill among Albertans, while holding the provincial government’s feet to the fire, literally, on the slow pace of rebuilding. The number of locals there who greeted the couple with tearful gratitude showed the tour at its best.

So, too, did the couple’s weather-delayed arrival at Calgary International Airport Thursday. Most British papers were on deadline, and desperate for the day’s money shot: the couple donning cowboy hats presented to them by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Instead, William handed off the hats to an aide, and the couple lavished attention on little Diamond Marshall, the six-year-old girl battling cancer who had written Catherine a note after her wedding asking to meet her. Organizers found her a role in the airport welcoming committee as a flower girl.

Diamond rushed up to hug Catherine, before turning shy and burying her face in her stepmother’s dress. Clearly touched, the couple ignored the late schedule and spent several minutes making Diamond feel like the most special girl in the world.

As for the cowboy hats, they appeared that evening. William began his farewell speech in Calgary by peering from under the brim of his hat at a Stampede crowd of dignitaries, dancers and musicians, all dressed like extras in a John Wayne Wild West movie. “Well,” drawled the duke (that would be William, not John), “this is different.” And it was, and the better for it.