OTTAWA—It’s the plan the federal government doesn’t want you to see and doesn’t want to talk about.
Instead, the document kept under wraps outlines some of the planning for how the Canadian government will respond to the death of Queen Elizabeth.
Yet the Privy Council Office — the bureaucrats who support the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet — has refused to reveal the internal plan meant to guide the government’s actions in the hours and days after the Queen’s death.
That plan is a cabinet confidence, reserved for the eyes of only cabinet ministers and senior advisers, the office said in response to an access to information request by the Star.
The office even refused to discuss whether bureaucrats have been meeting to discuss the topic. Asked for details about any committee established to oversee the planning, the Privy Council Office delayed its response, saying it needed four months to consult “other government institutions.”
The Star appealed the office’s decision to withhold all records to the Information Commissioner of Canada. But after a review, commission investigators deemed that the documents are indeed cabinet confidences that will be kept under wraps.
But it’s no secret that the health of Queen Elizabeth, age 91, has been on the minds of Canadian bureaucrats and politicians.
In announcing in April that Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, would be visiting Canada for July 1 celebrations, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said the Queen’s health didn’t allow her to make the trip.
“I understand that, of course, the Queen is ill,” Joly told CTV’s Power Play. She then clarified to say, “Well, not necessarily ill, but doesn’t have the capacity, the health, to come to Canada.”
Documents obtained from the Canadian Heritage department reveal that backroom planning for the Queen’s death has been underway for several years with broad consultations that have included the Canadian Armed Forces, Rideau Hall, the Privy Council Office, Buckingham Palace and Canada’s High Commission in London.
In 2012, Kevin MacLeod, at the time the Canadian secretary to the Queen, reviewed the “Succession of the Crown Plans.” In an email to Stephen Wallace, the secretary to the Governor General, MacLeod said he was “most impressed with its thoroughness.”
MacLeod passed along several suggestions to Wallace — all of them censored from the material released to the Star — but said, “all in all, this is a very strong document and, again, congratulations on a great effort.”
That planning has continued, with meetings and email exchanges, including several in 2016 with the subject line “Succession to the Throne” that included officials in the heritage department responsible for major events and commemorations.
Emails were also exchanged with the office of the Earl Marshal, who has a role in planning state ceremonies in the United Kingdom, including organizing the funeral of a monarch and the coronation of the new one.
Exact details of all those discussions and decisions were kept from the Star’s view. Dozens of pages provided under access to information were censored in their entirety on the grounds that their contents constituted advice to a cabinet minister.
The Privy Council Office declined to comment Friday on any of the planning, saying only that arrangements “concerning succession to the throne will be announced at an appropriate time” and a wish for the Queen’s continued good health.
“PCO will work closely with Rideau Hall and all implicated government departments to ensure that appropriate measures are in place. The Government of Canada wishes Her Majesty the Queen a long and prosperous reign,” spokesperson Stéphane Shank told the Star.
Rideau Hall was also equally tight-lipped. “It will not be possible to share with you, at the present moment, details and the sequence of events pertaining to the death of Her Majesty The Queen,” said spokesperson Marie-Ève Létourneau.
The reluctance to comment is understandable, said one person familiar with some of the government’s work on the file.
“People don’t want to cast a lot of light on the subject because no one wants anyone to believe that the Queen is about to die,” the source said.
But the source, who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that developing contingency plans was simply good practice.
The source noted, for example, that when members of the Royal Family travel abroad, they pack mourning clothes with them, just in case. “If a death occurs in London, they have to be prepared,” he said.
Just as Ottawa has planned for the deaths of past prime ministers and governors general — often in consultation with those personalities themselves — it has laid plans for the death of the Queen.
“When the news comes that so-and-so has passed, there is an awful lot that has to be done in a very short prescribed period of time. The more planning you can do in advance to know who has to be called when and what happens in what order, so much the better,” the source said.
“The key players who will be involved know that they will have roles to play and I presume they are talking to each other on a fairly regular basis.”
That planning is almost certain to include the offices of the lieutenant-governors, who serve as the Queen’s representative in each of the provinces.
The death of Queen Elizabeth — who has reigned for 65 years — will have a profound impact on Canadians, predicted Garry Toffoli, vice-chairman and executive director of the Canadian Royal Heritage Trust.
“Most of us have never known any other monarch. It has defined our lives,” he said.
“Traumatic might not be the right word but it will be emotional when it happens,” Toffoli said in an interview.
Given that the Queen’s mother lived to 101, Queen Elizabeth could have another decade ahead of her, he said. But he said it’s understandable that plans have been laid.
As for guidance on what to expect when she does die, Toffoli suggested looking to the death of King George VI on Feb. 6, 1952, the last time a British monarch died.
The heritage department documents provided to the Star included an annex detailing some of those activities that unfolded on the Canadian end that year.
Within an hour of the official announcement of the King’s death in London, notifications went out to the prime minister and cabinet officials in Ottawa. The CBC was quickly instructed to ensure that radio programs would “immediately be altered in a manner suitable for the occasion.” That meant no ads, only “appropriate” music, news and announcements.
Public Works was contacted to ensure flags were lowered to half-mast on federal buildings. Work was started on proclamations, one to proclaim the death of the King and another to mark the accession of the Queen. The senior judge of the Supreme Court and the prime minister took oaths of allegiance to the new monarch.
The Canadian representatives at the King’s funeral included the Canadian high commissioner, Vincent Massey, who was the incoming Governor General, the minister of national defence and the secretary of state for external affairs. Prime minister Louis St.-Laurent did not attend the funeral.
A national day of mourning was declared and a ceremony held in Ottawa at the National War Memorial on the day of the funeral.
Toffoli expects some of those activities will occur in the wake of the Queen’s death, too. “There are things that will happen automatically and then there will be things that will be up to the government of the time to decide what to do,” he said.