It was a bittersweet moment when Myra Freeman sat down in the stately hallway at Government House in Halifax on Tuesday, Sept. 12, to sign the official book of condolences marking the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
After all, Freeman used to live in the grand Georgian-style residence on Barrington Street, during her six-year term as the Queen’s representative in Nova Scotia.
As the province’s lieutenant-governor between 2000 and 2006, Freeman embodied several milestones: she was the first woman to be appointed to that post in Nova Scotia’s history, and also the first Jewish woman in the job in Canadian history.
Now, at age 73, Freeman remains grateful for serving the Queen, and also for meeting her on a half-dozen occasions.
But the schoolteacher-turned-philanthropist’s association with the monarch also dated back to her own childhood.
When the Queen and her husband Prince Philip visited New Brunswick in 1959, her future representative belonged to a Girl Guide troop in her native Saint John.
The uniformed Brownies were taken to a hill in the nearby village of Pamdenec, where Jewish families had cottages. They stood at attention and saluted as the royal couple’s train passed by en route to Fredericton.
“And I remember it was a fleeting moment, literally fleeting, because a train goes pretty quickly,” Freeman told The CJN Daily. “It didn’t really slow down, but we did catch a glimpse of Her Majesty and we were all very excited.”
A decade later, while taking a modelling course during her high school years, Freeman was selected to dress up like the Queen and walk gracefully down the stage wearing a long gown and (fake) jewels.
- Hear why Myra Freeman considers the late Queen Elizabeth her role model: The CJN Daily
Freeman credits people skills that she honed during decades as a teacher with preparing her for the public role, when tasked by then-prime minister Jean Chretien. Sworn into office on May 17, 2000, she soon got her first chance to meet the Queen at a state dinner in Halifax.
She remembers choosing to avoid a potentially embarrassing etiquette faux pas in the waiting room—by declining to eat one of the chocolate-covered strawberries being passed around just before a turn at a handshake.
But the Queen didn’t seem to mind when Freeman broke protocol a year later at Buckingham Palace. It was during the 45-minute tete-a-tete to present her credentials.
Freeman and her husband Larry drove through the palace gates, and were greeted by the household staff, including an equerry and a lady-in-waiting. They laid out all the instructions for how to act and what to do (and not do) in the Queen’s presence.
And that included waiting for Her Majesty to speak first.
Freeman admits that while hadn’t been nervous before, that changed after she watched a staff demonstrate a curtsy almost down to her knee to the floor. (“I was thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to get that.”)
Then, the doors to the Queen’s reception room opened and without pausing, Freeman blurted out a hearty “Hello!”
“Now, you can imagine, it would feel like being at the principal’s office. We were sitting on the edge of our seats, our hands were folded,” Freeman recalled. But, within minutes, they were completely relaxed.
“And I think that this is one of the most important legacies that Her Majesty has left, and that is the warmth and her humour and making people feel totally at ease and comfortable.”
Their conversation focused on Canada, where the Queen made 22 visits during her lifetime, more than any other country.
Freeman was touched when the monarch asked about Ethel Garnier, the long-serving executive housekeeper in Halifax, who looked after her during six stays at Government House—first as a princess in 1951, and during her last Royal tour in 2010.
The role also meant keeping the Queen informed about important political developments in the province. But instead of regular catch-up phone calls or emails, communication with the palace was done only through letters sent through the Department of Canadian Heritage.
And yet, Elizabeth II must have had her own methods for remembering names, faces and details.
Freeman marvelled at how, on a visit in 2010, the Queen correctly picked Freeman out of a receiving line even though the former vice-regal was now wearing a naval uniform. It was during a Halifax military ceremony known as Trooping the Colours.
“‘Oh, my representative, my former representative,” were the words the Queen greeted her with.
(Later that evening, at a fancy dinner, the Queen also expressed awareness that Freeman had changed into something more elegant.)
As the first Jewish family to occupy the historic Government House, the Freemans made it a priority to kosher the residence’s official kitchen for the duration of their stay. And while the Queen didn’t sleep over during Freeman’s time in office, her family did welcome a royal cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, at a Friday night Shabbat dinner in 2002.
Freeman believes the Queen not only was aware that her representative in Nova Scotia was Jewish, but wholly approved of it.
“It’s not something that you think of when you think of the Queen of England and the Church of England accepting of it.”
When the Queen’s funeral is broadcast on Monday Sept. 19 from Westminster Abbey, Freeman will be watching from home. But she’d jump at the opportunity to attend if she could.
In the meantime, she treasures the gifts she received at Buckingham Palace two decades ago: she keeps the two signed, leather-bound portraits of Elizabeth and of Prince Philip in the curio cabinet at the family cottage.
The items are flanked by a life-sized cardboard Queen cut-out, which the Freemans bought in London. It’s displayed in the window at the cottage door.
“She greets everybody who comes into our house.”