Canadians reflect on Princess Diana with 20th anniversary of her death nearing

By Jennifer Cheng, The Canadian Press

With the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death approaching Thursday, she has returned to our cultural imagination.

The late Princess of Wales has been gracing magazine covers as a style icon again. There is the new novel, “Imagining Diana,” which speculates about what her life might have looked like if she had survived the car accident that killed her. And then there are the many new documentaries about her, including one where her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, speak candidly about their mother.

Diana died at 36 in a paparazzi-fuelled car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.

Her death left people the world over devastated. In Toronto, the Princess of Wales Theatre became an impromptu shrine, Casey House, an AIDS hospice Diana visited, saw people line up for days to sign a book of condolences and the St. James Cathedral rang out half-muffled bells to mark her passing. In Ottawa and Vancouver, people left flowers outside the British High Commission, Rideau Hall and the British consulate.

Now, Canadians are sharing memories of the “People’s Princess” again.

Royal historian Carolyn Harris says Diana — who would hug hospital patients, crouch down to children or people in wheelchairs and pick up something if someone dropped it — combined glamour and vulnerability.

“She gave the monarchy a great deal of star quality,” Harris says. “At the same time, she was fairly open about the difficulties that she faced and willing to open up to others.”

It’s why people of various backgrounds around the world identified with Diana in many ways, she notes.

“They felt like they knew her,” Harris says.

Some Canadians still feel that way.

Skye Morrison, a founding member of the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, only met Diana for about half an hour during her visit to Canada in 1991 — when she signed the famous Canadian AIDS quilt on display — but recalls that she carried herself like she was having a private conversation with friends.

“She was quite relaxed…not flashy,” Morrison says. “She was quiet, reserved and thoughtful.”

Among some 45 people present at the museum that day were family members and friends who had lost a loved one to AIDS. When stopping to ask questions, Diana listened to their stories with purpose, Morrison says.

“(Diana) was gracious … and engaged,” she says. “She looks at you in the eye.”

Diana also visited Casey House that year.

Inside, she shook hands with one of the residents, a moment that was captured in an iconic photo that helped reduce stigma and fear of those with AIDS, says Erika Epprecht, a registered nurse who has been at Casey House since it was founded in 1988.

“It had a really big impact on the (residents),” she says. “There was just such a strong stigma, and then to be so recognized by a person of such global importance went a long way to educating the world that you did not have to be that afraid.”

Epprecht wasn’t scheduled to work that day, but she came in — dressed in a black suit and her best earrings — just to meet Diana, as did many of the other nurses.

She says Diana came across as “calm and caring” when she stopped by the nursing station to chat and take a photo with them.

“She has a way of making people feel connected with her,” Epprecht says. “She did her job so well.”

When Diana entered Casey House’s reception area, which was a living room, someone had moved the chair that had been put out for her. Jane Darville, then executive director of Casey House, watched Diana sit on a radiator to talk at eye level with a resident in a wheelchair.

“She was sweet,” Darville says. “You didn’t feel like you were talking to a princess.”

She noted that Diana stayed longer than planned and spent time with all 13 residents.

“She asked about (the residents’) families or partners,” Darville says. “She was casual…and kind.”

It was the same at a cancer treatment centre in Sudbury, Ont., which Diana also visited in 1991, according to Audrey Oliver, a registered nurse who is now retired.

“She was interested in each (patient’s) struggle with cancer,” says Oliver. “She made the (patients) feel so special.”

Even people who had never met Diana loved her.

Robert Finch, chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, views Diana as both a loving mother and a great, compassionate and caring person.

“She had that caring personal touch that a lot of people look up to,” he says.

When Diana died, 19-year-old Finch lined up with his family at Hamilton City Hall to sign a book of condolences. What struck him was how quiet and sombre the crowd was.

“Nobody talked. It was an almost eerie feeling,” Finch says. “It was as if you were going through a funeral.”

What has also stayed with him all these years is Diana’s funeral itself, which was watched by some 2.5 billion TV viewers, particularly the scene of Prince William and Prince Harry walking behind their mother’s casket through the streets of London.

“Her greatest legacy perhaps (is) her boys: how they conduct themselves and take their roles very seriously,” he says.

At the same time, Finch believes Diana helped transform the monarchy as an institution, noting the royal family has a softer touch and more relaxed attitude these days. Case in point: Prince Charles introduced the Queen as “Mummy” instead of “Her Majesty” during the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee.

“It’s the little things that add up and make people realize that it’s not all about protocol and officialdom,” Finch says. “They have to live their lives and have a bit of fun.”

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