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Governor General Breaches Royal Protocol By Touching Queen's Arm To Help Her Down Stairs

David Johnston also said the monarchy is important for Canada's stability.

07/19/2017 14:11 EDT | Updated 07/19/2017 16:02 EDT

OTTAWA — The Governor General says he has become convinced more than ever of the importance of the monarchy in Canadian democracy, but regrets too few in the country understand the unique role of the Crown.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gen. David Johnston hosted the Queen at Canada House in central London to celebrate Canada's 150 anniversary; he touched the Queen's arm, helping her up and down the red-carpeted stairs, a breach of protocol that drew attention from the British tabloids.

Max Mumby/Indigo via Getty Images
Gov. Gen. David Johnston holds Queen Elizabeth II's arm as she departs Canada House after attending a celebration to mark Canada 150 on Wednesday in London.

Johnston said the monarchy is a source of stability in Canada's 150-year history, and one of the reasons why the country has thus far been immune from more populist movements gripping other parts of the globe.

The Queen, represented by the Governor General as head of state, represents the "spirit of the country" and complements the role the prime minister plays as the head of government, Johnston said Wednesday in a telephone interview from London at the close of a two day visit with the Queen.

"The head of state function has to do with stability, of rule of law, of fundamental values, persisting year upon year, decade upon decade," he said.

"Our system works well and I guess if I had any regret it's that we don't understand it better and that we don't see as Canadians the uniqueness of it and how for the most part it serves us well," he said.

The trip to the U.K. is likely to be Johnston's last as the Queen's representative in Canada.

Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip are welcomed to Canada House by Gov. Gen. David Johnston for her visit to Canada House on Wednesday in London.

Johnston said in their final private meeting Tuesday, the two talked about Canada's role in international diplomacy and the Crown's relationship with the country's Indigenous Peoples.

"We cover the kind of topics that you'd expect she would be interested in and she always wants a kind of update on where we stand and how we see the next few years," he said.

The Queen was also given a brooch, called the Sapphire Jubilee Snowflake Brooch, to mark her 65 years on the throne. The piece is decorated with 48 sapphires from Baffin Island, the only sapphire deposit ever found in Canada.

The Queen was joined by her husband Prince Philip; it is the last time he will visit Canada House with his impending retirement next month from public events.

The Queen toured a collection of Canadian artifacts from the royal collection that included several photographs of her presiding at important events.

Oliver Urquhart Irvine, royal librarian and assistant keeper of the Royal Archives, joked that it was somewhat odd to explain the historical artifacts to the Queen during the tour.

"She was there," he said. "She knows the material better than I do."

The Queen met with a number of Canadians, including Dean and Dan Caten, the identical twin fashion designers behind the brand Dsquared2, and Jennifer Sidey, who earlier this month was announced as one of Canada's new astronauts.

It's one of her predecessors now taking over from Johnston; his term comes to an end in September and the reins of Rideau Hall will be handed over to Julie Payette.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Former astronaut Julie Payette takes part in a news conference announcing her appointment as Canada's next governor general on Thursday in Ottawa.

At the announcement of her appointment last week, Payette was asked about the role of the monarchy in Canada today. She responded that she didn't think it was appropriate to answer the question at the time.

Rideau Hall is still organizing dates for Payette's audience with the Queen.

Johnston said he knows Payette from her days as a McGill University undergraduate student, adding he and his wife Sharon were overjoyed to hear the former Canadian astronaut would take over from him.

"We know her, we're delighted about her appointment and I know Her Majesty is very much looking forward to (working with) this remarkably accomplished woman."

With files from the Associated Press in London

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