Jack Knox: Island’s Camelot moment supplanted by the virus

Back in January, not long after Miles Arsenault became an inadvertent folk hero, his phone rang.

He glanced down. No caller ID. The Saanich Peninsula water-taxi owner hesitated — he had been a bit overwhelmed by the reaction after news got out about him turning down the $150-an-hour business of a Japanese television crew that wanted to spy on Harry and Meghan’s waterfront estate from offshore.

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Arsenault answered anyway.

It was Meghan.

“She called to thank me personally,” Arsenault recalled this week. “She said she had talked about it with Harry and they had both agreed I deserved this phone call.”

Arsenault admits to being at a loss for words at the time. Seeing the wind-driven snow piling up on his deck, he asked Meghan if it was doing the same where she was in North Saanich.

He heard her footsteps go from carpet to hard surface as she changed rooms to look out the window. “Yes,” Meghan told him. “It’s nice.”

“Yes it is … once or twice a year,” replied Arsenault, speaking like a true Victorian.

After hanging up, he could be forgiven for asking himself the same question others are asking now that Prince (do we still call him Prince?) Harry and Meghan Markle (do we still call her Markle?) have left for California: Did that really happen?

It has been almost a month since Harry, Meghan and baby Archie decamped, slipping away with as little fanfare as they arrived late last year.

With the world shutting down, we were too distracted to pay much attention at the time. In fact, it was apparently the pandemic that hastened the (former?) royals’ departure. They wanted to make their move to Los Angeles before the Canada-U.S. border closed.

It is said to be a permanent relocation, though it’s also said that Harry is a bit wistful for what they left behind.

“Harry absolutely loved life in Canada and has made no secret of how much he misses life there,” the British tabloid The Sun quoted an insider as saying this week. “The time that he spent there with Meghan and Archie are probably the happiest he has ever been.

“Harry misses the pace of life there and the fact they were living in a really secluded place where they could be themselves, relax and enjoy life.”

Yes, well, why wouldn’t he miss Vancouver Island, given the way it treated him? In retrospect, what stands out from this wonderfully weird little chapter in our history is how protective people were of our visitors and their desire for privacy.

North Saanich Mayor Geoff Orr says he’s proud of the way residents, particularly those who lived close to the visitors’ holiday home, just let them be. “They really did a good job of letting them do what they wanted to do.” Even Orr’s own parents, who live half a dozen houses away, didn’t let him know Harry was in the ’hood.

Don’t confuse the Island’s omerta, its code of silence, with a lack of interest, though. After the Times Colonist broke the news of their presence on Christmas Eve, the story neared half a million online hits in two days. But then, after a flutter of excited stories about random sightings, the TC — and every other news outlet in town — backed off. We all remember how Harry’s mother died, and could figure out what he and Meghan were trying to achieve by flying off to an edge-of-the-world island, far from the circus.

So when the royals were spotted out and about, popping into this pastry place or dining out at that restaurant, we declined to write about it, not while they were here. The New York Times quoted a column in which editor-in-chief Dave Obee described the TC’s approach: “Their connection to our island is worthy of note, but their day-to-day existence here is not. Let them be.”

Australia’s news.com.au also ran that quote in a story headlined Prince Harry And Meghan Markle’s New Neighbours Fight Back. “Obee is far from alone in affording the Sussexes, and their baby son Archie, a nearly unfathomable level of respect in our smartphone-wielding, celebrity-obsessed age,” the story added. “In the months since it was first revealed that the royal threesome, seeking to take a break from official duties, were holed up there, locals have gone to truly impressive lengths to shield them from the roaming paparazzos and journalists who have descended on the island.”

It talked of a Facebook page on which neighbours helped out the visitors’ security team by pinpointing the locations of photographers.

Orr said there was a brief period during which the sight of international news crews lurking around had some residents asking if there was a way for the municipality to block the paparazzi. “That’s what really got under people’s skin.”

The thing is, as what we were initially told would be a six-week Canadian stay ended up spanning four months, the hubbub settled down. There was talk that maybe Harry and Meghan would settle down, too. (Just imagine Archie enrolled at Ecole Deep Cove Elementary, or Harry pitching in at the North Saanich Volunteer Fire Department.) “Would it have been nice if they stayed around here?” Orr asks. “Yeah, sure.”

Alas, that wasn’t to be. The fairy tale has been shelved in favour of the all-too-real work of grim non-fiction in which we are currently immersed.

There are more signs of coronavirus than Camelot in the neighbourhood these days. Hikers who might once have hoped to catch a glimpse of Harry in Horth Hill are now greeted at the trailhead by a taped-off picnic table and a sign detailing pandemic protocols for park users. In the window of the nearby Deep Cove Market, the “Press Free Zone” sign meant to repel pesky foreign media during the height of the madness has been replaced by one asking customers to don new latex gloves before entering.

All that we — and Harry and Meghan — are left with are memories of how they were treated while here.

“It was all about respect,” says Arsenault, the Bay-to-Bay Charters owner who turned down business to protect their privacy. “To be hounded by the paparazzi, I’m sure they’re used to it, but I was not going to have any part of it.”

It’s like the pandemic. Once it’s over, we’ll all have to ask ourselves how we behaved.

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