When news of Queen Elizabeth’s death spread across the globe on Sept. 8, Scott Balinson was ready. As a member of the late Queen’s cherished Hamilton’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, he had been pre-selected to march in Her Majesty’s funeral procession.
Military service is something of a Balinson family tradition. Balinson’s father, Morley Balinson, a veteran of the Korean War, was a member of the Canadian Reserves and the first in the family to join the Argylls. Morley’s older brothers Bob and Alex fought in the Second World War, and when Alex’s plane was shot down in the skies above Malta, their father Henry, the irascible editor of Hamilton’s Yiddish language newspaper of the era, would go on to eulogize his son in his final editorial.
Another Balinson family tradition was having close encounters with the late Queen herself, moments that were especially meaningful for Balinson’s mother Joan and his grandmother Isabel Barker, whose ancestors had immigrated to Canada from the UK during the Irish potato famine. Ironically, these encounters came about because of Balinson’s father’s side of the family.
“The connection of the Argylls to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is an extremely long connection. She was Colonel-in-Chief of the Argylls prior to her coronation, when she was still Princess Elizabeth,” he explained, which is why the Queen frequently made a point of presenting the regiment with colours during her Canadian visits.
It was during one of these visits that the Balinson family was invited to attend a garden party in the Queen’s honour in 1984 at Fort York in Toronto. While his family looked on in amazement, the Queen, who Balinson remembers was wearing an Argyll brooch on a bright yellow outfit and “one of her very stylish hats,” stopped in front of Scott Balinson, a 19-year-old newly minted soldier during her walkabout.
“You’re in the band,” she said, having observed his distinctive uniform reserved for members of the Argylls’ Pipes and Drums band.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he replied.
“You have a large band,” she went on, which Balinson heard as “you’re a very large man” (he’s 6’2”). “Yes, ma’am,” he managed to reply just as one of his friends snapped a photo.
“I was quite awestruck with her,” recalls Balinson, describing the Queen as “extremely charismatic, who carried herself with great poise and dignity.”
History repeated itself in 2002, when the Queen presented her Argylls with regimental colours at a huge, orchestrated event at Copps Coliseum in honour of her golden jubilee. Scott and the late Carmen Balinson’s son, Max was one of two children of Argyll members chosen to present the Queen with flowers. The day, which will forever be etched in Balinson family lore, began with family patriarch, Morley Balinson’s reciting a Hebrew prayer during the opening consecration and culminated with the Queen exchanging a few words with five-year-old Max, whom his parents had outfitted in a specially tailored Argylls uniform for the occasion, a moment captured by a Hamilton Spectator photographer.
“It was a long day for a five-year-old but he carried it off beautifully and looked terrific,” said his proud father.
Learning something about his family history makes it easier to grasp the significance of Scott Balinson being given one final opportunity, 20 years later, to pay respect to the monarch who, for seven decades, had meant so much to his regiment and to his family.
The HJN spoke with Balinson weeks after his return from a 10-day whirlwind trip to the UK in September, where he was one of close to 6,000 military personnel who marched at the Queen’s funeral. As a member of a pre-selected Canadian contingent, Balinson had just 36 hours following the news of the Queen’s death to pack his bags and travel to Ottawa, where the Canadians caught a military jet to the U.K. There, they were met by liaison officers of the British military and driven to an army base 30 miles west of London, where they trained for the funeral parade. The experience was unlike anything Balinson had experienced in a long military career.
“The mess facilities were just absolutely clockwork — 1,800 soldiers moving through in 10- or 15-minute increments, 250 at a time,” he said. Equally impressive were the vocal cords of British sergeant majors from various ceremonial regiments who skillfully guided hundreds of soldiers, including 12 army bands, in drills designed to simulate the timing and distance of the actual parade.
All of that, however, was just the prelude to a series of “extraordinary experiences, like being bussed to the parade grounds at 3 a.m. on the day before the funeral, where thousands of soldiers, cavalry included, executed every aspect of the parade, and leaving the base at 2 a.m. on the day of the funeral and witnessing the crowds lining the surrounding streets and parks kilometres deep.
“There were just so many people. There was a real quiet dignity but you could just see that every single person had their phone camera on.”
Arriving at their pre-designated position, the soldiers stood at attention for an hour and 20 minutes, “which is a long time for any body of soldiers to stand at attention but it required that degree of discipline and patience and to show reverence to the solemnity of the occasion.”
Joan Balinson was watching the proceedings on television, reliving memories of similar moments shared with her late mother.
“I had that sense that she was sitting beside me and that we were watching, listening and talking together,” she told the HJN.
While she wasn’t in the habit of spending hours in front of the television, Joan found herself rising at 6 a.m. every morning during the week leading up to the funeral “listening very carefully to what was being said. The music was glorious ... It was all very deep. There was just an opportunity to sit and be in the moment,” she said.
Scott Balinson shares his mother’s sentiments about the British monarchy.
“They’re people who have had a profound impact on our history and our country’s identity. I know there have been a lot of challenges regarding our colonial history as we come to terms with reconciling aspects of the residential school system, but there are also many good things. The rule of law and constitution and peacekeeping, and being a beacon for hopefully future generations of immigrants coming to make this country a better, stronger place,” he said. “Although it’s a Highland regiment, my regiment has people of every faith, gender and race ... My father was a Jewish highlander and a regimental sergeant major. There are people from Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries joining the Canadian Armed Forces. It’s an incredible institution.”
LISTEN TO THE SHPIEL ON HAMILTON'S INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT BALINSON