In their waning days as British senior royals Meghan Markle and Prince Harry sparked chatter at the Commonwealth Day service (just how friendly were their hellos to Prince William and Kate Middleton?), served fierceness at the 2020 Endeavour Fund Awards (hello, bold red lip) and generally reminded the world just how significant of an impact they can have.
Nowhere was that more evident than at Meghan's final engagement, a reception at Buckingham Palace that saw her meeting with the 22 recipients of the Association of Commonwealth Universities scholarships. But after chatting with the students (she'll remain a patron of the organization) and making her final round of goodbyes to their Team Sussex staff, hardly a year into their planned posts, she began talking about boarding her flight "home", Harper's Bazaar's royal editor-at-large Omid Scobie reports, eager to catch the last commercial flight out to Vancouver Island.
Canada, eh? As is entirely evident now, that's what they meant when they dropped their bombshell of a January announcement, revealing plans to, if not fully extricate themselves from the royal family, at least decrease their obligations, stepping back from being senior members of the royal family and, as they put it, starting to "balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America."
And it makes sense. The country is one of the 53 members of the Commonwealth and now the couple's six-week sabbatical to spend time with 10-month-old son Archie Harrison looks as if it may have been a very successful test-run, the family remaining largely unbothered at their $14 million Vancouver Island rental.
And while the 38-year-old former actress was raised in the sunny climes of California, she considers Toronto something of an adopted home, having reflected fondly on her seven years spent in the city and continuing to honor that heritage by promoting such Canadian designers as Line the Label, Mackage, Birks and Sentaler.
Plus Tim Hortons offered a lifetime of free coffee, so the decision seems pretty clear...
One could argue Canada is where Meghan spent her most formative years. The Northwestern theater and international relations grad was still in her twenties when she moved into her three-bedroom pad in Toronto's Annex neighborhood, her new gig as ambitious paralegal Rachel on USA's legal drama Suits the most promising in a career of guest spots on CSI: NY, The League and, perhaps most famously, Deal or No Deal.
"When I got here, Suits wasn't aired in Canada for the first two years," she recalled to the Toronto Star in 2016. The relatively anonymity allowed her to explore her adopted city in the way only a California girl who "lives by the ethos that most things can be cured with either yoga, the beach, or a few avocados" could.
"I was going to Moksha downtown," she told the paper of her go-to yoga studio, "and trolling for girlfriends."
She found them in high places, quickly forming a bond with stylist Jessica Mulroney and her husband Ben Mulroney, a television host whose father is former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Together, the pals lived it up in the Ontario capital. Regulars in the photo booth on the top floor of members-only spot Soho House (where another of her friends, Markus Anderson, works as the global membership director) they also turned out to cheer on the Toronto Bluejays baseball team and trained together at Ultimate Athletics.
Across seven seasons, each filming for nine months, Meghan pieced together a pretty fantastic life even adjusting to the country's sometimes frosty temps. "Seven Canadian winters!" she joked in her 2017 Vanity Fair cover interview. "A long time for someone who grew up in Southern California."
She nailed down her favorite shopping haunts (Ani & Wren for cashmere pieces, Cabaret Vintage for retro finds and Kensington Market for food, where she'd pick up sourdough from Blackbird Bakery Co), restaurants (during her romance with chef Cory Vitiello she was a regular at his now-closed Harbord Room, even hosting a birthday party on the back patio, but she also love Bar Isabel for ceviche, Bestellen for côte de boeuf and Terroni for pasta) and ways to spend an off-day.
"Going for a trail run in the ravine with my rescue mutt, Bogart, then going to the farmers' market to get some seasonal produce to grill up with a whole fish and bottle of rose with friends in my backyard," she told Glamour in 2014. "I grill on a Big Green Egg (which was my birthday gift to myself last year and this awesome ceramic grill), and I'm obsessed. I smoked a turkey on it for Thanksgiving, and it also works as a pizza oven."
And when she quietly began seeing Britain's most eligible prince, a mutual pal setting up a rendezvous while she was doing London press, he slid right into the world she had created, joining her for dinner parties in her backyard garden and nights out at Soho House, a spot they could relax knowing the other tony patrons wouldn't pay them much notice.
And the simple addition of a hooded sweatshirt or baseball cap allowed for joint outings to Trinity Bellwoods Park with her rescue pups.
"It's a massive park with a huge dog run in the middle, which is ideal for my super active dog, Bogart," she once told MyDomaine (via UK's Evening Standard). "But beyond the normal park humdrum (tennis courts and softball field), you'll see people set up stands for the likes of free hugs, yoga in the park, dance classes, and performance art. It's really the mecca for meeting up with friends, throwing a frisbee until day turns to night, and listening to the ambient beat of bongo drums from another end of the park."
For some three months—until their pairing was outed by the press—the burgeoning couple were able to meet up at Meghan's rental and navigate through her adopted city completely under-the-radar, thanks, in part to the town's low-key vibe.
"It's really funny because I think as much of a big city Toronto is, it's so different from L.A. or New York," she told HELLO! Canada in September 2015 as she was promoting the first of her two capsule collections with Canadian retailer Reitmans. "There is no paparazzi so it's really easy to just have a normal life where you are not getting dressed for the day and worried about that element of it."
And, though paparazzi began turning up a bit more often when they received word a certain ginger haired prince could be in town, it's perhaps that inconspicuousness she missed as much as anything when she bade farewell to Suits, her acting career and her Canadian home in 2017, joining her soon-to-be fiancé, 35, at his Kensington Palace cottage and under the microscope in which he'd spent his entire existence.
Sure, she longed for more time with her friends, whom she managed to visit secretly at least once during her royal tenure. An August 2018 three-day trip to Toronto to stay with Mulroney and her family (Auntie Meg is so close to Ivy, 6, and 9-year-old twins Brian and John that they took part in her wedding) was so carefully coordinated that the press only caught wind of it when her commercial flight had landed back in London.
And, heartbreakingly, circumstances forced her to leave behind one of her beloved pups, with only beagle Guy making the trip to London. (A Kensington Palace spokesperson noticed it was "in the best interest" of Lab/shepherd mix Bogart that she re-home him with a pal.) But for Meghan, as it's become quite clear in recent months, the biggest adjustment has been the loss of her autonomy.
As hard as it was to mind the strict royal rules that came with accepting a place in the upper echelon of the monarchy, it was tougher still for Harry's bride to deal with the constant media attention, the British press vacillating between praising her and piling her with critiques.
In just two years time, she had shifted from the confident woman telling Vanity Fair that she paid the hateful stories decrying Harry's choice to take up with a biracial American divorcée no mind—"I don't read any press. I haven't even read press for Suits. The people who are close to me anchor me in knowing who I am. The rest is noise,"—to emotionally admitting to Bradby it was far tougher than she'd ever imagined.
"I don't think anybody could understand that, but in all fairness I had no idea, which probably sounds difficult to understand," she shared in their ITV doc. "I never thought this would be easy but I thought it would be fair, and that is the part that is hard to reconcile, but [I] just take each day as it comes."
For Harry the hatred of his wife felt eerily familiar to the way the media had treated his late mother, Princess Diana. "I think being part of this family, in this role and in this job, every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash—it takes me back," he said. "So in that respect, it's the worst reminder of her life as opposed to the best."
So it wasn't all that surprising when the two announced last fall that they'd be taking some time off.
At the Vancouver Island rental, secured with the help of Meghan's former classmate Katherine McPhee and her Canadian husband David Foster, they could spend Archie's first Thanksgiving and Christmas, reveling in the 9-month-old's obvious delight at the breathtaking landscape and enjoying daily hikes.
Archie "saw snow for the first time the other day and thought it was bloody brilliant," Harry shared at a January event for his charity, Sentebale.
Meghan similarly gushed about their experience during a Jan. 7 visit to personally thank Canadian High Commissioner Janice Charette for the hospitality. "Just to be able to take in the warmth that we experienced from the people but also just to walk around and just see the beauty of Canada," she recalled. "To see Archie go 'ahhh' when you walk by and just see how stunning it is, so it meant a lot to us."
And for Charette, "The fact that they were able to be there for an extended period of time and be able to enjoy themselves without people coming and invading their space," she said of the visit, "I am thrilled about that."
Because it weren't for Meghan's friendliness, helping local Asymina Kantororwicz and her boyfriend Iliya Pavlovic capture a photo during their walk around Horth Hill Regional Park, it's quite possible no one would have ever learned exactly where the royals had stayed.
Even now that their cover has been blown, the pair are still enjoying a far quieter existence on Vancouver Island than they ever had in London. Thanks, in part, to Canada's more stringent privacy laws, "Harry's much happier in Canada and feels a lot more relaxed," a royal insider recently told Us Weekly. "So far he doesn't regret the move."
Particularly when they can wile away their days with home cooked meals, yoga sessions and hikes, enjoying the lush landscape with their son and dogs and without the presence of cameras. "It's a completely different world from what they're used to in London," another source told the mag. "The locals don't bother them and they have the freedom to do whatever they want."
So the appeal is clear.
But according to Vanity Fair's sources, it goes even deeper than that, insiders telling the mag the two used the trip as sort of a working vacation, quietly laying the groundwork to take their to-be-launched Sussex Royal foundation international.
"What is most interesting is that Meghan feels that while the charity will be a worldwide venture, she sees Hollywood and American business circles as key to fundraising," one insider said "Meghan feels that focusing on fundraising stateside will bring in tens of millions of dollars quickly."
Echoed another source, "Even in her younger years in Hollywood, she wanted to work towards creating an international charity changing lives. Now that she has the platform and profile of being a British royal she can truly build this plan. She sees this foundation as one of the key factors in creating a legacy as a new royal and Harry is right behind her."
In which case a move to Canada (along with a home base in Markle's hometown of Los Angeles) makes quite a bit of sense. There, the two can focus on championing the causes that mean the most—support for the veterans, children and family affected by the scourge of AIDS in Africa, mental health awareness and environmental conservation—while also shaking loose, at least a little, from the punishing spotlight that follows them through the whole of Britain.
Harry admitted to Newsweek's Angela Levin in 2017 that he once went kicking and screaming into his role as a prince, a duty thrust upon him at birth. "I felt I wanted out but then decided to stay in and work out a role for myself," he said. And to him that meant truly devoting himself to the issues he felt most passionately for. "We use our time wisely," he said. "We don't want to turn up, shake hands but not get involved."
But while he was happy to get his hands dirty, so to speak, he'd also like to be afforded the opportunity to hang up his work gloves at the end of the night. "I do my own shopping. Sometimes, when I come away from the meat counter in my local supermarket, I worry someone will snap me with their phone. But I am determined to have a relatively normal life," he told Levin, "and if I am lucky enough to have children, they can have one too."
And if that takes leaving London some 5,000 miles in the rearview, so be it.
"Harry is looking straight ahead at his future with his family. They will be spending time in California and in Canada. He's not looking back," one source told People. Echoed another, "This is what Meghan and Harry have always wanted—to create their own life. It's got to feel like an immense relief to get out of the U.K. and go down their own path."
(Originally published Jan. 9, 2020 at 12:30 p.m. PT)