Sidney entrepreneur Chris Stephen still remembers the day when Diana, Princess of Wales, and her companion Dodi Fayed died in a car crash on Aug. 31, 1997.
“I lost my mind,” she said. “I had three boys and two of my boys were of the same age as Harry and William [Diana’s children]. So as a mother, the thought of those little boys being without a mom, it was just really devastating, and Harry has in a slight way always reminded me of my middle son. So I always felt an odd little connection to him.”
Five days before Christmas that connection became real, when two men entered Stephen’s Sidney store, Lilaberry Home & Decor. She did not pay much attention to them. “For all intents and purposes, it looked just like two buddies out to do some Christmas shopping,” she said.
“They were wandering around like typical guys, with their deer-in-the-headlights-look,” she added later. “I took pity on them, and that is when I stepped in. I think I teased them about being typical last-minute shoppers. Mind you, five days before Christmas for a man is pretty good.”
Stephen was demonstrating a scarf when it started to dawn on her that she might be having a conversation with somebody famous. During this demonstration, one of the men asked whether it was really fur, a question that made her indignant.
“I sort of said, ‘No, I wouldn’t be selling it if it was real fur,’” said Stephen. “I looked at him as I was saying this, and I thought to myself, ‘why does this guy have his toque pulled down and why does he have his mouth covered up with his jacket?’ Actually, at one point, I almost reached over to pull down the front of jacket, so I could hear him talking.”
It turns out the person mumbling into his clothing was none other than Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, sixth in line of succession to the British throne, and one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, thanks in part to his marriage to American actress Meghan Markle.
The couple, along with their son Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, spent the Christmas holidays at a waterfront estate in North Saanich, drawing much coverage in the British tabloid media, but generally collective shrugs from local media and local residents, with the odd report of residents running into the royal couple hiking.
But Stephen did not yet put one and one together. In fact, Stephen first thought that she was standing opposite Prince Harry’s uncle Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who had generated devastatingly bad headlines following an interview discussing his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, a dead American billionaire, convicted of sex trafficking.
The man accompanying Prince Harry was a member of his security detail, who asked Stephen to continue the conversation with Prince Harry in the store’s backroom.
Once there, Prince Harry teased Stephen.
“The first thing out of his month, he said, ‘I can’t believe you said I look like Prince Andrew,’” said Stephen. “I said to him, ‘I’m so sorry, I just had a moment. ’ And then he said to me, ‘I was trying to disguise my accent and sound Canadian.’ And said, yeah, you didn’t do a very good job.’”
But for all the teasing, the brief conversation also included a touching moment.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Oh, my God, you are such a lovely boy, I have to hug, and it is from your mom,’” said Stephen. “I just needed to do a mom hug.”
Stephen said she was totally unconscious of the fact that she was hugging Prince Harry. “I’m hugging a young man, who lost his mom,” she said. “I am a mom and it just felt so good to pass on that truly heart-felt love.”
In a way, the hug was Stephen’s Christmas present to Prince Harry. “It was my Christmas gift as well, and the only difference between hugging him and hugging one of my sons is that he didn’t go ‘gross’ and pull away.’ He took it very kindly. He took it very graciously. He took it like a man.”
She also invited him to Christmas dinner in her home. “It is not a castle, but it’s cozy,” she said.
Stephen, who did not take a picture of her encounter with Prince Harry, but has shared stills of surveillance camera footage, said Prince Harry could not have been more gracious. “He had no airs about it, he wasn’t stuffy, he wasn’t cocky.”
In the end, Prince Harry left Stephen’s store with bag full of “typical” Christmas items, but also a toy otter Stephen gifted for the prince’s son. So can Stephen say how much money he had spent?
“No, I don’t think that is anybody’s business,” she said with a laugh.
The fact that Prince Harry and his family could have gone anywhere in the world, yet chose the Saanich Peninsula says a lot about the natural beauty of the region and how respectful the residents are, said Stephen, who would like another chance to meet him.
“I want Harry to come back,” she said. “I always felt a special affection towards him.”
Who knows. After Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s announcement that they would step back as senior members of the royal family and split their time between the United Kingdom and North America, Stephen may yet get another opportunity.