HALIFAX - Bernadette Hearns giggled like a schoolgirl Monday moments after she met the Queen.

"It was so wonderful. She's beautiful," the Halifax woman said as the Queen completed a walkabout at the rain-sodden foot of Citadel Hill, the port city's historic British fort. "She said, 'I hope you didn't get too wet.' "

Hearns was among an estimated 3,000 people who braved a torrential downpour to see the Queen and Prince Philip as they started a nine-day tour of Canada.

Only minutes before they arrived at the fort's Garrison Grounds, where a squad of Mounties in soaked red serge stood at attention to greet them, the heavy rain stopped, as if on cue. Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean greeted the Queen as she emerged from her limousine to start her 22nd official visit to Canada.

The rain held off for the entire ceremony, which included a 21-gun salute, a review of a Guard of Honour, a speech from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and traditional Celtic and Acadian music.

"Look, it's a once in a lifetime," said Hearns, he hair shielded from the rain by a plastic head scarf. "You know ... I'm so excited. It's wonderful. We got soaked. But that's OK."

The Queen, dressed in a sand-coloured overcoat, carried a bell-shaped umbrella with a yellow fringe and handle that matched her wide-brimmed hat.

In a brief speech, she recalled her six decades as Canada's reigning monarch, speaking of her pride in the country's accomplishments and the warmth she felt at the welcoming ceremony.

The 84-year-old Queen recalled the words of the Queen Mother as she reflected on what it means to return to Canada.

"My mother once said that this country felt like home, away from home, for the Queen of Canada," she said in her first of four speeches during her tour of five Canadian cities.

"As Queen of Canada for nearly six decades, my pride in this country remains undimmed. ... It is very good to be home."

In his address, Harper recalled the Queen's previous visits and the impact they have had on Canadians who have seen her, including himself as a boy when he saw her motorcade a couple of blocks from his house in Ontario.

"Those people treasure those experiences for a lifetime," he said.

Harper said the Queen has visited Canada more often than any other country in the Commonwealth.

"We are honoured that you have given us so generously of your time," he said. "Thank you, Your Majesty, for over a half-century of wise and gracious service as our monarch and welcome to Canada."

After the welcome, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived at the Halifax Common, a sprawling park in the middle of the city, for a Mi'kmaq cultural event.

A traditional village has been erected in the park as part of a celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Grand Chief Henri Membertou.

Walking along the sodden grass with Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy, the Queen toured the makeshift village and watched demonstrations inside teepees, including the making of a basket. She also took in a Mi'kmaq version of "Amazing Grace" by a youth choir from Conne River, N.L.

"It was exciting. I was nervous," said Paula Drew, 16, who sang and danced with the choir. "It means a lot, this is a big opportunity."

Alan Syliboy, a Mi'kmaq artist from the Millbrook First Nation near Truro, N.S., said it was a "real thrill" to present the Queen with one of his pieces, a painting symbolic of Membertou.

"The Queen's always been a part of my life and it's something that it's really hard to believe it happened," said Syliboy, adding that the Queen liked the painting "very much."

The Queen last visited Canada in 2005, with stops in Saskatchewan and Alberta. One of the highlights of her visit to Halifax is an event on Tuesday that celebrates the Canadian navy's centennial with a fleet review of about two dozen ships.

She will lead the fleet review on board HMCS St. John's, which will carry her down the centre of two rows of anchored frigates, destroyers, tankers, assault ships, the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal and a Canadian submarine. During the procession crew will salute the Queen, give three cheers and wave their caps as her frigate sails past the flag-draped ships.

The Canadian military's aerobatic team, the Snowbirds, will be part of a multination flypast that will include vintage aircraft, Hornet fighter jets and helicopters.

As the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh began their tour, a new poll released Monday suggested Canadians' interest in the royals may be waning.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey of just over 1,000 Canadians found that 45 per cent of respondents didn't know they were coming, while almost half — 48 per cent — agreed when asked if they consider the monarchy "a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today."

As well, 44 per cent said they would support a referendum on whether Canada should keep the monarchy, with 58 per cent of Quebec respondents leading the call for a national question.

The telephone poll was conducted between June 17 and June 20. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The Queen leaves for Ottawa on Wednesday.

On Canada Day, she will be on Parliament Hill for celebrations of the country's 143rd birthday.

The Queen and her husband are scheduled to make stops in Winnipeg and Waterloo, Ont., where they visit the headquarters of Research in Motion, the company that makes the BlackBerry.

As well, the Queen will deliver a stone from the meadows of Runnymede, site of the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, to the construction site of the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.

A well-known enthusiast of horse racing, the Queen also spends an afternoon at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto on Sunday for the 150th annual running of the Queen's Plate.

The trip ends on July 6 in Toronto.

— With files from Melanie Patten

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