The Canadian-Dutch Love Affair
Public life is full of rewarding experiences and meeting interesting Canadians is the best part of my role as the MP for Durham and now as Minister of Veterans Affairs as well. A few weeks ago, I had the distinct honour of accompanying 67 World War II veterans and their caregivers to the Netherlands to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands. The experience was inspiring and shows that our modern Canada owes so much to the service and sacrifice of our fellow Canadians in the past and in the present.
On this journey, it was said several times that the love affair between Canadians and the Dutch people gets renewed each spring and nothing symbolizes this better in Canada than the blossoming of Dutch tulips in Ottawa every year. But, why is there such a special relationship and where did the tulip tradition originate? The deep affection between Canada and the Netherlands comes from two important elements of our shared history. The first is the tremendous impact of the Dutch community in Canada. Growing up in Bowmanville and Port Perry, I appreciated the role of the Dutch-Canadian community from an early age. Our tremendous reputation in horticulture and agriculture generally was forged in part by some of the innovative Dutch farmers in our area. Dutch-Canadian families have been pillars in the schools, churches and organizations across Durham and they have maintained their pride for Holland and their connection with the Netherlands.
The second reason for the strength of the friendship between our nations is the fact that Canadians liberated the Dutch people after five hard years of Nazi occupation in WWII. Young Canadian soldiers, many who had landed at Juno Beach and successfully executed the Normandy invasion, advanced on the German occupiers and freed a starving and oppressed population. The liberation was led by Canada and took a heavy toll. Approximately 105,000 to 175,000 Canadians took part in the final phases of the war in northwestern Europe and 7,600 made the ultimate sacrifice during the liberation of the Netherlands. This brave service and sacrifice is not forgotten by the Dutch people and they show this every year as seniors, school children and all in between gather to thank Canadian veterans and to ensure the stories of the liberation continue.
We visited the Canadian War Cemeteries in Groesbeek and Holten, the final resting place for nearly 4000 Canadians. I had the chance to meet some of the thousand Canadian school children and cadets visiting the Netherlands and joining them on a silent march along a country lane to the cemetery was deeply moving. In Wageningen, I was awestruck by the tens of thousands of Dutch citizens who line the streets (many waiting hours in the rain before the parade) to wave and thank the veterans rolling by Hotel de Wereld, where Canadian general Charles Foulkes accepted the formal surrender from the Germans on 6 May 1945.
For many Canadians, it is difficult to truly appreciate the reasons for the overwhelming love and affection that the Dutch feel for Canada. We have never witnessed a foreign power occupy our country, imprison or kill thousands and slowly starve the population. We are blessed with freedom and opportunity and can only imagine the horror of being deprived of the freedoms we hold so dear. Last week King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands visited Canada and wanted remembrance and thanks to our veterans to be the centrepiece of their visit.
The King’s Aunt, Princess Margriet was born in Canada because the exiled Royal Family found refuge in Canada during the war. This is where the Ottawa tulip tradition is rooted when Canada became a special symbol of Dutch resilience. The King expressed it best last week when he described the immense pride his country has in its friendship with Canada and in the fact that the Dutch flag flew over Canada’s Parliament buildings the day Princess Margriet was born during the war at a time where the flag was outlawed in its native country. Freedom is something to cherish and protect.
The journey to the Netherlands also had an amazing Durham connection. On the trip was Port a Perry native, George Emmerson and his son Larry.
George was involved in the liberation of the Netherlands during the war and tells the story of finding a starving Dutch man released by the Nazis as they retreated. George fed the man, helped him gain his bearings and sent him in the direction of home with two chocolate bars as strength for the journey. Only in Canada would George accidentally encounter that man’s daughter 67 years later in a furniture store in Whitby. The man, Henk Metselaar, had been so touched by the one act of kindness by a Canadian that years after the war he moved his family to our country. The fact that they happened to settle mere kilometres from his Canadian saviour and that his daughter happened to strike up a conversation about Holland with a complete stranger in a furniture store in Whitby has more to do with divine intervention I think than sheer luck, but it underscores the need for us to preserve our stories of service and sacrifice. Each Remembrance Week George and Henk have a visit at Hillsdale Estates in Oshawa where they share smiles and a chocolate bar. We are so fortunate to be Canadian and it is critical for us to nurture and maintain the special bond we have with the Netherlands each spring.