In father's footsteps, Guelph woman recreates Dutch liberation trek

As many as 200 Canadians will be heading to the Netherlands this spring to trace the footsteps for their fathers and grandfathers who fought to liberate the country from Nazi occupation.

Pilgrimage honours Canadians who helped liberate the Netherlands

Karen Hunter's father, Lieutenant Gilbert Hunter. His memoir of Second World War service in the Netherlands during the liberation inspired his daughter to start "In Our Father's Footsteps." (Karen Hunter/Facebook)

As many as 200 Canadians, led by a Guelph woman will be travelling to the Netherlands this spring to retrace a journey first taken by their fathers and grandfathers in the Second World War. 

The three-day pilgrimage is called "In Our Father's Footsteps" to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands and the Canadian soldiers who fought there. 

"We're the next generation," said Karen Hunter, the event's organizer. "And we want to keep the connection alive." 

They will make their way 60 km to the city of Apeldoorn, tracing a route similar to the one taken by Canadian troops in 1945, during the final months of the war. 

"The idea is to create as significant a military atmosphere as can be," said Hunter. "So they can imagine themselves there."

They'll even be eating from mess kits, much like the Canadian soldiers would have.

Along the way, they'll visit cemeteries and monuments and participate in local festivals marking the anniversary of the liberation. 

Hunter also plans to bring to a "Canadian remembrance torch," and a "memory box," where future visitors can place mementos commemorating the liberation.

When the group finally reaches Apeldoorn they'll be received by Princess Margriet, who was born in Ottawa during her family's exile during the occupation. 

Remembered by two nations 

The liberation of the Netherlands is an event that looms large for Canadian and Dutch citizens alike. 

Canadian soldiers played a key role in ending the brutal five-year Nazi occupation. Tens of thousands of Canadians took part in the mission that was launched in September 1944 and concluded in May 1945.

More than 7,600 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in the campaign. Most are buried in three main cemeteries across the Netherlands in the communities of Holten, Bergen op Zoom and Groesbeek.

Dutch schoolchildren still tend to the graves and the royal family still sends thousands of tulip bulbs to Ottawa in commemoration each spring. 

"There's no word that describes how important it is in the Netherlands," said Hunter. 

Father never talked about war 

Hunter's fascination with the campaign began on her father, Lieutenant Gilbert Hunter's, 80th birthday.

Unbeknownst to her, he'd written a memoir of his service in the Netherlands, and he gave her a copy.

"My father never talked about his wartime experience all of my life," she said. "And then here, suddenly, was this memoir. It was quite amazing."

With the 75th anniversary approaching, she decided to investigate her father's wartime service. Her research lead her to other Canadians yearning to know more about their own family's connection to the liberation. 

"I met so many people that said to me I would love to do what you're doing, and I just don't know where to start," she said. "So, I invited 200 Canadians to join me. And it moved from 'In My Father's Footsteps' to 'In Our Father's Footsteps.'"

Karen Hunter will lead up to 200 Canadians to the Netherlands in April and May 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the country's liberation. (R.A. Enterprise)

Now Canadians from across the country are planning to make the journey. Many have fathers and grandfathers who served in the liberation. Though not all of them. There will be Dutch-Canadians on the trek as well, many of whom had parents who were liberated, said Hunter. One participant, she said, was born in the Netherlands on liberation day. 

A participant from Manitoba hopes to meet his half-brother, a "liberation baby" who is still living in the Netherlands. Another man's father was killed in Italy, en route to the Netherlands. He plans to make the trip his father couldn't. 

Elaina Gaetan is joining from Dartmouth, NS. Her grandfather was a gunner in the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, fighting in the Netherlands, as well as Belgium and France.

When he died, she inherited a stack of his possessions, including photos of people her grandfather met in the Netherlands during the war.

Hunter was able to connect her to a researcher she often works with. 

"He found the families quite quickly and put them in touch with her," she said. "The families have sent her pictures of her grandfather. And it's just an amazing story."

'An everyday mindfulness' 

Many of Canada's Second World War veterans are now in their 90s. 

Because so few of the people who saw the liberation first hand remain, Hunter said, her focus is on "experiential remembrance," to help the next generations maintain a connection to their story. 

"It's so important to me that remembrance goes beyond November 11th," she said. "It's an everyday mindfulness."

Hunter is still accepting participants for the trip, but said remaining space is limited. 

She said, in the new year, she'll be seeking out sponsorships to help cover some of the costs as well. 

"In Our Father's Footsteps" departs for the Netherlands on April 29th.

With files from Carsten Knox and Erin Collins