VE-Day: Why Dutch-Canadian connections have stayed so strong

Ties that have grown between Canada and the Netherlands since the Second World War will be at the forefront once again as ceremonies here and on the other side of the Atlantic this week mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe.

Second World War ties, liberation of Holland still cherished by Dutch-Canadians

Seventy years after Dutch civilians celebrated the liberation by Canadian soldiers in Utrecht on May 7, 1945, the ties between Canada and the Netherlands remain strong. (National Archives of Canada/Alexander Mackenzie Stirton/Canadian Press)

When Edie Bijdemast lays a wreath at the cenotaph in White Rock, B.C., on May 4 each year, it's an emotional reckoning that extends beyond honouring those who died in her Dutch homeland during the Second World War.

She also thinks of the Canadian soldiers who brought freedom to the Netherlands, along with the fundamental role that liberation 70 years ago played in her own life.

"If the Canadian soldiers hadn't come, I don't even think my mom and dad would have survived the war, and I wouldn't even be here," says Bijdemast, who immigrated to Canada with her family as a five-year-old in 1956.

Edie Bijdemast says she needs ties to both her homeland of the Netherlands and Canada, where she has lived for almost 60 years. ((Courtesy Edie Bijdemast))

"I wouldn't exist, so I feel a very deep emotional connection with that, the fact that a foreign country would come in and assist. I find that very deeply moving personally."

Bijdemast's emotional connection to her birth place is a very personal example of the ties that have grown between Canada and the Netherlands, and which will be at the forefront once again as ceremonies here and on the other side of the Atlantic this week mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe.

"These connections are at all sorts of levels," says Jeff Noakes, the Second World War historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

"They can range quite literally from the national — official commemorations — all the way down to the very personal where you still have people staying in touch 70 years after the end of the war."

Today, an estimated one million people of Dutch heritage live in Canada.

'Significant' partner

Another factor in the Dutch-Canadian connection is that business ties between the two countries are considered strong, with the federal government describing the Netherlands as "one of Canada's most significant trade, investment and innovation partners."

Tulips bloom every spring on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, one of the more visible signs of the ties that have grown between the Netherlands and Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Imports and exports between the two countries each exceeded $3.5 billion in 2014.

The Dutch ties to Canada were growing before 175,000 soldiers in the First Canadian Army and other Allied forces pushed the Nazis out of the Netherlands in April and May 1945.

Members of the Dutch Royal Family had a Second World War sojourn in Canada. Princess Margriet was born at Ottawa Civic Hospital in 1943, after a federal proclamation had declared the maternity ward extraterritorial.

Out of that Second World War experience grew one of the more visible reflections of the links between the Netherlands and Canada: the Tulip Festival in Ottawa that was inspired by a gift of 100,000 tulips from Queen Wilhelmina.

The immediate post-War experience also saw many Dutch families find new hope in Canada as their war-ravaged homeland offered little in the way of opportunity. Farmland had been devastated. The economy was in shambles. Jobs were scarce.

The winter of 1944-45 had been particularly brutal. Food and fuel had been in short supply.

Eating tulip bulbs and sugar beets

Bijdemast's mother's family was in Haarlem, one of the last places to be liberated.

"We had an exceptionally cold winter that year so they were living predominantly on tulip bulbs and sugar beets," she says. "Things were very dire."

After the war ended, the government gave people financial incentives to leave.

Canada, with its wide open spaces, became an attractive option for some, with an estimated 150,000 Dutch — including 2,000 war brides — immigrating in the two decades or so after the war.

The Bijdemast family leaves the Netherlands for Canada via Schiphol airport near Amsterdam on Nov. 28, 1956, with Irma, 3, in her mother Henderika's arms, and Edie, 5, carried by her father Hendrik. (Submitted by Edit Bijdemast)
"Canada was relatively close," says Noakes." It's a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, which you can do on an ocean liner and later on by plane, and its economy, compared to just about any other economy in the world at the time, was in relatively good shape."

Bijdemast's family came by plane to Canada in November 1956, flying on her fifth birthday to Montreal and then taking the train west as far as they could go and hopping the ferry for Victoria.

"Mom said the major thing for her to leave was the fact that they could not get a home of their own. Otherwise she never would have left. She was very strongly tied to her family."

To support Dutch immigrants, cultural organizations popped up across Canada, and Dutch import shops were common.

Time passes

But the passage of time is prompting change. Those who were the heart and soul of the thriving clubs in the 1950s and '60s are in their very senior years now, their numbers dwindling.

And in a world of instant communication, the cultural support the clubs provided for those of a shared heritage has also faded.

Royal visit

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands are expected to visit Canada from May 27 to May 29.

The visit will include a wreath-laying at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on May 27. A reception for the Dutch community will be held in Toronto on May 29.

Now there's social media like Facebook, and "when something [happens] you pretty much know it half way around the world within a few minutes," says Adri de Groot, a director of Club The Netherlands in Ontario's Niagara region.

"It's funny how times change like that."

Some cultural clubs, like the Netherlands Association, of which Bijedmast is president, have looked for events and activities they feel will be more relevant to younger generations.

Others are calling it quits after seeing membership decline. "Basically it's a change in time. Our club feels like it's served its purpose," says de Groot.

Membership, which hit 1,600 in the 1960s, has fallen to 120. A final event to celebrate the club's final year will be held later this month.

Still coming

But while Club the Netherlands may be drawing to a close, de Groot doesn't see any lessening of Dutch culture in Niagara.

Adri de Groot, his wife Leigh de Groot and their daughter Morgan de Groot donned orange to cheer on the Netherlands during last year's World Cup. (Submitted by Adri Degroot)

"There are still lots of people immigrating here."

De Groot came to Canada with his family from the Netherlands as a 12-year-old in 1997, two years after they hosted a family from St. Catharines during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the liberation.

He still has friends in the Netherlands, and proudly wears orange and cheers for Holland during the World Cup.

Bijdemast also dons the orange and cheers during the World Cup. She needs, she says, a tie to both countries. She cherishes Canada for its freedom and opportunity, vast open spaces and rich natural environment. The Netherlands she values for the deep history and roots that lie there.

"I really do feel like I have a foot in both countries and have the best of both worlds."