As It Happens

Dairy farmer whose wife died on cross-country tour finishes western leg in her honour

Henk and Bettina Schuurmans began their cross-Canada trek in support of the Canadian dairy industry together — but it was cut short by a deadly crash.

'I had to finish this trip — just to do it for my family,' says Henk Schuurmans

Bettina and Henk Schuurman, dairy farmers from Elmira, Ont., set off on a cross-Canada tractor tour to promote the Canadian dairy industry in June. Bettina was killed three weeks in when they collided with a semi-truck. (Submitted by Henk Schuurman)

Henk and Bettina Schuurmans began their cross-Canada tour in support of the Canadian dairy industry together — but it was cut short when their tractor collided with transport truck in Saskatchewan. 

Bettina was killed and Henk was hospitalized with serious injuries. 

Now, three months later, he has completed the western leg of the journey from Elmira, Ont., to Victoria, with his two daughters by his side — all in honour of his late wife. 

"I just didn't want to finish the trip like this," Schuurmans told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's kind of a double feeling to finish this trip, of course, after this tragic accident. But I had to finish this trip — just to do it for my family."

'We had so much fun'

Schuurmans and his wife first set off in June in their John Deere tractor with a giant plastic cow strapped to the back and a sign that read: "Honk to support quality milk produced by Canadian farmers."

Along the way, people would honk and wave and pose for photos with the couple.

"We had so much fun doing this," Schuurmans said. 

The idea, he said, was to spread the word about supply management — a system that allows Canada's dairy, poultry and egg industries to limit their product supply to what Canadians are expected to consume, while enforcing high tarriffs on foreign imports.

Proponents say it ensures predictable, stable prices and prevents overproduction, while critics argue that it inflates prices beyond what an open market would impose.

Schuurmans said he believes supply management protects the Canadian dairy industry. That way, he can one day pass his family farm on to his three sons, aged 25, 26, 27.

"I'm the ninth-generation dairy farmer and they would be the 10th — and as a mom and dad, we wanted to make sure that they have a future in this industry," he said. "That was really the motivation to do this trip."

'It was meant to be'

He and his wife were three weeks' into their tour when they collided with a semi-truck on July 9 on Highway 16 north of Saskatoon.

"It's hard to put in words. It's devastating to lose your wife," Schuurmans said.

At first, he said he wasn't sure about the extent of his own injuries, but he survived with a broken pelvis and several fractured ribs. 

"It was meant to be that I stayed behind to look after our children," he said. 

A memorial to Bettina Schuurman created by her family and posted on Twitter Thursday. (@CdnMilkTour/Twitter)

After the crash, a GoFundMe campaign raised $91,096 for the family, with people from all across the country donating to the cause. 

"It was very special and it helped me, you know, get through this difficult time," Schuurmans said.

Retracing their steps 

Once he was feeling better, he set off again — this time in a cow-spotted pickup truck with his two daughters, aged 21 and 22. 

They passed by all the landmarks he and his wife had seen only months before, and even drove past the spot where the deadly crash occurred.

For the second run, Henk Schuurman and his daughters travelled in this cow-decorated pickup truck. (Submitted by Henk Schuurman )

"It's very special to sit with my two daughters in this pickup truck with the cow in the back and, you know, have them do the waving and the interaction with the people on the road and at the coffee shops and the gas stations and handing out milk buttons and explaining what supply management means," he said.

"It felt really good to show my two daughters, you know, what mom and dad were doing for three weeks."

USMCA backlash 

They've since returned home for Thanksgiving, after which Schuurmans said he plans to tackle the eastern leg of the trip with his two sons. 

The original journey was timed to coincide with NAFTA renegotiations, and the second run ended just as the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was announced.

The new deal would give U.S. farmers greater access to Canada's dairy industry, worth about 3.6 per cent of Canada's current dairy market, according to the Dairy Farmers of Canada. 

Like many farmers in Canada, Schuurmans is concerned about what the new deal will mean for his livelihood.

"It's very disappointing what our government gave away here," Schuurmans said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday dairy farmers will be compensated for their expected losses under the new trade deal.

Schuurmans said he needs to know more about how the USMCA will play out before he'll feel reassured. 

"We have to know the details to really see how our future is affected."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Produced by Nathan Swinn.