May 5th, 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] On Canada and the Netherlands and 1945

Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands, and it so happens that the country's liberation is one of the most significant results in Canada's involvement in the Second World War. Canada's involvement with the Netherlands predated the war--Ottawa hosted the Dutch royal family, going so far as to cede a suburb temporarily to the Diutch so that Princess Margriet could be born a Dutch citizen. Over 1944-1945, the First Canadian Army led the Allies in driving the Germans out of most of the Netherlands, eventually taking the surrender of the German commander on the 5th of May and playing a role in the post-War relief efforts in the Netherlands. As the Globe and Mail's Elizabeth Renzetti notes, the Dutch are still quite grateful for Canada's role.

It’s been six and a half decades since the Dutch ecstatically welcomed their Canadian liberators and the gratitude shows no signs of dimming. Some 400 Canadian veterans are being treated to a week of solemn ceremonies and free lunches, pats on the back from strangers and almost as many kisses as they got that spring when the war in Europe ended. On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend a commemoration at the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery along with the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende.

But in the back of everyone’s minds is the thought that there may not be very many celebrations of this magnitude left. “Of course you want to keep coming back,” Mr. [Gilles Turcot, a veteran] says, “but it brings so many emotions.” One more medal was added to Mr. Turcot’s already crowded chest this week when he received an award of gratitude from Holland’s Princess Margriet, who was born in Ottawa in 1943 during the royal family’s wartime exile there.

Tuesday, on Dutch Remembrance Day, Mr. Turcot and his fellow veterans were driven to a lavish ceremony at Holten cemetery, where 1,335 Canadian soldier are buried. Along the way, houses and farms flew Canadian flags, children and motorcycle police waved smaller versions and a banner read, “We will always remember you.” Earlier the veterans were served small cakes adorned with maple leaves, and wondered about the etiquette of eating the national symbol.

[. . .]

In May 1945 the Dutch, having barely survived what they called the hongerwinter, showered the Canadian soldiers with flowers and kisses (to say the least; some 1,800 Dutch war brides came to Canada.) In return, the soldiers handed out chocolate, taken from packages sent from home, and cigarettes. By one estimate, six million cigarettes were handed out in the months after liberation. “In those days,” Mr. Turcot says, “smoking wasn’t a sin.”

“Holland and Canada – no two countries have such a strong bond,” says Gerry van’t Holt, who remembers being a five-year-old awed by the sight of Canadian tanks rolling into his town, Hardenburg, and watching a soldier, who seemed giant, reach down to hand him his first piece of chocolate. Now, Dutch children are taught about the Canadian war effort, and every Christmas Eve at Holten they place a candle on each grave.

Walking among those graves, Jan de Vries stopped to place a Canadian flag next to each comrade from his unit, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. He has done this at war cemeteries across Europe. Mr. de Vries, 86, happily shared his war stories – bad Army dentistry, fighting from barn to barn, hanging from a tree after his parachute became snarled in its branches. The war stories are one thing, but increasingly, he says, he’s overcome when he visits these sites. “I never used to be so emotional. I guess it’s that I’m getting older. You don’t like to think it’s the last time you might visit.”

Canada's involvement in the liberation of the Netherlands may have played a critical role in the Dutch Canadian community (Wikipedia, Multicultural Canada), the product of two hundred thousand immigrants of Dutch background over the past two centuries who multiplied to the point that nearly a million people as of 1991 who claimed some Dutch ancestry. (Some even made it to Prince Edward Island). The first major migration was that of the hundreds of Dutch war brides joined their Canadian soldier husbands in Canada. Later in the straitened post-war years, the Netherlands promoted emigration in over to avoid overpopulation, and Canada with its abundant agricultural land and thriving cities was a major destination. Modern Canadian-Netherlands relations have been friendly and fairly close since then, girded by trade and migration and shared values, but Dutch gratitude for Canada's role in the Second World War is clearly also a factor.