Canadians should take more pride in their accomplishments during World War II, such as the liberation of Holland, say historians. In the brand new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the achievement takes its place in Canada’s sometimes uncomfortable military history.

By Frank Kuin in Ottawa

Construction workers are still hammering and sawing in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, days before its official opening. Meandering a way through the exhibits of the brand new museum, the first visitors stumble onto the moment when the history of Canada intersects with that of the Netherlands.

Around the corner of the invasion of Sicily, the battle for Ortona en D-Day, a large historic aerial photo depicts the flooded Scheldt estuary, where Canadian troops fought a ferocious battle in 1944 to bring the entrance to the harbour of Antwerp into Allied hands.

Het Canadese oorlogsmuseum in Ottawa.

The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

A little further, there are images of Canadians as liberators, defenders of freedom and democracy. A mute film shows enthusiastic crowds of Dutch cheering Canadian troops in 1945. And a large panel shows Canadian veterans being honoured during commemorations of the end of World War II in 1995.

Where else than in the Netherlands, the only country in the world where Canadians is synonymous with liberators?

Nederlanders vieren de bevrijding door Canadese militairen in Utrecht, 7 mei 1945 (foto Nationaal Archief van Canada)

Dutch people celebrate the liberation by Canadian troops in Utrecht, May 7,  1945 (National Archives of Canada photo)

“The liberation of Holland has led to a special relationship between our two countries that’s still being maintained today,” says Joe Geurts, director of the war museum and himself of Dutch descent. He sums up expressions of that bond: the residency of Crown Princess Juliana in Ottawa during the war; the birth there of her third daughter, Princess Margriet; the post-war immigration of about 150,000 Dutch people to Canada; and the large Tulip Festival held in Ottawa every year to celebrate the friendship. “It was a remarkable moment in Canadian history that people are still talking about.”

Dutch people, anyway. In Canada, memories of the liberation are less prominent. Although the liberation of Holland is a standout achievement in Canadian military history, the climax of a heroic battle in which a small nation came of age, relatively little is done in Canada to celebrate it.

Some observers say the focus of the country has become too anti-militaristic, too much focused on a preference for peacekeeping operations, to boast about Canada’s war history.

“It bothers me that Canadians don’t commemorate the liberation of Holland like the Dutch do,” says Jack Granatstein, a prominent Canadian historian who has written extensively about Canada’s role in World War II. “I doubt whether many Canadians even know that Canada liberated the Netherlands.”

“I doubt whether many Canadians know that Canada liberated the Netherlands”

They should, argues Granatstein. Because to Canada, the liberation was the crowning achievement on a massive war effort that saw the country grow from a British Dominion into a self-confident nation with its own role in the world. Canada declared war on Germany in 1939, two years before the United States entered the conflict. At the end of the war, Canada had more than 1.1 million people in uniform, of a total population of 11 million. It had one of the world’s largest armies. About 42,000 Canadians died in the war, while 54,400 were wounded.

“We were one of the countries that fought for freedom in World War II without having been directly threatened ourselves,” says Granatstein. “And because of that, we were able to give the Dutch people their liberty and democracy back. That is a great accomplishment, one we should be proud of.”

'Infanterie bij Nijmegen, Holland', door Alex Colville (Canadian War Museum)

‘Infantry near Nijmegen, Holland’, by Alex Colville (Canadian War Museum)

As far as Granatstein is concerned, the liberation of Holland deserves more attention in history lessons in Canada’s schools. If World War II is taught at all, the focus is often on what was done wrong, he says — the persecution of Japanese people in Canada, for example. By nature, Canadians are too self-critical to trumpet their successes the way Americans do.

Moreover, Canada’s role in past conflicts is often underplayed because it doesn’t with the country’s modern self-image as an international peacekeeper. “We tell ourselves that the Americans fight wars while Canadians make peace,” says Granatstein. “Canadians like to think that we are a moral superpower. In the name of that Canadian myth, many people here act as if we have never been in a war.”

Gevel van het Canadese oorlogsmuseum in Ottawa.

Facade of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Even so, there are initiatives to commemorate the efforts of the Canadian military during World War II. The Dominion Institute is organizing a series of visits by veterans to schools, to speak about their experiences. Rudyard Griffiths, director of the Institute, thinks the liberation of Holland appeals to the Canadian population. “It is part of our history that touches a nerve, because it goes back to a golden era in terms of Canada’s role in the world, and a level of status and influence that we don’t have now.”

Griffiths is less pessimistic about Canadian awareness of the liberation of Holland. “I don’t think most Canadians have thorough knowledge of it, but I do think most are aware of it,” he says. Indeed, the liberation is usually a counterexample when people complain that Canadians know too little about their own history. “Often, the care for the graves of Canadian soldiers in the Netherlands comes up.”

“It is part of our history that touches a nerve”

TV footage of the commemorations in Holland honoring the Canadian casualties and veterans has made an impression in Canada. There has been extensive coverage of the events surrounding the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. Both English and French TV stations have been reporting them live. The commemoration at the military cemetery at Groesbeek was the opening item of the National TV news.

Granatstein says Canada should take the “moving” way in which the liberation is remembered in Holland as an example. He hopes that the new War Museum will engage more Canadians in their country’s war history. Even if the museum, with its grandeur and glorification of military successes, is almost un-Canadian.

De begraafplaats voor gesneuvelde Canadese militairen bij Groesbeek.

Military cemetery of Canadian servicemen and women in Groesbeek, Netherlands.

This post is also available in: Dutch

3 Responses to In Holland, Canadians are seen as liberators

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  2. […] think of the fellows who died right beside me. I have friends in all three Canadian War cemeteries in the Netherlands. Whenever I go to Holland, I always visit […]

  3. […] divisions were tasked with ending the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers were hailed as liberators as they advanced through the country in the fall of 1944 and the spring of 1945. The people of […]

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