It is often said that Canada and the Netherlands have a special bond. As King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands are on a state visit to Canada this week, that special relationship is celebrated. What makes for the close ties between the two countries?
By Frank Kuin in Ottawa
1. The liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian Armed Forces
Cordial ties between the Netherlands and Canada blossomed into something of a love affair at the end of the Second World War. As the Allied forces planned their attack on Germany, Canadian 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 Dutch cities and towns, many of whom suffered a famine in the final stages of the war in what is known as the ‘hunger winter’, welcomed the Canadians with euphoria.
The Canadians came as liberators, with no intent to occupy the Netherlands or tell the Dutch how to run their affairs, which created tremendous goodwill for the Canadians that lasts to this day. For Canada, however, the mission came at a price: the Germans put up fierce resistance, with heavy fighting during the battle of the Scheldt estuary and the liberation of Arnhem. More than 7,600 Canadians lost their lives; most of them are buried at three Canadian war cemeteries in the Netherlands. Veterans who survived have been thanked in commemorative ceremonies and parades in the Netherlands ever since.
2. Dutch Royals lived in Ottawa during the war
The World War II ties between Canada and the Netherlands go deeper, as part of the Dutch Royal family lived in exile in Ottawa during the war. While Queen Wilhelmina stayed in London, her only daughter, Crown Princess Juliana, came to Canada with her two small children, Beatrix and Irene. They lived at the Stornoway mansion in the capital’s Rockcliffe Park area, which is now the residence of the leader of the Official Opposition. Her husband, Prince Bernhard, traveled back and forth between Canada and Europe.
In 1943, Juliana (who reigned as Queen from 1948 to 1980) gave birth to a third daughter, Princess Margriet – the only member of a royal family born in North America. The maternity ward at the Ottawa Civic Hospital where Margriet was born was temporarily declared international territory, so that the princess was born a Dutch citizen. To celebrate the birth, the Dutch flag was flown over the Peace Tower – the only foreign flag to ever have been raised atop Canada’s Parliament.
Margriet’s elder sister Beatrix (who reigned as Queen from 1980 to 2013 and is King Willem-Alexander’s mother) attended elementary school in Ottawa. She was reportedly known as Trixie Orange among her young classmates.
3. Tulip mania
To express her gratitude to the people of Canada for their hospitality during the war, princess Juliana sent a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa upon her return to the Netherlands. The following year, she donated another 20,000, with the request that some be planted at the grounds of the Ottawa Civic Hospital. She also promised an annual gift of tulips.
The thank you gift gave rise to the Canadian Tulip Festival, one of the most popular annual events on the Ottawa calendar. Every spring, the Canadian capital is adorned by hundreds of thousands of colourful tulips in flower beds all over the city. Ottawa boasts that its Tulip Festival is the largest of its kind in the world, with up to 1 million flowers and 500,000 visitors. The annual tulip mania that sweeps the capital each spring is arguably the most prominent celebration of the special bond between Canada and the Netherlands.
4. Immigration: more than 1 million Canadians of Dutch descent
In the post-war years, immigration to Canada from the Netherlands picked up serious pace. While thousands of Dutch people had immigrated to Canada prior to World War II, after the war that trickle turned into a surge: between 1947 and 1970, more than 150,000 Dutch people left the Netherlands to build a new life in Canada. Among them were about 2,000 war brides accompanying returning Canadian servicemen. Canada, which actively recruited immigrants from Europe at the time, became a top destination for Dutch migrants.
According the Canadian census, more than one million Canadians are of Dutch background (of a total population of about 35 million). They include Canadians from all walks of life and have settled in all regions of the country, with concentrations in Southern Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, where there is even a small town called Neerlandia. The large-scale migration has made for intricate family ties between Canada and the Netherlands: many Dutch people have close or distant relatives in the Great White North.
5. Dutch contributions to Canada
Like immigrants from all countries, Dutch Canadians have made considerable and diverse contributions to Canada. Generally known as hard workers eager to integrate into mainstream society, they are represented in a wide variety of fields. Dutch farmers have come in large numbers, looking for opportunities to expand their agricultural businesses in Canada’s vast space. In business, Canadians of Dutch background have made their mark in many sectors, from the automotive industry (link Van-Rob) to food and consumer products.
Dutch-Canadians have also been active in Canada’s public life: several incumbent federal MPs are of Dutch heritage, including Rick Dykstra (St. Catharines, Conservatives), Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, NDP), Dave van Kesteren (Chatham-Kent-Essex, Conservatives) and Rod Bruinooge (Winnipeg South, Conservatives). Dutch-born Bill Vander Zalm served as premier of British Columbia from 1986 to 1991. And in the public service, Dutch geophysicist Jacob Verhoef has been leading Canada’s efforts to map the ocean floor in the Arctic region for territorial claims.
6. A shared passion for skating
There’s no denying that both the Dutch and the Canadians are often at their best when they’re on the ice. Canadian speed skaters know that their main competitors are Dutch athletes. At the same time, Canadians are often unbeatable on hockey rinks. It’s no coincidence that several big-name Canadian hockey players are of Dutch background, like Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk. And then there is the entire Staal family.
Both peoples share a love affair with the ice: the Dutch are surrounded by waterways that tend to freeze over in winter, while the Canadians know how to make the best of long, harsh winters. Ottawa boasts that the Rideau Canal is ‘the worlds largest skating rink’. Even the history of ice hockey is shared: on paintings of wintery scenes by Dutch master Hendrick Avercamp, hockey-like activities make an early appearance. Early versions of hockey in Canada, where the foundation of the game in its current form was laid, were played on Dutch-style skates.
Is it any coincidence that Evert van Benthem, two-time winner of the famous Elfstedentocht skating tour of Friesland, chose to emigrate to Alberta?
7. A Canadian example on immigration and multiculturalism
In recent decades, Canada has been a model country regarding immigration and multiculturalism. Public figures from the Netherlands have regularly looked to Canada for guidance and best practices when it comes to settling newcomers. Study visits by Dutch delegations to Canada’s multicultural cities are not uncommon. Former immigration minister Rita Verdonk led one such delegation in 2006. Indeed, in the 2000s, the Netherlands adopted a citizenship ceremony modelled on the Canadian practice.
On the flipside, political debates about integration of newcomers and preservation of national identity in the Netherlands have on several occasions echoed similar debates in Quebec. The province, with its strong sense of national identity, has fervently debated issues of reasonable accommodation like many societies in Europe, including the Netherlands.
8. Trade and investment worth billions
Economic ties between Canada and the Netherlands are extensive. The Netherlands ranked as the second-largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in Canada in 2014, after the United States. Energy major Royal Dutch Shell is a large player in Canada, in the Alberta oil sands and other areas. Trade between the two countries totalled $7.5 billion in 2014, roughly evenly split between imports and exports.
The Dutch government projects that trade will grow by about 600 million to 1.2 billion euro ($800 to $1.6 billion) due to the new free trade agreement-in-principle between Canada and the European Union (known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA). Some Canadian sectors, notably the dairy industry in which many Dutch-Canadians are active, have concerns about that accord.
A high-profile, negative term in Canada’s economic vocabulary is ‘Dutch Disease’, the phenomenon whereby growth in one sector (energy and resources) boosts a nation’s currency, thus hurting other sectors that depend on exports (like manufacturing). Coined to describe the situation in the Netherlands after big natural gas finds in the North Sea in the 1970s, it is often used in Canada to decry the effects of the nation’s strong ‘petro-dollar’ on other industries.
9. Diplomatically: ‘two countries, one spirit’
Canada and the Netherlands share a common view of international relations based on multilateralism, development and peace. Both countries like to see themselves as ‘middle powers’ on the world stage, who punch above their weight diplomatically because of long-standing positions in defense of human rights, the rule of law and working within the United Nations. In large part for this reason, the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Ottawa describes the relationship as ‘two countries, one spirit’.
Although the current Canadian government has a different emphasis in its foreign policy outlook, Canada and the Netherlands have traditionally supported multilateral initiatives for peacekeeping, human development and care for the environment. In recent years, soldiers from both countries found themselves side by side fighting dangerous missions in southern Afghanistan that were originally billed as a peace mission but turned out to involve a great deal of combat – another occasion to compare notes and work together.
10. In the vanguard of liberal social policies
Both the Netherlands and Canada have traditionally been among the first countries to adopt liberal social policies. Although Canada has been governed from the right in recent years, it has historically been quicker than the United States to take relatively liberal policy positions on issues such as drug policies, gay marriage and euthanasia – areas where the Netherlands has also found itself in the vanguard of policy making. In the early 2000s, The Economist famously declared Canada ‘cool’ because of such initiatives.
When the United States were still waging war on drugs, Canada approved its first injection clinic for hard drug users in Vancouver, looking to treat drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one. Similarly, cultivation of marijuana flourished in British Columbia years before it was legalized in U.S. states like Colorado. As a result, the city of Vancouver has often been nicknamed ‘Vansterdam’.
In 2005, Canada became one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, following the Dutch lead. And the province of Quebec has adopted right-to-die legislation, citing euthanasia practices in the Netherlands, among others, as an example.
This post is also available in: Dutch
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