Don White is one of a dwindling number of Canadian veterans who can explain, from firsthand experience, why Ottawa’s spring tulip bloom, and the relationship it represents, loom so large in our collective consciousness.
“Holland’s known for the tulips, and they’re so beautiful,” said White, 95. “It’s a symbol for me, anyway, when I see that, of the Netherlands and my experiences there. It brings back memories.”
In 1945, the Dutch royal family gifted 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada as a thank-you for safely sheltering some of its members during the war years, and for liberating its citizens in the Netherlands from Nazi occupation.
Nearly 75 years later, the country is replicating this gift to Canada as an act of remembrance and celebration of a decades-long friendship. White was the ceremonial recipient of a few of these 100,000 tulip bulbs, planted in Ottawa’s Commissioners Park at a Wednesday ceremony.
During the Second World War, White served with the Royal Canadian Dragoons — an armoured regiment that fought in Italy before a transfer to northwest Europe. There, they joined the powerful First Canadian Army tasked with liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation, a nine-month campaign that cost more than 7,600 Canadian lives.
On April 15, 1945, then 19-year-old White and his fellow soldiers drove their armoured vehicles into Leeuwarden, a Dutch city. The Dragoons took 177 prisoners, according to regimental history, and liberated the citizens of Leeuwarden.
“My main memory of the whole thing was the joy of the people,” said White. “The oppression they had lived under for so long …I can remember when we would liberate a town — they would be singing, they would be dancing, they would be jumping up and down, they’d be crying, they’d be laughing.”
Many of White’s wartime memories weren’t nearly as uplifting. What stands out the most, he said, were “the hardships that we had to go through to do what we had to do.”
He also voiced his feeling that Canada’s military has never received the financial support it deserves from the government.
“Even when I was there, we never got the best. But we did our job as good as any other Allied nation. And the boys today are doing as good a job as anybody, not being supported, and that bothers me.”
The tone at Wednesday’s event was otherwise upbeat, with representatives from the National Capital Commission, the Canadian Tulip Festival, and the Embassy of the Netherlands celebrating nearly 75 years of close post-war relations between their two countries.
It so happens that the Dutch ambassador to Canada, Henk van der Zwan, was born in Leeuwarden almost a decade after it was liberated by White and his fellow Canadian soldiers. He grew up hearing his mother talk about the day the Canadians moved into the city.
After Wednesday’s ceremony, he said cultural similarities are part of the reason the relationship between both countries remains uniquely strong.
“Dutch and Canadians are very much alike. They have the same sense of humour, they have the same priorities in life — they are outward–looking, open-minded people that like to connect.”
The bulbs planted in Commissioners Park Wednesday are among the thousands of “Liberation75” tulips that should bloom in the capital next spring, in time for the 75th anniversary of the Dutch liberation, and the Canadian Tulip Festival, scheduled to run from May 8 to 18.
-With files from the Pembroke Observer