Version classiqueVersion mobile

Images of Canadianness

Leen D’Haenens

Part Two. Bilingual Canada: A Multicultural Mosaic

The Dutch in Canada

Herman Ganzevoort

Texte intégral


1Although Dutch immigrants have been settling in North America since the beginning of the 17th century, their presence in Canada in any significant numbers is largely a 20th century phenomenon. While Dutch commercial settlement by the Dutch West Indies Company had begun in the Hudson River valley as early as 1613, the people of the New Netherlands had few contacts with the French settlements developing to the north at the same time. The rather benign conquest of the New Netherlands by the British in 1664 permitted the Dutch to retain their religious and cultural identity well into the 18th century. As a result, the fall of New France to the British in 1763 did little to encourage Dutch Americans to pull up their comfortable roots and move to Britain’s newest colony. However, during and after the American Revolution some Dutch American Loyalists did seek political asylum in the British North American colonies with the majority settling on the western frontier of Quebec. They were followed in the 1790’s by other Dutch Americans seeking cheap farm land as the eastern American states reached their agricultural limits.

2After 1815 American and European interest focused almost exclusively on the western frontier of the United States. Deteriorating economic conditions and religious conflict encouraged emigration from the Netherlands by the mid-1850’s and brought about primary agricultural settlement in western Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. In the following decades Dutch settlements spread across the whole northern tier of the mid and western states. These settlements exerted a strong attraction on Dutch farmers and offered a relatively easy integration into American society. They attracted not only farmers but shopkeepers, skilled craftsmen, clerks and even professionals. The immigrants found a cultural and religious milieu that resembled that of small town Holland. Social displacement, language difficulties and loneliness, so much the common experience of most immigrants to America, were greatly mitigated (see Lucas, 1955).

3However, by 1890, it was clear that the Dutch agricultural settlements had reached their physical limits. Like other American farmers, the Dutch were suffering from problems with land shortages, distribution, marketing, financing and transportation. Although new opportunities were opening up in the urban/industrial sectors, the city and factory held little appeal for many families who had been farmers for generations.

  • 1 R. Insinger to L. Pereira, 18 February 1892, Department of the Interior (Immigration Branch) Recor (...)

4Seizing the opportunity to expand its own underpopulated and underdeveloped prairie region the Canadian government began to advertise the virtues of the “Last Best West”. Dutch Americans and Dutch immigrants alike soon arrived to take up free homestead land or purchase millions of acres held by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and other companies. They, like so many others, responded to the promise of economic betterment and individual success based solely on the exploitation of the new frontier.1

  • 2 Ministry of External Affairs to the Central Emigration Foundation Holland, 20 August 1930 [Telepho (...)

5The advent of World War I in 1914 and the economic recession that followed it significantly slowed the movement until well into the 1920’s. At that time, Canadian government policy shifted to a general concern for agricultural development and employment across Canada as the prairie region had reached much of its settlement capacity. The massive unemployment and economic disruption caused by the Great Depression of 1929-39 saw the exclusion of all immigration with the exception of relatives of Canadian citizens and those with the financial wherewithal to immediately establish businesses or purchase farms.2 The outbreak of World War II further reduced the number of Dutch immigrants to a mere trickle composed largely of economic and political refugees.

6Starting in 1947 Dutch immigration resumed apace and in the two following decades immigrants made their way to all parts of Canada. The return of economic prosperity to the Netherlands in the early 1960’s, thanks in large measure to the Marshall Plan, spelled an end to large scale emigration and with the exception of a few years in the mid-60’s immigration has since not exceeded 2,000 Netherlanders a year.


  • 3 The Department of the Interior to H. Dixon, 11 May 1894, DI/IBR.NAC.

7The social characteristics of the Dutch immigrants were in great measure determined by what the Canadian government saw as the primary aims of immigration in the first sixty years of Dutch migration to Canada. In the 1890’s Canadians viewed the West as the cornerstone of the country’s future development. To accomplish the proper exploitation of the Prairies, the “empty” lands had to be peopled by European agricultural immigrants who could turn the raw frontier into productive farms (Timlin, 1960). The Dutch were highly favoured because they were of the right “racial” stock, had a reputation for hard work and cleanliness, and were familiar with democratic institutions. In other words, they were almost Anglo-Saxon and eminently assimilable.3

8Due to this “agriculture first” policy, the great majority of Dutch immigrants who had settled in Canada by 1955 were either farmers, farm labourers or people with claimed agricultural experience. At the time of their emigration the majority were between the ages of 20 and 40 with an average of fifth or sixth grade education, often complemented by some technical or night school training. Prior to 1914 the movement was predominantly family immigration as compared to that of the 1920’s, which was overwhelmingly comprised of single individuals.

  • 4 A.S. Tuinman to the Netherlands Emigration Foundation, 6 November 1947, NESC, GAI.

9The post-1945 immigration was again primarily family immigration with agricultural workers predominating until 1950.4 In 1950 the Canadian government, responding to the growing need for labour in the urban/industrial sector, abandoned the “agriculture only” category with the result that only 34 percent of the Dutch immigrants in that year were classified as farmers. From this point on skilled industrial workers, technicians, white collar workers, and professionals made up the bulk of the movement.

  • 5 A. L Veenstra (1914). Emigratie en de Nederlandsche Vereeniging Landverhuizing. NESC, GAI: 1.

10Unlike other European nations, the Netherlands has not experienced the kind of calamities that create mass emigration movements. The Dutch are generally reluctant emigrants, preferring their comfortable homeland to the unfamiliar. Failing internal migration or migration to other European countries, they regard overseas emigration as a last resort. While Dutch emigration to Canada cannot be seen as the flight of the destitute and oppressed, it can also not be regarded as the movement of a social or political elite. One could best characterize the movement as one composed of individuals and families of middling background, possessing the skills, desires and adventurous spirit to improve their life circumstances through emigration.5

11Emigration from the Netherlands in the 1890’s was, generally, a response to uncertain economic conditions. The corrosive effects of the 1873-1896 recession/depression affected most of the Atlantic economies to some degree and forced the Dutch government to initiate significant structural changes. Rationalization and reorganization introduced new methods, machinery, crops and standards in agriculture and new industries and processes stimulated development in the industrial sector. Unemployment and redundancy were the inevitable byproducts of such radical change.

  • 6 B. H. M. Vlekke (1945). The Evolution of the Dutch Nation (1945: 322); W. Van Home to the Departme (...)

12Emigration to America seemed to present an alternative to unemployment and many looked to the government to take a lead in giving the movement direction. Some officials regarded emigration as unjustified risk-taking and opposed government involvement, although, most were content to let the emigration field regulate itself.6 Others, primarily members of the Dutch economic elite, regarded emigration as a societal safety valve and an opportunity for the unemployed to achieve social and economic mobility. They also believed that immigrant recruiters, railway agents, land “sharks” and others who were spreading false propaganda had to be combated. To that end, a number of private emigration societies were organized, starting in the 1890’s, to sponsor and organize the emigration of the unemployed (Hartland, 1959: 16-26-46). These were to be joined in the 1920’s by Calvinist and Roman Catholic societies which sought to aid their coreligionists.

13The outbreak of World War I, in 1914, curtailed emigration from the Netherlands for the next four years. Post-war problems and ongoing political and financial crises in North America offered little hope for a return to pre-war immigration conditions. The United States, fearing inundation by “racially inferior” immigrants and subversion by “Bolshevik” revolutionaries began to erect a framework of restrictive immigration legislation that favoured the British Isles and western Europe. Immigration quotas, based on the size of immigrant communities present in the United States, left the Dutch with a paltry 1,646 places annually. Canada, while open to Dutch farmers, was undergoing serious economic problems that discouraged immigration until after 1923. However, as the United States began to close its doors, Dutch emigrants were forced, many unwillingly, to consider Canada as an alternate destination.

14The coming of the Depression in 1929 forced Canada to close its doors to all but the most well funded immigrants. The majority of those who remained interested in emigration decided it was more prudent to stay home rather than face the unknown in an alien land. The invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 by Germany ended all emigration until 1945. At that time Canada was faced with the difficult task of reestablishing the country on a civilian footing and was not prepared to immediately receive any significant number of immigrants.

15While Canada was undergoing the process of post-war adjustment, the Dutch were evaluating their devastating war legacy. The facts engendered a deep pessimism shared by the general public and government alike. The statistics were ominous: over 200,000 hectares of land had been inundated by salt water, a condition that would retard crop production for years; 4 percent of all housing had been destroyed; factories and machinery had been looted by retreating German forces; spare parts were unobtainable; Germany-one of Holland’s most important pre-war markets-lay in ruins, and tuberculosis was endemic in the human and cattle population.

  • 7 Interview by author with Ir. A.S. Tuinman, October, 1978, Calgary, Alberta.

16Added to all of this misery was the inescapable fact that the high birth rate, which had driven the population to over 9,000,000, showed no sign of leveling off and job creation appeared to be a faint hope, especially in the agricultural sector, where approximately 33,000 young farmers were unable to find work. The struggle for independence in Indonesia and the loss of the Dutch overseas empire aggravated already existing problems. It is little wonder then that at least a third of the Dutch public seriously considered emigrating. With the United States virtually closed by the quota system and with Canada only a short distance away compared to other British Commonwealth countries, the Dutch government quickly cast aside its former “disinterest” and began to focus on Canada as the prime recipient of a planned emigration movement. A “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was concluded with Canada in late 1946 and the following year saw the arrival of the first post-war Dutch farmers in Canada.7

  • 8 Tuinman interview.

17Attempting to reduce the social and economic pressures by opening the “safety valve”, the Dutch government actively sought to stimulate emigration by subsidizing travel costs, reorganizing the emigration system, and seeking to reach permanent numerical immigration agreements with host countries. Eventually a flexible arrangement was hammered out with the Canadian government that permitted the immigration of Dutch nationals according to the demands of the Canadian labour market.8

  • 9 Ann Felix to author, 6 March 1980; Tuinman interview, A.S. Tuinman to the Netherlands Emigration F (...)

18The Dutch recruited, selected and screened applicants according to Canadian criteria. The Canadians medically examined those who had passed the screening and the Dutch government transported the emigrants to Canada. On arrival the immigrants were once again medically inspected by the Canadians and then handed over to Dutch Canadian organizations for placement. The Canadian government demanded that every single immigrant or family head have a job before embarkation and the finding of such positions fell mainly on the fieldmen/representatives of various Dutch Canadian and Canadian churches and the Dutch agricultural attaché in Ottawa.9 It was clear that Canada was interested in receiving Dutch immigrants but only if the problems were minimal, the costs low, and the benefits obvious.

19In the two decades following 1945 hundreds of thousands of emigrants left the Netherlands in hopes of securing a better future. Spurred on by aggressive postwar Soviet expansionism some 152,000 went to Canada, 125,000 to Australia and 80,000 to the United States, South Africa, and New Zealand. The initial group of emigrants (1947-52) were predominantly neo-Calvinist farmers (orthodox dissenters from the Dutch Reformed Church). Roman Catholics, never a large part of the emigration from the Netherlands prior to 1947, began to make up a more significant part of the movement after 1952. The Canadian government’s shift away from the exclusive recruitment of farmers in the early 1950’s opened the door to a wider spectrum of Dutch citizens from urban as well as rural areas.


20It is difficult to determine the actual number of Dutch or Dutch Americans who entered Canada for the purpose of settlement in the last one hundred years. Given that Dutch and Canadian figures are deeply suspect, the historian is left to give the best estimate possible. Taking into account all the extant figures, projections and reports, one arrives at some 200,000 immigrants. Determining the present size of the Dutch community in Canada also presents a problem in that census numbers are highly questionable due to the inconsistent manner in which ethnicity has been determined over time.

21The results of the 1991 national census simply serve to underscore this problem. This census indicated that Dutch Canadians were to be found in all the provinces and territories with the largest concentrations in Ontario (179,760), British Columbia (66,526), and Alberta (54,750). The cities of Toronto (32,340), Vancouver (25,840), and Edmonton (16,230) had the greatest concentration of “Dutch people” in Canada. The census indicated that while only 133,265 people mentioned “Dutch” as their mother tongue and 358,180 gave “Dutch” as their only ethnic origin, some 603,415 claimed “Dutch” as one of their origins. In other words, 961,595 Canadians said one or more of their ancestors was Dutch. Designating oneself as Dutch for census purposes has become a matter of personal choice and not one based on birthplace or mother tongue. As Dutch Canadians become more assimilated, are distanced further in time from the first generation immigrants, and continue to intermarry with Canadians of other ethnic origins, the “Dutch” designation becomes more historic or nostalgic and possesses little real meaning in relation to an identifiable ethnic community.

22It is unclear when the first Dutch immigrants arrived in the Canadian West but they were already there in the 1880’s when Amsterdam bankers became involved with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company with a view to the acquisition of western lands for investment and cattle ranching. The completion of the railway in 1885 brought in Dutch entrepreneurs eager to scout out the possibilities on the new frontier and soon Dutch-funded mortgage and land companies were doing business on the Canadian prairies.

  • 10 R. Insinger to the Department of the Interior, 18 February 1892, H. Dixon to the Department of the (...)

23For some, the Prairies promised not just investment opportunities but also the possibility of relieving the Netherlands of its unemployed.10 Their reports helped to bring about the arrival of a group of single Friesian farmers in Yorkton, Saskatchewan territory, in the spring of 1893. They were the vanguard of a larger group, supported by the Christian Emigration Society (organized and run by members of the Dutch economic elite), prepared to take up homestead lands. Supplementing their settlement with railway and farm jobs they began the difficult process of getting established. Few apparently succeeded and the majority retreated to Winnipeg and environs hoping to do better in the more populous districts of Manitoba (Lucas, 1955: 460).

  • 11 J. Maurer (1915: 2). Trip Report on Nova Scotia and Western Canada. NESC, GAI.

24Winnipeg soon became a focus of settlement for Dutch and Dutch American immigrants who were attracted to the more extensive opportunities of a relatively developed area. Some took up market gardening in the suburbs of Elmwood and East Kildonan while others looked for urban employment. Correspondence home to family, letters to the newspapers and the rapid growth of the city, brought others to try their luck. As the Dutch community grew, its clubs, churches and social organizations presented a significant attraction to those who shunned the bare-bones life of the homestead.11

25City life did not, however, appeal to all. The majority kept their sights on economic independence on a homestead of 160 acres of free land. In the spring of 1904, a group settlement was established at Nobleford in southern Alberta by Dutch Americans from Iowa and Montana and settlers coming directly from the Netherlands. Thanks to extensive newspaper coverage in the United States and the Netherlands trumpeting the settlers’success and the opportunities for advancement, the community was soon joined by others wanting to share in the dream. Homesteads and aid were freely offered and by 1912 the community spawned its own daughter colonies as some of the earlier settlers sold out and moved north, some as far as the Peace River country (see Hoffman, 1983).

26The well advertised success of the Nobleford settlement spurred immigrants to settle in other parts of the West. Manitoba saw Dutch farmers and hired hands at Portage La Prairie, Morden, Argyle, and Rosebank. In 1908 a group of Dutch Americans took up land near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and were soon followed by settlers at Cramersburg in 1911. By 1914 single and married Dutch homesteaders had established themselves at places such as Leoville, Saskatoon and Morse. Free and cheap land remained a potent lure to those who regarded land as the basis of all wealth and security (see Ganzevoort, 1973).

27The settlement in Nobleford also coincided with Dutch homesteading near Calgary and Edmonton. A colony settlement of Dutch Catholics at Strathmore in 1908 was paralleled by the development of a neo-Calvinist community, Neerlandia, northwest of Edmonton in 1912. Throughout the West, the Dutch became an integral part of the newly developing society. Whether single men or families, they were considered acceptable by their Canadian peers and they in turn felt much the same about their new homeland and countrymen.

28Prior to 1914, the “Golden West” remained the focus of settlers and the Canadian government. Free homesteads and cheap railway land and an abundance of labouring jobs meant that the great majority of immigrants saw the prairies as the doorway to the future. While Dutch immigrants settled in every province and major city in Canada during the first two decades of the 20th century, their primary destination remained west of Winnipeg. Precise numbers are unclear, but it is estimated that some 20,000 Dutch and Dutch American immigrants entered Canada in the 1890-1914 period.

  • 12 K. Westra, Life of an Immigrant, unpublished manuscript in author’s possession.

29The outbreak of war in 1914 and Canada’s involvement in it ended emigration from neutral Holland. Dutch military reservists returned home, while other immigrants joined the Canadian armed forces or sat out the war as neutral aliens. The hoped-for resumption of immigration after 1918 did not immediately materialize, however. Despite trends to urbanization and industrialization spurred on by the war, Canada had to deal with the legacies of high inflation, war expenditure, and the reintegration of wounded and demobilized soldiers. The economic recession which began in 1919 and caused social and political unrest spelled an end to high hopes for a vibrant postwar economy and the expected demand for thousands of foreign agricultural workers did not materialize (Hedges, 1930: 353). In the Netherlands the weak postwar economy and the collapse of the German mark augured ill for the future and drove the Dutch to search for opportunities overseas. Given American immigration restriction, Canada remained the only alternative. The reactivated Canadian propaganda campaign after 1923, primarily orchestrated by the railway companies, promised hope for those who wanted to leave their homeland. The majority of the arrivals in this period were overwhelmingly single or unaccompanied married men. The Canadian government preferred single men as they were more likely to take up work as farmhands or attempt homesteading. The very difficult nature of the work and the substandard accommodation-shacks, bunkhouses, converted sheds, chicken coops and attics-made an accompanying family a liability. Wages were also low and barely met the needs of a single man, thus making failure or vagabondage a real possibility.12

30Mobility was the hallmark of male immigrants in the 1920’s. Many never got the chance to own their own farms as most free or cheap land had been taken up by 1914. As hired hands they were at the mercy of the farmers with respect to length of employment and payment. They worked long hours and were often summarily dismissed without pay when winter arrived. Out of necessity, many crowded into the cities in the winter seeking food, shelter and employment. Some, however, preferred working for room, board, and tobacco on the farm or the rough life of the lumber camp to joining the aimless bands of men who drifted from place to place.

  • 13 De Standaard, 2 November 1929, NESC, GAI.

31For many the dream of independence turned out to be a nightmare; an illusion destroyed by the reality that the homestead frontier was a thing of the past and that even successful Dutch settlements were now becoming crowded and forced to look at marginal land as an alternative for sons who wanted to farm. Many of the immigrants who failed to find a permanent place for themselves on the Prairies often ended up in Winnipeg and became permanent members of the oldest Dutch community in Canada, which numbered almost 5,000 people by 1929.13

  • 14 Hartland, De Geschiedenis, P. Snoek to the Netherlands Emigration League, 11 November 1924, NESC, (...)

32As it became apparent that the West no longer held the promise of a rosy future, the immigrants turned to the East. However, neither the Maritimes nor Quebec met the basic criteria for success. The maritime provinces lacked good cheap land, markets, significant urban centers, and they had few agricultural jobs. Quebec also presented problems with its French language, Roman Catholicism (most immigrants were Protestant), lack of cheap land, and dearth of agricultural jobs. Those Dutch people who did choose Quebec settled primarily in Montreal to take advantage of the scarce employment opportunities in the construction trades and industry. As a result, Ontario became an attractive option for many.14

33Ontario had a strong industrial sector based on a secure agricultural foundation. Urbanization and industrialization had drawn many farm workers to the cities and replacements were urgently needed. Immigrants found a steady call for their services from dairy, fruit, vegetable, tobacco, beet and mixed farmers. Winter was the most difficult period as farmers seldom had enough work to justify keeping a permanent farmhand. Some immigrants drifted into cities such as Toronto, Hamilton, and Windsor while others turned to the mines, mills and forest industries that dotted Northern Ontario.

34Wherever employed, most immigrants in this period did not substantially improve their economic circumstances and some even saw them worsen. The post-war period had seemed to hold so much promise for the more than 15,000 Dutch immigrants who had arrived in Canada between 1918 and 1930 but it left all too many with unfulfilled expectations and deep fears about the future.

  • 15 Included in the Netherlands Emigration Service Collection are Canadian government deportation list (...)

35The coming of the Great Depression in 1929 not only dried up the job market and the flow of immigrants but it also encouraged, even forced, the repatriation of those who had not been able to find secure positions. Dutch consular officials reluctantly offered aid and assistance to the distressed and Canadian immigration officials carried out an active campaign deporting those who became “public charges” or found themselves in trouble with the law.15 The number of such returnees was small as the great majority of Dutch immigrants accepted the idea that “survival” rather than “advancement” had become the watchword of the time.

  • 16 Consul General J. A. Schuurman to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 9 December 1938, NESC, GAI. Sch (...)

36One notable example of such “survival” was the successful settlement of 16 Dutch families on the Holland Marsh north of Toronto. The combined efforts of Dutch, Canadian and municipal governments managed to avoid the deportation of these families who had arrived in the 1920’s and who had suffered severe financial hardship. Thanks largely to their pluck, courage, and sheer stubbornness, they were eventually able to make the venture succeed and achieve some security.16

37Due to the fact that immigration was severely restricted, the number of Dutch immigrants who arrived during the 1930’s barely reached 3,200 (Hartland, 1959: 162). Near the end of the decade, as conditions improved, new immigrants arrived to settle at Lacombe, Alberta and in Bulkley Valley, in Northern British Columbia. The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and the invasion of the Netherlands in the following year virtually ended the immigration of Dutch nationals, with the exception of a small number of refugees among whom were members of the Dutch royal family.

  • 17 A. S. Tuinman to Netherlands Emigration Foundation, 2 November 1948, NESC, GAI. Competition among (...)

38With the resumption of Dutch immigration to Canada in 1947 the new arrivals were initially directed to those areas that had seen successful Dutch settlement in the past. Dutch speaking “fieldmen” – mostly ministers and priests – placed immigrants in the most economically advantageous positions keeping in mind the necessity of maintaining social bonds.17 The Dutch settlements in Alberta and British Columbia proved to be important sources of work and support and provided the means for the rapid dispersion and settlement of new immigrants. The Dutch community in Winnipeg functioned in much the same fashion. In Ontario the demand for immigrant labour exceeded the supply. Fruit, dairy, tobacco, and mixed farmers eagerly welcomed the families who made up the bulk of the movement.

39Many immigrants, however, valued their independence, and given the chance, they soon bought out the aging farmers who had been their initial employers. Families, with grown sons and daughters who could substantially add to the family income, were initially the most successful in such ventures (for an excellent assessment of the role of Dutch agricultural immigrants in southwestern Ontario see Sas, 1957). Farm labourers, who had no long term interest in farming, regarded their tenure on the farm as a chance to learn the language and practices of their new homeland and looked forward to the day when they could leave for greener pastures.

40As Canada became increasingly industrialized and urbanized in the 1950’s, skilled and unskilled Dutch workers arrived to exploit all sectors of the new economy. The changing character of the immigrants inevitably brought about a change in the character of the Dutch community from predominantly rural/agricultural to urban/industrial. As agricultural opportunities and demand declined in the more heavily settled areas, some farm immigrants turned to the relatively underpopulated rural areas of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. While agricultural pursuits initially predominated in those areas, the immigrants’children and grandchildren were inevitably drawn away from the farms as new opportunities opened up.

41The same conditions that encouraged young men to emigrate in the 1890-1980 period also had an important effect on women. Prior to the 1930’s occupational opportunities for women in the Netherlands were severely limited. Advancement and training, particularly for working class women was practically non-existent, especially if this led to job competition with men. Domestic service, whether in institutions or private homes, was one of the few positions open to the untrained single woman. However, it was poorly remunerated and seldom permitted the accumulation of sufficient funds to venture either into new directions or marriage.

  • 18 G. L. Boer to the Central Emigration Foundation Holland, 5 February 1924, NESC, GAI.

42Canada, however, had a great need for domestic servants in both rural and urban areas and salaries as high as Cdn$20 to Cdn$25 a month were comparable to those of an inexperienced farmhand. Demand was so great that by the 1920’s eligible women were advanced 50 percent of their passage money if they agreed to sign one-year contracts. Some young women saw domestic service in Canada as a way to advance themselves economically, a chance to see new places, or expand their social circle and perhaps even have a taste of adventure. Others wanted to emigrate to join their fiancés or families who had left the Netherlands. While the Canadian government sought to direct the immigration of domestic servants to the rural West, where the demand was greatest, the majority of the women preferred to work in the cities where the workload was significantly lighter and the opportunities to meet fellow countrymen, greater. While domestic servants most likely never made up more than 4 or 5 percent of the total emigration from the Netherlands to Canada, they remained an important part of the movement.18

43More important to the long term success of Dutch settlement in Canada was the role of women immigrants in general. Settlers, in the West prior to 1914, recognized the absolute necessity of female participation in the homesteading venture. Bachelorhood was seen by most men as a temporary and unwelcome state. They regarded the civilizing process that turned wild grasslands into arable farmsteads as more than mere sod busting. The founding of a new society demanded the “gentle touch” of a woman’s hand. Realistically, however, it was a woman’s work-hardened hand that rocked the cradle, fed the chickens, did the washing up, knitted the socks and completed myriad other tasks so essential to survival. Women, more often than not, made the difference between success and failure on the prairies and Dutch women did not take second place to other women immigrants.

44In the 1920’s a married immigrant woman was usually regarded as part of the package when her husband was hired by a farmer. While he worked in the fields and the barn, she was expected to function as a servant in the farmer’s household. In some cases the immigrant’s wife or his daughters took up domestic service in the neighbouring town to supplement the often meager income. Independent immigrant farmers counted on their wives to sell butter or eggs to get their family through hard times. During the Depression a woman’s income might be the only thing keeping the wolf of destitution from the door. During two world wars, with their husbands and fathers in the armed forces, wives and daughters often operated the farms on their own. Few tasks were beyond their abilities and these farms’ productive capacity was often higher than in peacetime.

45The postwar immigration presented new opportunities to single and married women alike. Although many Canadian farmers assumed that their contracts with immigrant families included the free labour of the female members they were often surprised when women demanded remuneration for hoeing beets, tying grapes, harvesting fruit, milking cows, and doing dozens of other farm tasks. As in previous decades, off-farm work was eagerly sought and those Canadians who looked to Dutch women for domestic service often had to compete with well paid employment in canning and basket factories or other agriculturally allied industries.

  • 19 The study of the role of women in the immigration movement and settlement has been sadly neglected (...)

46As the Dutch settled in the cities in the 1950’s, the whole area of industrial and service jobs opened up and women were as likely to be found working “on the line” as cleaning homes. Ready access to educational opportunities in the 1960’s and 70’s meant that the daughters of immigrants began to enter technical and professional fields alongside their Canadian sisters. There they have met the same challenges as other women in furthering their careers and establishing a recognition of the pivotal role they have played in the settlement and development of Canada.19

  • 20 The material regarding the peddlers and other developing business enterprises is extracted from in (...)

47The desire to achieve economic independence led many immigrants to establishing their own businesses as quickly as possible. Most naturally gravitated to supplying the needs of their own communities first. Retail businesses selling familiar old country products often became outlets for the products of immigrant bakers and butchers and no Dutch community across Canada seemed complete without a “Dutch store”. Immigrants combined their Dutch training and Canadian experience and offered a broad variety of services to their fellow immigrants, and within a short time, to the broader Canadian community.20

48During the 1950’s and 60’s the Dutch seemed to dominate the gardening and landscaping sectors and were branching out into greenhouse production of flowers and vegetables. Inevitably, as the second and third generation achieved higher levels of education, they generally advanced beyond the entry level occupations of the first generation and moved into the professions, the civil service, and the corporate world.

49As the Dutch immigrants have generally been held in high regard by Canadians, they have not suffered the social, economic or political discrimination that has been the experience of other immigrant groups. For the most part, the Dutch have lived up to the clean, hard-working, law-abiding stereotype that Canadians have cherished for over a hundred years and have presented no real threat to the societal status quo. While Dutch economic successes in such diverse places as western Ontario, southern Alberta or the Fraser Valley have occasionally led to mild outbreaks of envy, their commitment to integration or even assimilation has blunted any significant opposition to their inclusion. The economic success of the migration experience and the acceptance of the Canadian public has meant that the return rate to the Netherlands has been exceedingly low over the past one hundred years, perhaps less than one percent.


50The positive acceptance of the Dutch has meant that, unlike many other ethnic communities, an antagonistic, protective, or even nostalgic ethnicity that is so often the response to non-acceptance by the host society, simply did not develop. As a result, the Dutch community seems to lack any significant or unique identity and the Dutch Canadians have little interest in maintaining a distinctive culture separate from the social mainstream. Integration and eventual assimilation have come to be seen as the natural, acceptable, and inevitable result of immigration.

51One of the factors that mitigates against group cohesiveness and identity formation in the Dutch Canadian community is the lack of religious homogeneity. The religious identity of Dutch Canadians has been, in great part, determined by the attitudes and views that they held in the homeland. The great majority of immigrants to Canada prior to 1953 were of the Reformed tradition; a tradition that embraces not only the liberal and latitudinarian views of the Dutch Reformed Church, but also the most conservative of orthodox beliefs as represented by the dissenting neo-Calvinist churches. Relations between the different churches in the Netherlands was characterized by conflict and antagonism and that tradition has in part been transferred to Canada.

  • 21 I am indebted to the Reverends J. Hielema and T. Hoffman for insight and information on the neo-Cal (...)

52The Christian Reformed Church, originally a mission offshoot of the Christian Reformed Church of the United States, is the largest “ethnic” church with approximately 85,000 members. While it dominated the church life of the neo-Calvinist community in the prewar and immediate postwar period, its dominance was challenged in the 1950’s as long standing Dutch conflicts over matters of common grace, church order, and other doctrinal issues reasserted themselves in Canada. Such disagreements led to the founding of the Canadian Reformed Church in 1950 and the Free Reformed Church in 1955. Also part of the neo-Calvinist community in Canada are the Protestant Reformed Church and the ultra conservative Netherlands Reformed Congregation.21

  • 22 Current statistical material regarding the Dutch community in Canada has been abstracted from the (...)

53At present the great majority of Dutch Canadians belong to the Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches of Canada.22 These churches naturally have had little impact on, or interest in, maintaining or encouraging a uniquely Dutch religious expression. From the beginning the Roman Catholic church opposed “national” churches and did everything in its power to integrate and assimilate the Dutch immigrants into the larger faith community. The neo-Calvinist churches, despite their predominantly ethnic membership, have supported social integration and do not wish to be regarded as “Dutch” institutions. They emphasize that they are English language Canadian churches with a unique Calvinist message that seek to serve people of all social and cultural backgrounds. This diversity of religious expression has meant that even the Christian Reformed Church has had to speak from a minority position and its opinions have had little impact on the larger Dutch community.

54However, neo-Calvinists have sought to give voice to their religious beliefs by developing alternative educational, social welfare and political structures. Starting in the 1950’s Christian school societies were established across Canada and the result has been a network of parentally controlled Christian day schools, high schools and a number of Christian colleges. While social problems such as alcoholism, crime, and poverty have been minimal among neo-Calvinists, members have sought to provide social services based on a Christian perspective. The aging immigrant community has also been an increasing focus of concern, and housing and care facilities the result.

55Modern urban and industrial employment has presented difficult choices for some members of the immigrant community. They have opposed membership in secular unions, Sunday work, and automatic union checkoff. The Christian Labour Association, founded in the 1950’s, has challenged some of these issues in court and continues to play a meaningful role in industrial relations.

56One of the most important vehicles for retaining cultural identity among immigrant groups in Canada has been the use of their native language. Among Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, and others, language has helped to solidify ethnic identity and mother language retention has always been a priority. This does not seem to be the case for the Dutch, as official studies have indicated that their desire for language retention was one of the lowest among all Canadian ethnic groups (O’Bryan et al., 1975: 128-30, 389). The reason for this seems to be directly related to a value judgment on the part of the immigrants as to the usefulness of their language in Canada.

57Even before their departure immigrants were encouraged to take lessons in conversational English. Government officials, emigration societies, and even the churches urged the necessity of English fluency and stressed that integration was a desired goal, both economically and socially. First generation immigrant experience in Canada merely underlined the advice they had received at home. Successful settlement hinged on a sufficient command of the English language. The children of the immigrants, cut off from most institutions likely to contribute to language maintenance, with the exception of the family, acquired the language quickly as they entered Canadian schools and ultimately the workplace. By the mid 1950’s Dutch Protestant churches began scheduling more and more English services to meet the needs of a changing community. The Roman Catholic Church, committed to the total assimilation of the immigrants in their Canadian parishes, encouraged the acquisition of English at every level.

58It is not hard to understand why fluency in Dutch has declined in time. Outside the family the language is hardly ever used even among first generation immigrants. Even within the family, Dutch is only used infrequently. Fully fluent speakers may use it as their main language of communication among family members, but use drops by half among friends. Each succeeding generation seems to follow this pattern, indicating clearly that the use of Dutch diminishes the further one gets away from the first generation. In recent years some third generation Dutch Canadians have taken Dutch language courses at the university level but enrollment numbers are small and do not indicate a significant interest. Unless there is a massive infusion of Dutch immigrants in the near future, Dutch will soon be spoken only in the language classroom and the homes of recent immigrants.

59An important factor that has helped other Canadian ethnic groups maintain their national character has been an ongoing and developing body of folk culture and traditions. Dance, music, literature and art unique to that group or its homeland inform and help shape the experience in Canada. Most Dutch immigrants brought little of such cultural heritage with them. While literacy was universal among them, much of what was read was either of a pious or practical nature. The neo-Calvinists, in particular, had no tradition of secular music or literature. As well, they opposed all forms of dance, art, theater, and film which they considered not consonant with their religious beliefs. Many Roman Catholics from the southern provinces of the Netherlands did come with a strong tradition of religious and secular festivals and more folkish cultural expressions. However, owing to the assimilative pressures exerted on them by the Catholic church and community in Canada, these traditions have not been retained. Given the educational level of the majority of the immigrants it is no wonder that they were not bearers of high culture. Their pragmatic views of the world and commitment to survival left little room for such fripperies.

60The children and grand-children of the immigrants have, in the main, expressed little interest in Dutch culture or in giving expression to some unique vision of the Dutch experience in Canada. They were educated in Canadian schools, and their artistic interests have been expressed within the Canadian milieu. Painters, writers, musicians, photographers of immigrant background have sought, and found, a ready acceptance from other Canadians. Their vision is regarded as fully Canadian and not “ethnic” or distinct. While a few writers have focused on the nature of the group experience, they have not specifically directed their efforts towards the Dutch Canadian community but have rather sought acceptance in Canadian society at large.

61Ethnic clubs and organizations have played a significant role in the maintenance of language and traditions for many immigrant groups in Canada but not in the Dutch community. The history of Dutch clubs from their genesis in Winnipeg in the early 20th century to the present day has been one of rise and fall, with few such clubs still in existence nowadays. A response to the need for community outside church circles, they were generally organized by a small coterie of first generation activists and most lived a short, underfunded and under-supported life. In recent years, with government subsidies, Dutch Canadian clubs across Canada have become involved in ethnic festivals where they dish up a potpourri of ethnic dance, songs, costumes and food that increasingly represents only a nostalgic or even romantic image of a community that is rapidly disappearing.

  • 23 The material relating to the Dutch clubs and organizations has been gathered by interviews, formal (...)

62The reality is that these clubs only represent a small number of the members of the Dutch community. They have held little appeal for the neo-Calvinists and practically no appeal at all for the children and grand-children of immigrants. On a few occasions, primarily related to the role which Canada played in liberating the Netherlands in 1945, Dutch clubs and organizations have been able to unite for a common purpose, but this has not led to any national organizational development. As the number of first generation immigrants declines, organizations such as Dutch theater clubs, dance, choral groups and even the clubs themselves fold up and disappear. Their passing is hardly noted in the Dutch community.23

  • 24 Interviews with A. vander Heide, Burnaby B.C., May 1980, September 1996. Mr. vander Heide kindly s (...)

63Another vehicle for retaining language and culture is the ethnic press. The Dutch community saw the development of a strong ethnic press in the 1950’s, but this has declined steadily as death and assimilation eroded away the language and interest. At present there are two exclusively Dutch newspapers, the Nederlandse Krant (founded in 1954) and the Hollandse Krant (1969) and their circulation is dwindling. The only bilingual newspaper, The Windmill Herald (1958) offers a general overview of Dutch, Dutch Canadian, and Dutch American news, editorial comments, columns and advertisements for “Dutch” businesses. The Windmill Herald has an approximate circulation of 13,000 due in part to its use of English and its penetration of the Dutch American community. The Christian Courier (1945), with a circulation of 5,000, seeks to serve the Christian Reformed community and functions largely as a church organ and spokesman for neo-Calvinist opinion. A number of church magazines and newsletters continue to be published but their circulation is limited to their religious constituencies.24

64As one of the larger ethnic groups in Canada, it could be expected that the Dutch would have a noticeable impact on the Canadian political process. Such has not been the case. While Dutch Canadian politicians can be found at all levels of government and in all political parties, none are regarded as, nor claim to be, representatives of their ethnic community. Given the lack of religious homogeneity, the broad dispersion of the Dutch across Canada, the absence of strong cultural institutions and a decided commitment to integration and assimilation, any Dutch Canadian politician would be a fool to depend on an ethnic constituency. Dutch Canadians also do not have an “ethnic” agenda and like most Canadians they favour the quiet middle way with a emphasis on small “c” conservatism.

65Dutch Canadians generally regard themselves as Canadians first and Dutch second. Loyalty to Canada has never been an issue and little has barred their way to full citizenship or opportunity. The result has been an abandonment of their ethnic identity. This has been an act of choice rather than chance. Even though certain elements of “Dutchness” have been preserved, particularly among the first generation, such cultural remnants have not been seen to be in conflict with the host culture. Pragmatism has been the rule in the keeping or discarding of things Dutch. For some the doctrines and expressions of neo-Calvinism held a high priority and most agreed that the Dutch traditions of family loyalty and solidarity were superior to the Canadian emphasis on individualism. As well, these aspects of their lives in the old country were seen as having relevance and ultimate benefit to the Canadian society. However, the preservers of such ideas constitute an increasingly irrelevant minority.

66Some Dutch Canadians, and even outside observers, have expressed the hope that the more educated immigrants of the post-1950’s would give voice and expression to the uniqueness of the Dutch experience in Canada. This has not been realized to any significant extent as most newly arrived immigrants have blended easily into the host society and, beyond social contacts, have had little effect on the larger Dutch community. As the culture of the Netherlands becomes increasingly North American in character, the difference between the immigrants and Canadians is reduced to a matter of language. Under such conditions emigration is hardly a world-shattering event and the limited resources of the ethnic community seem largely irrelevant to the new immigrants.

67While some regard the loss of ethnic identity as a thing to be deplored, such is not the opinion of the vast majority of Dutch Canadians. They are not prepared to exert any significant effort to maintain what they regard as a disappearing community. Becoming the “invisible ethnic” is not a matter of great concern. Their view is that they or their relatives left the Netherlands to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a new country and that act was fulsomely rewarded. While there may be nostalgia for things Dutch, they would not trade their lives in Canada for life in the Netherlands. The commitment to the new homeland and the new language has drawn the immigrants step by step away from their native roots. Their children and grandchildren, while perhaps curious about those roots, regard them as interesting but not necessarily essential to their identity. The great majority see their ethnic identity as largely irrelevant to their lives. They regard the extinguishing of that identity as part of a natural and desirable process that is producing a new and distinct society of which they and their children are an important part (for a general history of the Dutch experience in Canada, 1890-1980 see, Ganzevoort, 1988).



Ganzevoort, H. (ed.). (1973). A Dutch Homesteader on the Prairies (Letters of Willem de Gelder). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ganzevoort, H. (1988). A Bittersweet Land. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Hartland, J.A.A. (1959). De geschiedenis van de Nederlandse emigratie tot de Tweede Wereldooriog (History of Dutch Emigration until World War II). The Hague: Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Volksgezondheid.

Hedges, J.B. (1930). Building the Canadian West. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Hoffman, T. (1983). The Strength of Their Years. St. Catherines: Knight Publishing.

Lucas, H.A. (1955). Netherlanders in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

O’Bryan, K.E., Reitz, J.G. & Kuplowska, O. (1975). Non-Official Languages: A Study in Canadian Multiculturalism. Ottawa: The Secretary of State.

Sas, A. (1957). Dutch Migration to and Settlement in Canada, 1945-1955. Worcester, MA: Clark University (Ph. D. thesis).

Timlin, M.F. (1960). Canada’s immigration policy, 1896-1920, Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 26: 517.


1 R. Insinger to L. Pereira, 18 February 1892, Department of the Interior (Immigration Branch) Records, National Archives of Canada, Ottawa. Hereafter noted as DI/IBR, NAC.

2 Ministry of External Affairs to the Central Emigration Foundation Holland, 20 August 1930 [Telephone transcript], Netherlands Emigration Service Collection, Glenbow-Alberta Institute. Hereafter noted as NESC, GAI.

3 The Department of the Interior to H. Dixon, 11 May 1894, DI/IBR.NAC.

4 A.S. Tuinman to the Netherlands Emigration Foundation, 6 November 1947, NESC, GAI.

5 A. L Veenstra (1914). Emigratie en de Nederlandsche Vereeniging Landverhuizing. NESC, GAI: 1.

6 B. H. M. Vlekke (1945). The Evolution of the Dutch Nation (1945: 322); W. Van Home to the Department of the Interior, 26 June 1984, DI/IBR, NAC.

7 Interview by author with Ir. A.S. Tuinman, October, 1978, Calgary, Alberta.

8 Tuinman interview.

9 Ann Felix to author, 6 March 1980; Tuinman interview, A.S. Tuinman to the Netherlands Emigration Foundation, 4 January 1949, NESC, GAI.

10 R. Insinger to the Department of the Interior, 18 February 1892, H. Dixon to the Department of the Interior, 15 July 1892, DI/IBR, NAC.

11 J. Maurer (1915: 2). Trip Report on Nova Scotia and Western Canada. NESC, GAI.

12 K. Westra, Life of an Immigrant, unpublished manuscript in author’s possession.

13 De Standaard, 2 November 1929, NESC, GAI.

14 Hartland, De Geschiedenis, P. Snoek to the Netherlands Emigration League, 11 November 1924, NESC, GAI: 155.

15 Included in the Netherlands Emigration Service Collection are Canadian government deportation lists and extensive files dealing with repatriated emigrants.

16 Consul General J. A. Schuurman to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 9 December 1938, NESC, GAI. Schuurman observed that “The families on the Marsh don’t want to leave, no matter how difficult things may be, perhaps only because they value their personal relations. They find it ‘gezellig’ [convivial].”

17 A. S. Tuinman to Netherlands Emigration Foundation, 2 November 1948, NESC, GAI. Competition among the various placement officers and organizations sometimes led to squabbling, sniping and charges of raiding.

18 G. L. Boer to the Central Emigration Foundation Holland, 5 February 1924, NESC, GAI.

19 The study of the role of women in the immigration movement and settlement has been sadly neglected and underestimated. Few would disagree that their contribution was essential.

20 The material regarding the peddlers and other developing business enterprises is extracted from interviews and personal experience. The author accompanied his father on a horsemeat route and was personally acquainted with a number of grocery peddlers.

21 I am indebted to the Reverends J. Hielema and T. Hoffman for insight and information on the neo-Calvinists in Canada.

22 Current statistical material regarding the Dutch community in Canada has been abstracted from the 1991 national census.

23 The material relating to the Dutch clubs and organizations has been gathered by interviews, formal and informal, in Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

24 Interviews with A. vander Heide, Burnaby B.C., May 1980, September 1996. Mr. vander Heide kindly supplied the information and statistics on Dutch Canadian newspapers and publications.


Professor at the Department of History, University of Calgary, Canada. E-mail:

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1998

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search