Saturday, 1 July 2017

Looking back...Canada 1949

I’ve been digging into my dad’s biography as I add pages to my memoir.  It was very meaningful to me, in this week leading up to Canada Day, to read through the pages that led to the decision of my parents to immigrate. They were living on Dad's parents' farm in a closely knit community. Dad was hoping eventually to have a farm of his own. In the meantime, he was working as a hired hand at a neighbour's farm.


 And yet, Mom, 31 and pregnant, dad, 32, and I (15 months) boarded the SS Veendam, crowded with immigrants, in September 1949. We left Rotterdam and sailed into a new life. "...by nightfall the Dutch coastline disappeared. With it a very important chapter of our life, the years living in the country we were born in, had ended. And a future, to a great extent still unknown to us, was laying ahead. But we trusted that in this future, God's grace would remain with us," Dad wrote.


Holland-America Line's SS Veendam was originally built as a cruise ship, and could hold about 600 passengers.  

It was not an easy trip for mom, who was bedridden with seasickness and morning sickness. Dad took care of me and I apparently enjoyed the fun and games.





This morning, Canada 150 Day, I turned the page of Dad's biography, and found the story of their first few months in Canada. Dad would have been 100 years old this year, but I can hear his voice loud and clear in this chapter. So I’ve given today’s CrowDayOne  post to my dad, Foppe Arends (Paul) de Jong. With very few exceptions, I did not edit anything, so you will occasionally hear his accent and Dutchisms. That’s my dad you’re hearing. I hope you enjoy the insights and descriptions as much as I did. Happy birthday Canada: I'm so glad mom and dad took the risk and brought us here.

Canada: The Second Chapter of Our Life Story
Why do people actually immigrate? Many reasons may be given, but the main reasons why post-war immigrants came to Canada [from Holland] was: more space, more opportunities, and less rules and regulations than in our over crowded homeland. They were good reasons, but nevertheless, immigration was a decision that had to be taken very seriously. For we immigrants left so much behind: dear relatives, familiar surroundings, so many friends and acquaintances of long standing. Whereas the land we were traveling to was virtually unknown to us where they spoke a language unfamiliar to the majority of us. All we knew for sure was that it had more and better opportunities for us and our offspring. But farther on, we would have to wait and see!

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, 1949 we arrived in the New York harbour. From there on the hardest part of our journey began; to travel [by train] through New York City and New York State and at Buffalo cross the border into Canada, all with a minimal knowledge of English and hardly any experience to converse in it. Add to this that we had studied UK English with different expressions and pronunciations then used over here! Quite confusing, man! But oh well, we lived through it. And arrived safely the next morning in St. Catherines at the parsonage from Rev. Persenaire, where waited us a hearty welcome. Rev. Persenaire was a first cousin of our brother in law Nick Willemse, who had brought us in contact with them. We stayed there for two weeks, in which I was working at a [gardening] nursery. Then we moved to the farm of Mr. Leslie Merritt in Smithville. Where in the meantime our furniture arrived. We could take very little money (just $275) with us to Canada [by Dutch government law] but all our furniture, clothes and household items. They had to be cleared however for duty-free import at the customs over here which meant: I had to make a trip by bus to Hamilton. When buying the ticket, I was asked, “Single or return?” What could that mean? But quick thinking helped me out; return must mean the same as the French word “retour” which was much used in Holland. The necessity to communicate was at the same time a strong encouragement to use our very limited knowledge of English to the fullest. And at the same time increased our knowledge of it in an amazing fast way!


The old farmhouse near Smithville Ontario where we lived for 3 years when we first arrived in Canada.
Mr. Merritt, our farmer, was a descendant of the United Empire Loyalists, who, after the United States had become independent from the British Empire in the 1780s, moved northward to Ontario and settled in the surroundings of the Niagara Peninsula, beginning a new life over there. Mr. Merritt owned and operated a 216 acre farm. On his farm he had a small dairy, in which his milk was pasteurized and bottled to be peddled out in Smithville and surroundings. He had also a dealership of the DeLaval milking machines. He had two Dutch immigrants working for him; their families living in an old farmer’s house, big enough to divide it in two apartments. [Our family lived in one of those apartments.] Our wages were: free home, free milk, free wood for fuel, and $20 weekly, in due time raising to $25 and $30. Though it doesn’t sound like much compared with today’s wages, we nevertheless were well off, compared by the then-going rate. And were able to save some so we were able to buy a washing machine, a radio, and last but not at all the least, a car! Later on the boss also hired a single man, who too was a Dutch immigrant! So then he had a whole farm staff of Dutchies! It gives a good indication, how great the need of farm workers was in those post war years and why the immigrant farm workers were so welcome in the farmer’s circles.

We also had a good relationship with the farmer and his wife, in spite of language difficulties in the beginning. But that problem got solved very soon. And a great help for us was also the fact that so many Dutch immigrants arrived here in those days. Right away after their arrival, they sought and found contact with each other and in that way helping each other to get acquainted with our new country, its customs and their way of life in general, which in so many ways differed from the customs and rules from our old country. And in emergencies such as sickness, unemployment etc. everyone chipped in to help. We were all short of cash, since due to post-war restrictions the amount of money we were allowed to take along was minimal. Besides that, many of us had to borrow money to immigrate, a loan that had to be paid back in dollars. Which was for us all an additional disadvantage. And could we do without a car, when living on a farm way out in the country?! We also needed appliances because of the different voltages and frequency of hydro over here. Plenty of problems, man! But one good thing we had in common: we all had gone through 5 years of war with untold problems, many of them so much more serious as than the one’s we right now were confronted with. So why not take up this challenge just as well! Old, rundown cars, but still usable, could be bought for prices within reach. Salvation Army stores helped us on clothes for bargain prices. Auction sales became the sources for many so much needed household items. And if we were short of storage space in our houses, orange boxes could be got for nothing from the grocery stores. From which we, with some curtains and wallpaper, made closets, shelves and bookcases. In that way we together succeeded!

And what is even more important, it drew us, while being together in the same boat, very close together. One’s problem was everybody’s problem. And we helped each other to solve them, just as if we were one big family.

Besides that, the Christian Reformed Church has been a tremendous help in those days. And not only for its members; many others have been directly or indirectly helped by it too. The ministers sent by Synod as home missionaries to Canada to care for the spiritual needs of those immigrants, helped them also in many other ways. Since they all could speak Dutch as well as English, they time and time again acted as interpreters. And since they were well acquainted with customs and traditions over here, they could give valid advice to them in so many important matters. And then there were the field men, appointed by the church to find employment for the many boatloads of immigrants arriving here and give them advice, helping them through those first days over here when for some people everything seemed to get haywire.

The Sunday church services became right from the beginning the highlights of the week; spiritual as well as social. The participants, using all kinds of transportation (mainly old cars, some still using their Dutch bikes they’d taken along) coming together in some rented hall or else in an immigrant’s living room, to worship (for the time being, still in the Dutch language). And, though those immigrants were coming quite often from four or five different denominations in Holland, they started over here from the very beginning worshiping together, also in partaking of the sacraments and growing together as a strong spiritual unit, which soon would become a new congregation in a denomination also new to them all, but still caring for and meeting their spiritual needs.

And as I mentioned already, socially they lived as one big family, helping each other whenever they could. Something of the Jerusalem church after Pentecost was really reflecting in their way of life. In such a a family of faith we arrived here in the month of October 1949. Which made for us the period of adjustment so much easier. And when the year 1949 drew to an end, we celebrated the season’s highlights of Christmas and New Years with the members of our new family.

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