Henk van Leeuwen has a special piece of paper — a receipt for a deposit on a ticket his newly married parents purchased in Rotterdam to sail to Canada in January 1963. “It was here at Pier 21. It was a cold and foggy morning and I think my mother wondered, ‘where the heck have we landed?’”
The van Leeuwens were part of a wave of migration from post-war Europe. “There were good feelings amongst the Dutch about Canada because of Canada’s role in the war. New opportunities loomed large for a lot of younger people,” says Henk, explaining that his parents arrived with some privilege as his father had received a job offer to work at a Dutch-owned textile plant in Yarmouth. “They chose to come here because he had a good job waiting for him.”
My parents didn’t bring a piece of Holland and try to keep it; they were proud of their heritage, but they lived in a Canadian way.
Henk had a positive experience growing up, although he did miss having an intimate extended family. “All of my friends had grandparents down the road, or had a grandparent’s house they could go to after school. If I could see my grandparents every three or four years, that was a huge deal.” Because many of his friends were of Anglo or French descent, Henk became the peacemaker. “I was like Switzerland. I was the neutral kid.” And eating chocolate sprinkles on toast for breakfast wasn’t bad for his reputation, either. “But because of the last name, it marked me as different. I would spell the name, pronounce it and do that multiple times.”
The family had a large network of friends, including a few Dutch families. Henk vividly remembers the excitement of waving his little Canadian flag when his mother received her citizenship. “My parents didn’t bring a piece of Holland and try to keep it; they were proud of their heritage, but they lived in a Canadian way.”
His mother was community-minded and in the ‘70s helped a Vietnamese refugee family settle. “She was very passionate about giving back. She was a social-justice warrior.” Henk has inherited that sense of community and after a 17-year CBC career as a journalist, and then administrator, he joined the non-profit sector. He has served as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Easter Seals Nova Scotia and is now CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Halifax. While living in Charlottetown, he and his wife, Erin, were volunteer hosts for a new family from Afghanistan. Currently, his Rotary club sponsors a Congolese family.
Henk, who spoke Dutch as a child, has visited the Netherlands several times. When his now 18-year-old son was 10, he took him to a family reunion and hopes to do the same with his 15-year-old daughter. While they don’t follow Dutch customs, they happily host visitors from Holland.
“There are powerful stories that get passed on. I remember my mother telling me of walking to school and passing German soldiers on the street. And my father remembers the liberation. He still plays cards with Canadian veterans as his way of saying thank you. I hope the storytelling survives.”