Coming to Canada: Finding the Land of Opportunity

During the post-World War II era, Canada was a shining beacon to those seeking a better future, including one particular family from the Netherlands.

The Breukelaar family historyCourtesy: Jane Breukelaar

Freedom and Opportunity

This past October marked 65 years since I first arrived in Canada from the Netherlands, as a toddler, accompanied by my parents, sister and three older brothers.

After the Second World War left much of the Netherlands in poverty and devastation, several families from our village immigrated to Canada, sending back letters with glowing reports of freedom and opportunity. My brothers Nick and Hessel, aged 18 and 16, were excited to join them.

My parents, not wanting to break up the family, decided that if the boys were going, we were all going. Applications were made and accepted, and we were all set to go in the spring of 1951. My dad had work lined up for the summer with our sponsor, a farmer, for $75 a month and a free house. Everything came to a screeching halt, however, when my sister and I came down with chicken pox. We booked passage on the next available boat, the Volendam, to sail on October 2, 1951. All our worldly possessions, except what would fit into the kist (shipping crate), were sold and off we went.

I don‘t remember the ocean voyage, but my dad said the old boat shook like a rickety farm wagon on a rut-filled country lane. We docked in Quebec City, where Dad learned his first English words—“butter“ and “cheese“—after buying some welcome fresh food for the family. It was late the next day when a dirty, sooty train let us off in Belleville, Ont., and we were met by my parents‘ friends, who brought us to their farm near Picton, Ont.

My brothers got jobs picking apples, but Dad had to find work, since our October arrival meant our sponsor no longer needed him on the farm. He soon found a job shovelling coal into bags for 60 cents an hour, and he learned more English through show and tell.

After our crate arrived in early November, we moved into a small 1 1⁄2-storey house at the top of a steep hill. The dump truck bringing our belongings got stuck in the snow, so we had an early initiation to Canadian living. Our house had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but we could cut firewood for free. The next day, relatives with five children showed up on our doorstep and shared our tiny house for several weeks. In those days, the baker made deliveries and Mom surprised him one day by buying all 14 loaves of bread he had left in his truck!

Over time, Nick spread his wings and moved to Toronto, and Hessel learned farming, which eventually led to the acquisition of our own family farm. My brother Bill, my sister Rennie and I all grew up and followed our chosen career paths.

For our family, Canada was indeed the “land of opportunity,“ and our parents never regretted their decision to come here. Now, my husband and I have three grown children and four grandchildren. Fittingly, it was an honour to welcome our daughter-in-law as a new Canadian last fall, when she became a citizen on October 12, the anniversary of our arrival in this beautiful country.

Originally Published in Our Canada