(published in The Country Connections Magazine, July 2008)
Canada is blessed with many seniors who immigrated to Canada forty or more years ago to become an integral part of our society, and they have wonderful stories to tell. This is the story of Elsa’s journey.
When they married in 1950 in their homeland of Holland, Elsa and Gerrit Deruyter lived in a small house without indoor plumbing, on a dairy farm, where Gerrit worked as a farm-hand. The accommodations were free as was all the milk they needed. They owned a few cows and chickens. Even though farmland was scarce and expensive at the time, it was Gerrit’s hope to have his own small farm one day. He’d been told he would inherit his elderly aunt’s farm, but a change in plans dashed that dream. Disappointed, Gerrit thought he’d have a better chance in Canada, and he suggested to Elsa that they make the move.
“I said no. It wasn’t a good time to leave his mother, who was so distraught over the recent death of Gerrit’s younger brother,” Elsa explained.
They remained in Holland for another ten years, moving twice to different farms as Gerrit changed jobs, and they were blessed with three children.
When, in December 1959, Gerrit suggested once more that he’d like to go to Canada, Elsa agreed. It took nearly four months to get their passports and make all the necessary arrangements.
Their decision was made a lot easier by the fact that the Dutch government, fearful of overpopulation and unemployment, and the limited amount of arable land after the Second World War, had put policies into place to assist those wishing to emigrate. They were still in effect when Elsa and Gerrit were ready to leave Holland. All transportation costs for the family and for their belongings were paid by the government, and there was no limit on how much they could take with them. Gerrit was even entitled to two weeks of holiday pay from the Municipal Office.
On April 27, 1960 they embarked on their journey with their young children, aged three, five and seven, leaving a large extended family behind. The thirteen hour flight from Amsterdam to Montreal wasn’t a pleasant one for Elsa. Both she and her older son, Herbert, suffered from air sickness. After a nine-hour wait in Montreal they boarded a train to Bowmanville, Ontario where Elsa’s step-aunt was expecting them. It was on the train that they encountered their first challenge.
“We didn’t know how to flush the toilet,” laughed Elsa. “There was no chain like the ones in Holland. But it wasn’t long before three year old John figured it out!”
Their furniture that had been sent by ship arrived in Bowmanville six weeks after they did, and they moved into their own one-bedroom apartment.
I asked Elsa what her first reaction was upon arriving in Canada. “I looked out the train window and exclaimed at the high clotheslines! In Holland clotheslines are only one strand and hang low to the ground.”
When they arrived, Gerrit could speak a little English, and Herbert could count to ten, but Elsa and the other two children knew none of the language. The children learned very quickly.
“My daughter Reina came home from school three times because she couldn’t understand. I told her she had to go back. After that she learned and had no more problems.”
When shopping, Elsa couldn’t read the labels and had to look to see what was in the packages. It was two years before she became comfortable enough with the language to go to work doing housecleaning and babysitting.
It took Gerrit only two days to find work. Because they had no means of transportation, Elsa didn’t want to live on a farm again, so he searched for other jobs. He was hired at a Nursery in Bowmanville, and began working the next morning for $1.00 an hour. Although this hourly wage was less than what he made in Holland, they were amazed by how far a week’s pay would go. Gerrit was also surprised at being sent home from work if it was raining, since it rained most of the time in Holland.
After about two years in the Nursery, Gerrit tried a job in a factory in Newcastle, catching a ride to work with a friend, but some days he’d get to the plant only to discover that there was no work for him. He’d walk back home to Bowmanville, a distance of eight kilometres. He soon got hired at The Fittings in Oshawa, and could travel by bus. It wasn’t until 1965, when they finally had saved up enough money to put towards a farm, that they bought a car, and they both learned how to drive.
In Holland a family could earn a living on a fifty-acre farm, so when they bought their fifty-acre farm on the 6th Line of Millbrook, Gerrit expected to be leaving his factory job and working the farm full-time within five years. They worked hard. Each day began at four in the morning. Gerrit milked the cows before leaving for work at the plant. Elsa got the children off to school, and then did the rest of the chores. Gerrit cleaned the barn when he got home at night. Ten years later Gerrit was still at the plant, and they switched to beef cattle to lighten the work load. He worked in the plant for twenty years, until retirement.
Despite the hard work and a few disappointments, neither Elsa nor Gerrit ever regretted coming to Canada. By 1969 they knew they were here to stay and applied for Canadian Citizenship.
They made their first trip back to Holland in 1975 for a five-week visit.
“It was too long,” said Elsa. “I couldn’t stand the cramped space. Everything seemed so small.”
In 1987, having lived their dream, they sold the farm, and became involved in the community of Millbrook. Gerrit passed away in 2000. Elsa enjoys life at Millbrook Manor Seniors Residence, and is proud to be a Canadian.