June 24, 2015

Sitting down for a chat with the Dutch Queen

As published in The Erin Advocate

Freda Leenders of Erin had the thrill of a lifetime when she had the opportunity to meet the King and Queen of the Netherlands during their recent visit to Canada.

During a reception at the Art Gallery of Ontario on May 29, Freda was among 400 people chosen to shake hands with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima. TV coverage of the event happened to show her greeting the couple – which was seen by acquaintances in Europe.

She was also one of 40 people selected to sit down for a chat, with four groups of five people meeting the king, and four groups meeting the queen, each with different preselected topics. She and four other seniors talked to the queen about what it was like to leave Holland and make a new life in Canada.
“It was very special and exciting – a great experience,” said Freda. “We were so nervous, but as soon as they came, it was relaxed.”

The event was organized by the Dutch consulate, which included an application process. Participants were not allowed to give any gifts, but Freda was able to slip the queen a copy of a poem she had had written about the experience of immigrating to Canada.

It was something she had written previously as part of a project for the Coningsby Women’s Institute, of which she is the president. The opening of the poem reads:

“A long, long time ago

My parents said we must go

To a far away land

Where our liberators are at hand

The winds of war brushed across our favourite land

But Canadian soldiers knew where to stand

They served by land, sea and air

Wherever the urgent need they were there

The very least that is their due

Is to be remembered by me and you.”

Freda’s family came by ship in the spring of 1951 when she was 15, initially to New York and then by train to Oakville where they had a sponsor. They learned English and returned to farming, which had helped them survive the war.

Joe and Freda Leenders operated a farm in Erin for many years and have been very active in the Dutch community, organizing events and hosting visitors at their home.

“When we were in Holland in May for the 70th anniversary of the liberation, we really felt their connection and friendship with Canada,” she said.

King Willem-Alexander assumed the throne of the Netherlands in 2013 after his mother, Queen Beatrix, abdicated the position. The state visit included a meeting with Prime Minister Harper, and several Dutch cabinet ministers came to discuss foreign policy, trade and education issues with the “Dutch Caucus” of Canadian Members of Parliament.

When the Dutch royal family fled the German invasion of the Netherlands to England at the start of World War II, Queen Wilhelmina sent Willem-Alexander's mother and grandmother, Beatrix and Juliana, to live in Ottawa. Willem-Alexander's Aunt Margriet was born there.

The First Canadian Army was responsible for defeating the Nazis in Holland in May of 1945. About 8,000 Canadian soldiers died in the campaign, which allowed relief supplies to reach millions of starving people in the north of the country.

After the war, Princess Juliana sent Canada 100,000 tulip bulbs as a gesture of thanks, a tradition that has continued and is celebrated with the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa.