Nell: ‘I Fit in Here. It’s a Little Gritty, and I like That’

Dutch immigrant Nell (b. 1938) arrived in Canada in 1952. She has been living in East Van for over 50 years and loves its character and inclusiveness.

 

My mom, dad, two sisters and I came to Canada in 1952 from Holland. I loved Canada right from the get-go. Holland was a hard place to be during the war–lots of violence and starvation– so we were looking for something new.

 

We arrived in Halifax on a ship, and looking down on the sailors wearing big coats and knitted toques (we’d never seen hats like that before) we laughed at how they all looked like fat guys. Then, on the train, we saw the chic-looking women in Montreal, and everything about them was elegant. There were lots of Dutch people on the train and they moved all across Canada–many to the tobacco farms in Southern Ontario.

 

We stopped in Portage La Prairie and there was nothing there. It was so desolate. But some Dutch families went there to work in the sugar beet farms. I was 14 and felt so sorry for them. We were the last of the Dutch to get off that train in Fort Langley, BC.

 

Canada was short of labourers at the time. We were all involved in a program where Canada and Holland each paid half our way, which meant that my father was bound to work on a farm for a year. When we got here though, my dad’s job no longer existed, so the immigration guy had to travel all over that day to find us a new farm. He was so kind, and even took us to his home for lunch. He found us work and a home on this huge dairy farm. We couldn’t believe our luck! I went to school there for a couple of years and I was ahead of the other students in many subjects. Eventually, I finished Grade Ten.

langley-highway-1949
The farms in the Langley area were welcoming foreign workers
Image credit: Donn B.A. Williams, public domain

There weren’t many Dutch people here back then, and those who came to Vancouver were city people and assimilated easily. We went to some of the Dutch churches when we arrived, for the social aspect and to learn the language, but then we met other friends. I know people talked about the “bloody DPs” (Displaced Persons), but I never heard that myself. Everyone was so kind. My teacher at school worked extra to teach me English, and everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

 

My parents saved their money, because they came here with nothing. By the end of one year, they had saved $500 and bought a car. The next year, they bought property in Langley. My father was a Frisian from the north of Holland, so he always wanted to farm. It never quite worked out that way though, because my mother was a city girl, but we always had a couple of cows and chickens and dogs.

friesland-farm
Nell’s father was from Friesland, a farming province in NW Netherlands.
Pictured: a 1953 Frisian farm
Image credit: janwillemsen, CC, Flickr

When I was about twenty, I moved into a suite in Vancouver on 13th and Glen. I still remember the long list of rules the little Polish landlady had. Even years later, I’d see her around town riding her bike. But I got homesick and had to go back home for a year before I was ready to be on my own again.

 

I have lived in East Van ever since, first at Grandview and Renfrew, and then in the house I owned a house at 11th  and Clark for 25 years. Some of it hasn’t changed a heck of a lot. Commercial Drive is an old street; the stores change, but the Drive hasn’t. There were a lot more Italians in the neighbourhood, and I ended up marrying one.

 

My first job was in a mail room office. In those days, life was about meeting the man and riding off into the sunset with him on a white horse. We didn’t think about careers, and there were lots of jobs for unskilled people like me, not like today when you need a degree to wash dishes.

 

I was 25 when I married and, at that time, I was working for the school board running a printing press and turning out all the school aids. That was a fun job and I met a lot of really nice folks there. I had my son when I was 28, my daughter at 30, and an accidental son at age 35.

 

I love the Drive because of its inclusiveness. We all get along. But I get irritated when West Side people come here to join our festivities and they become victims of their own success. Like what happened with the Illuminares Festival at Trout Lake.

 

But I fit in here. It’s a little gritty, and I like that. It just works.

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