When is a tulip more than just a flower? Easy. That would be the spring blossoms that highlight Ottawa’s annual Tulip Festival, when the Canadian capital is blanketed with the colourful blooms.
The tulips are a legacy from Holland, which began in 1945 as a gift from a grateful nation to the country whose soldiers liberated them from Nazi occupation.
This spring’s 70th celebration carries with it more than the weight of historical significance. More than ever, time is of the essence. As Holland’s Allied liberators and the people they freed gather both in Canada and in Holland, they are making the utmost of a shared and treasured connection.
Last month, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines helped subsidize Canadian vets flying to the Netherlands to take part in commemorative tours. More than 300 vets and their families left on one Toronto-Amsterdam flight alone. Crew and passengers alike honoured their sacrifice.
Recent news reports speak of the enduring bonds forged between liberators and liberated in war-ravaged Holland. Chocolate bars and food given by Canadian soldiers to Dutch children might have become more than mere symbols of hope for better lives. For whatever the reason, in the post-war years, Dutch immigration to Canada spiked.
After all, the young Dutch Royals had spent the war years (1940-45) in exile in Ottawa, living at Stornoway, now home to the leader of the Opposition. In the dark days of 1943, Princess Margriet was born at Ottawa Civic Hospital, giving Dutch freedom fighters fresh hope. A Dutch flag flew from the Peace Tower.
In 1945, Ottawa received the first of hundreds of thousands of tulip bulbs from a grateful Princess Juliana. New bulbs continued to arrive each year, and the Canadian Tulip Festival was born in 1953. So popular had the tulips become that landscape photographer Malak Karsh (Yousef’s younger brother) had urged the Ottawa Board of Trade to found the festival. Karsh became its first president. Today, 500,000 visitors descend on Ottawa each spring, enjoying the million bulbs blooming along Ottawa’s Tulip Route. The flower has become not only a symbol of Ottawa, but also a tribute to Canadian soldiers’ role in the liberation of Holland.
New legacy-themed memorials will soon grace the Canadian capital. A design by sculptor Laura Brown-Breetvelt shows Princess Juliana holding her Ottawa-born daughter, Princess Margriet: a tulip frames the pair. Later this month, current Dutch King Willem-Alexander and his wife, Queen Maxima, will visit Ottawa to unveil the new sculpture.
In short, tulip time in Ottawa has grown into a busy, not-to-be-missed event. If crowds aren’t your thing, do as we did and take to the river. We found Paul’s Boats, in business since 1936, at the locks leading to the Rideau Canal. Hopping aboard, we discovered that Ottawa River cruising is an easy-breezy way to enjoy the sights minus the crowds. Ottawa’s Gothic Parliament looms above the water, its tulips are aflame, and our guide’s sometimes hilarious historical tidbits are a bonus.
Gazing at the noble statue of 17th- century French explorer Samuel de Champlain, frozen in mid-gaze above the river he first visited 400-odd years ago, we learn that he’s holding his astrolabe upside down. “What beautiful curtains!” Champlain exclaimed on seeing the waterfalls on the river, and thus was born a city of rideaux (curtains): Rideau Falls, the Rideau Canal, Rideau Hall, (home to the governor general), the Rideau Club, the Rideau Centre.
Next we see the spikes of the National Gallery, designed by Moishe Safdie, and on the opposite bank, the Museum of Canadian History, by Métis architect Douglas Cardinal, who avoided the “bad luck” of corners in this structure echoing the curves of canoes and lakes.
Close to the National Gallery we spot the pyramid-shaped American Embassy. To our right loom the Parliament Buildings. Only from the water can visitors see the graceful old library, sole survivor of the 1916 fire. The Peace Tower – with its daily changing of flags – was built in 1919 to commemorate Canadian soldiers killed in the Great War.
Founding Father Sir John A. Macdonald’s house, Ernscliffe, is now home to the British Embassy. Passing the Foreign Affairs Building, we think of 1957 Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson. A faux-Buckingham Palace houses the Canadian Research Council, credited with inventions like the pacemaker. Twenty-four Sussex has been home to prime ministers since Louis St-Laurent lived there in 1951. The governor general’s home, Rideau Hall, sits amid 88 acres and boasts 130 rooms – two bedrooms at the ready in case the Queen or the American president drops in. (We’re sure they’d welcome Dutch royalty too.)
As we end our cruise, we near the vicinity of the largest newspaper-making machines in the world (after Russia’s). Close by, Lady Aberdeen, wife of the governor general (1893-98) was rescued from drowning; a bridge was constructed in her name.
Back on dry land, we pop inside the small, intriguing Bytown Museum, an 1827 structure once used to store gunpowder and rum – the former a necessity for canal workers when in 1826, Britain launched the largest construction project outside the United Kingdom: a canal from Ottawa to Kingston.
On the completion of the canal, jobs in the lumber industry were desperately sought after, and conflicts flared between French and Irish. Legends abound about larger-than-life lumberjack and fighter Joseph Montferrand. “Brawling Bytown” lacked a police force. Our young guide happily sums it up: “One hundred and fifty years ago, this place was nuts.” Then, in 1855, Ottawa (derived from an Algonquin tribe, the Odawa) was named Canada’s capital.
The “small, dirty, violent lumber town” faded away. Ottawa acquired a “purpose-built” Parliament high on the hill overlooking the river, the “Washington of the North.” Victorian mores prevailed. By 1940, with Europe under siege, the former lumber town was deemed a safe harbour for Dutch royalty in exile. And that memory, today made tangible by row upon row of flowering tulips, draws awe-struck crowds by the hundreds of thousands to the city on the hill. n