Belgian community in Halifax marks 150 years of immigration to Canada

·3 min read

Peter Haentjens first came to Canada in 1975. That year, he was one of about 300 Belgian students who took a plane from Belgium to Ontario to work in tobacco farms.

The trip was facilitated by an association called Flemmish in the World with the aim of helping Belgian-Canadian farm owners harvest their tobacco.

“I had no idea what tobacco looked like. I had no idea what Canada looked like. So, it was an eye-opener.”

It was a tough job, Haentjens said. He would wake up at the crack of dawn and work on the farm all day.

“I remember at the end of the harvest, I said I’m never ever going back to this country again,” he said.

But he was back the next year to work on another farm in Delhi, Ont., and that’s where he met his wife, Debbie, who was born in Canada to Belgian parents. She also worked on the farm.

The memories of Haentjens’s early days in Canada came rushing back as he and his wife browsed the photo exhibit organized by the Honorary Consulate of Belgium in Halifax. Haentjens has since become a dual citizen of Belgium and Canada and now lives with his wife in the city.

The exhibit was part of an event held to commemorate 150 years of Belgian immigration to Canada.

Early immigrants from Belgium settled in different parts of Canada and worked in sectors such as farming, horse breeding, mining, and brick-making.

New immigrants arriving in the late 1800s and early 1900s received a piece of land when they arrived. According to the photos displayed at the event, immigrants had to build a house, often a shack, within one year and a certain number of acres had to be planted every year.

“Those were courageous, adventurous people, because it must not have been easy,” said Johan Varkammen, Belgian ambassador to Canada.

The exhibit highlighted stories of immigrants who succeeded and failed at creating a livelihood in Canada from the late 1800s until the 1960s.

The long diverse history of Belgian immigration in Canada came as a surprise to Benoit Wouters, who landed with his family in Nova Scotia through the Express Entry stream in March 2021.

“I knew that there was Belgians going to Canada, but I couldn't imagine it was for so long ago and so many people,” he said.

Although simple activities such as grocery shopping and driving are different in Canada compared to Belgium, Wouters said he, his wife and, two children are adapting well to their new life. Their eldest son who is finishing university in Belgium will join them in Halifax next week.

“You need to have the right mentality. If you have a positive mind, it will go perfectly. I think it's really the country for newcomers,” he said.

Brigitte Leblon has been in Canada since 1994 when she came on a post-doc scholarship. She met her husband in Quebec and later became a professor at the faculty of forestry and environmental management at the University of New Brunswick.

Leblon, who now works at TÉLUQ University in Quebec, said she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in her field, especially as a woman, if she had stayed in Belgium.

“The good things about being in Canada is, yes, you have more opportunities, on the job level and so on. But sometimes you're missing your country, and particularly the food,” she said.

Patrick Philips, honorary consul of Belgium in Halifax, said the consulate offers Belgian newcomers help with finding health care and housing.

The number of first-generation Belgian immigrants in Nova Scotia is relatively small, with about 100 to 150 people, said Philips who was honoured at the event for his 25 years of service with the prestigious title of Knight of the Order of Leopold.

He said it can be difficult to keep track of immigrants who got the Canadian citizenship or those who are second-generation immigrants because they sometimes lose the language or give up their Belgian citizenship.

Nebal Snan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald

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