Planting tulips with veterans: How students in Cowansville learned about WW II

Standing next to a kneeling Robert Bouthot, Bryson Wilson explained how to plant a tulip bulb, watching as the Navy veteran delicately pressed the bulb into the cold soil, tip up, then neatly covered it with earth.

Satisfied, Bryson congratulated the Bouthot on a job well done.

Bouthot, the president of branch 99 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Cowansville, Que., 100 kilometres east of Sherbrooke, said his gardening skills were all thanks to the 13-year-old's keen instruction.

Bryson is a special needs student at Cowansville's Massey-Vanier High School — one of 1,100 schools across Canada commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by planting 75 tulips.

His teacher, Gloria Robinson, turned the program, Liberation75, into a cross-curriculum project for her class: they've learned about the Second World War by reading soldiers' letters; they've had veterans come to speak to the class, and as part of their science lessons, they now know all about tulips and how to plant them.

"The tulips will come up in the spring," said Robinson. "It's really important for our students to see the project through."

Teaching about what happened to people with disabilities in Nazi Germany was especially poignant for her class of students with special needs.

"What we try to do with our students is always be honest," said Robinson. "We've explained to our students that had they lived during the time of World War II, they would have been the first that were killed by the Nazis."

"Now, because 75 years later all these soldiers fought for our freedom, not only do we have an amazing school community, but the community around us supports us so much."

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Bryson said he was proud to sing Oh Canada and to serve treats to Bouthot and the three other vets who visited from the Legion on a chilly afternoon for the tulip-planting ceremony.

"It was kind of fun because I didn't know that people were coming who fought in our war," Wilson said. "We had good conversation, and we planted tulips, too."

"I loved it," said Bouthot, in agreement. "It was great."

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Bouthot said he wants Robinson's class to help plant the 75 tulips at his Legion branch now that they're experts.

"It's nice to see the effort they put into this and the work they did," he said. "The Legion loves encouraging the youth."

Legion members and young people "need more of this," said fellow veteran Danielle Deneault. The students "are learning history at the same time."

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Symbol of friendship

The tulip has become a symbol of the bond between Canada and the Netherlands ever since Princess Juliana gifted 100,000 bulbs to show her gratitude for the successful liberation of her country from Nazi occupation in 1945.

Every year, the Netherlands sends tulips to Canada as a gift. Today the Canadian Tulip Festival is a nationwide celebration of international co-operation and friendship.

Students at Bryson's school have taken a tiny step towards helping Liberation75 reach its goal: to plant 1.1 million tulips across the country to honour the 1.1 million Canadians who served in the Second World War.

Liberation75 tulips are available online with proceeds going to the Royal Canadian Legion.

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Princess Juliana had another reason to celebrate her country's relationship with Canada.

Members of the Dutch royal family took shelter in Ottawa for much of the war, and Juliana gave birth to her third daughter in Ottawa in 1943.

In order to ensure the baby would have full Dutch citizenship, it had to be born on Dutch soil, so the Canadian government proclaimed the hospital's maternity ward "ex-territorial" for the delivery.

In honour of the birth, the Dutch flag flew from Ottawa's Peace Tower — the first time a foreign flag was flown alone from the Parliament Buildings — and the bells played the Dutch national anthem.