The Immigration Story of Henny Veerkamp (Dutch Immigrant) (Museum use only)

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For the longest time I wanted to put my immigration experience on paper, but weeks turned into months and months into years. To put it simple: It is 50 years ago that we entered Canada. A visit this year to Halifax and to Pier 21 brought old and faded memories to life again.

It all started with an enormous housing shortage in the Netherlands. A result of the 2nd World War… There were long waiting lists to get a living space and without at least 2 children one could not even qualify to be put on the list.

The thought of immigration popped up and all the possible countries where we could go were investigated. The choice became Canada for the simple reason that it was closer than most of the other countries. In those days one said goodbye for life. World traveling was not in the books.

After several interviews by Canadian immigration officers and examinations by Canadian doctors we were given the go ahead to come to Canada. One had to be totally healthy and without visible disabilities.
We got married and 2 weeks later we left Holland on June 14, 1957 on the Waterman. Even though only half the ship was filled we were still boarded as split accommodation. The ship would have been filled with Hungarian refugees as free passage given by the Dutch Government, however on an earlier trip across, this privilege was totally abused and all future free crossings were cancelled.

The ship would take us to Halifax and then by train to London-Ontario. This city was recommended by a Canadian immigration officer. The boat trip was fine; the food excellent. The service was great, because most passengers got sea sick, due to rough weather.

As planned we arrived in Halifax on June 22 1957 at Pier 21. It looked like total disaster but everything ran smooth. All our paper were there and we were advised to buy some groceries, because food on the train was expensive. If I remember well, it was far away and all we bought was certainly not what we expected it to be: Salt butter, soft doughy bread, funny tasting grapes etc. My limited English created some trouble in Halifax. I asked a gentleman where they bought bread instead of sell bread. Buying and selling is rather similar in the Dutch language.

Finally we left Halifax on the train with destination London. It took 37 hours and sometimes the train went backwards for long stretches. We did not understand this way of traveling, but found out later, that this sometimes happens, when they missed the crossing to pass trains in the opposite direction. All tracks from Halifax to Montreal were single track. It was extremely hot, which we were not used to. Around 32-34 C. everybody was filthy from the coal burning engines. We arrived in London in the middle of the night. All along the way there were volunteers helping us with transfers etc. but on arrival in London nobody could tell us where to go. We did not know anybody in Canada so we were on our own. We checked into a “hotel” in downtown London and the next morning we went to the immigration office. We were told that there were no jobs in London. We were advised to take a job on a tobacco farm. The farmer picked us up after several hours and drove us to an old farmhouse approx. 80 km from London. We were rather scared. If you travel 80km in Holland you are just about out of the country. We worked the field from 7.00am until approx. 7.00pm with a short stop for lunch. Nobody told us to cover up, because 7.00am is a lot cooler than 11.00am and the result was extreme sunburn. We were not allowed to leave the field to get a shirt or something to wear. My husband’s pay was $90.00 a month for 6 days working per week. I only got paid by the hour. I think it was $0.25. I could only work when the farmer was around otherwise he could not check my hours if I really worked. If you come from an office job and are put in the field with a hoe, it does not take long to get blisters, which pop open and create quite a bit of blood if you keep on hoeing.

After a week I left and hitch-hiked back to London and found a job in a mental hospital in London. It was work I never expected to do. I thought nursing was a calling but it paid for food. At that point I also discovered that I was pregnant and was afraid, that I would loose my job, because I had not told them of the pregnancy, because I did not know. I was allowed to keep my job, but bathing patient was too heavy and I was transferred to permanent night shifts. After one month my husband changed from a tobacco farm to a mix farm. Again for $90.00 per month. On farms one would never receive the money promised, because there were always crazy and unreasonable deductions such as matches or Kleenex etc.
From there on my husband got all kinds of jobs for short periods. He started a job with a well know tire factory in London and we were very happy. It was extremely heavy work but he managed, because he was young and strong. After one month he was fired without reason. Later we find out, that everybody always got fired after one month otherwise they had to in the union and the company had to pay higher wages. There were so many newcomers in London who would work for $1.00 per hour, so that was their system: Hire a new man every month and the wages did not have to go up.

One could write a book on all the bad jobs, uncaring employers, dumpy apartments, hunger and misery. My husband was ready to cross the Atlantic swimming, if it had been possible, but I never gave up on Canada. I still thought it to be a beautiful and good country with many nice people. We decided to give Canada 5 years. If nothing worked out then we would try to go back or to some other place.
My husband was a plumber in Holland. He could not work as a plumber in Canada because he did not have his licence. To get a licence he had to follow an apprentice ship. He was too old for apprentice ship. 22 years old at that time. There would have been possibilities but nobody explained and we did not know too many people in London.

After some years of odd jobs he finally got a good job with a hardwood flooring company from Toronto who started a branch in London. London branch had bad management and the company pulled out of London. We had the opportunity to go to their Toronto branch but we had just bought our new home and did not want to move. It was 1964 and we were out of a job again. In the meantime our family had grown with 3 children and one more was added a few years later. Out of necessity we started our own hardwood flooring business in 1965. After many years of ups and downs we succeeded to make it a success. Our company is still very much a part of the London flooring scene, now operated by a son and a daughter.

Canada is our home and we are certainly glad that we immigrated and our children are happy that we chose Canada because after traveling all over the world we still think that Canada is probably the best country in the world, however if we had known all the suffering and hardships of the early years, we probably would never have had the courage to make that step.

Henny Veerkamp. Still living in London in the same house we built in 1964. Written for my husband Theo and children Roy, Sheila, Marsha, and Barry and 10 grandchildren.