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Past Perfect – Reflections on Canada-Dutch Relations

Embassy staffers with King’s carriage.

Are birthdays and anniversaries really all that significant?  Don’t ask that question in the Netherlands! We all know from experience the consequences of forgetting the special day of a spouse or family member – well, at least I’m willing to admit that I’ve had that frosty experience.  But, you’d better not do that in the Netherlands, where the celebration of birthdays is a minor obsession.

In the office, of course, it is the responsibility of the person being feted to bring cake, vlaai (a typical tart from the southern regions of the Netherlands), or other treats for all to enjoy.

Other significant anniversaries are celebrated with equal attention.

For instance, 2013 witnessed the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Dutch kingdom (recalling the return to the Netherlands of Willem I, putting an end to the Napoleonic regime that had been installed here).

I had the pleasure recently to watch a historical re-enactment of King Willem’s 1813 landing on the beach at Scheveningen, and two weeks ago I joined the festivities in the 1813 square, which is just in front of our Embassy, as the army gave a flag salute to King Willem Alexander on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the formation of the Dutch army.

In an interesting aside, our Embassy was the only building in the neighbourhood with enough space to accommodate the King’s carriage while he was at the event.  We readily agreed to do this and Embassy staffers alternated between watching the parade of Dutch regiments presenting colours to the King and taking lumps of sugar to the four beautiful Frisian horses in our driveway.  I was in the front row of the reviewing section seated with the Dutch Minister of Defence, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. We were able to discuss her recent visit to the Halifax International Security Forum, as well as the ever closer military and security cooperation between our armed forces.

As a student of history, I find such celebrations and commemorations particularly meaningful. And, there is much to recall and reflect upon in our relationship with the Netherlands. 

For instance, 2014 brings the 75th anniversary of the formal start of diplomatic relations and exchange of envoys between our countries.  While not a long time in the great arc of European diplomatic history, it was in fact one of the first diplomatic recognitions to be undertaken by Canada after our country began to exercise sovereign control of our foreign relations with the 1931 Statute of Westminster.  So, it is fair to say that even then the Netherlands, as a key entry point for Canadian commerce with Europe, was viewed as a special European partner.

In the fall of this year and continuing into 2015 we will begin to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. This long and deadly conflict started with the battle of the Scheldt in the autumn of 1944, which would ultimately liberate the Netherlands from occupation in May of 1945.  The 70th anniversary will provide an important opportunity to recall the sacrifice of the more than 9,000 Canadian soldiers who perished on Dutch soil.  Sad though that loss is, it is the foundation upon which Canada-Dutch relations were built, forming a lasting bond marked by mutual respect, kinship and affection.

Realists remind us that the future is as important as the past and, indeed, there is much to look forward to in advancing our bilateral collaboration.

Canada and the Netherlands are both free traders who profit from the reinforcement of rules-based, open economic relations with the world.  As such, we are both on different sides of the Atlantic strong supporters of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).  In our wider foreign policies we coincide on our shared belief in the importance of fundamental human rights, including in a joint initiative to end Child, Early and Forced Marriage and its negative consequences on the lives of young girls.

But, as we race towards a new partnership in an increasingly globalized world, it is worth pausing as we hit these significant benchmarks to reflect on what brought us together in the first place. 

Former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was once asked why he was concerned about the past.  His answer to that was a simple one – “Those who do not know the past can never understand the present, and certainly can do nothing for the future." 

So, here’s to birthdays, anniversaries and other commemoration that remind us why we value our friends (and not just for the vlaai)!

Ambassador James M. Lambert
Thursday, January 30, 2014




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