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Vanderveen siblings and their growing families commemorate 1948 arrival

Family gathers every five years for anniversary of their immigration

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

WATER VALLEY, Alberta - A cousin who had immigrated to Alberta in 1927 through his letters home about farming opportunities in the 1930s gave the ‘Canada fever’ to Klaas Van der Veen and his wife Sjoukje Land. The couple which just had received the tenth addition to the family took the initial steps for crossing the Atlantic in 1939. World War II overtook the plans which were picked up again soon after hostilities ended in 1945. The Van der Veens - the father and eight sons and two daughters - left their hometown Harkema in April 1948 and headed for Canada aboard the Tabinta. Fifty years later, the occasion was remembered at a grand family reunion.

A part-time farmer who made ends meet with commissions earned from selling animal feed, straw, peat fuel and coal, and delivering these goods as well with horse and wagon in the northeastern Frisian village of Harkema, Van der Veen rather wanted to spend his time working on the farm. As he pursued his emigration plans, his sons agreed with their father that once in Canada they would pool their earnings to buy a family farm. This plan was realized already in 1949 - in Bottrell, Alberta - when the obligatory year working for the sponsor was completed.

The time before the departure from the village near the Frisian town of Drachten was not without its trials. First, wife and mother Soukje had taken ill and died. The death happened just after the farm house burned down. It left the Van der Veen family, with the youngest aged 7, without a mother. With the farm house gone, the family lived in the village where oldest daughter Lola ran the household. With so much unsettled in their lives, in some ways leaving became easier. In other ways, with an uncertain future ahead, it also was far more daunting.

Trip of a lifetime

The departure from Harkema - de Van der Veens were the first to go after WWII - was preceded by numerous farewells as many from the large, extended family and from the village came to say goodbye. Then one morning, a chartered bus which toured the region for Tabinta passengers also stopped to pick up its fare in Harkema. It was immediately clear to the Van der Veens they were not all by themselves into an uncertain adventure.

To the Van der Veen children who only experienced a very mild case of seasickness, life aboard the Tabinta was a lot of fun. There seemed to be so many young people that boredom never had a chance. Their father also was kept busy. He, along with many other men earned pocket money peeling potatoes, hours on end, every day.

The first Canadian experiences were a mixed bag. Eager to try out his English, one of the Van der Veens (in Canada most of the family string the name into one word) discovered that his knowledge of the language did not go far: they spoke French in Quebec. The train ride west was something else. The family still recalls their diet of those days, nothing but white bread and jam bought in little stores near railway stations. The arrival in Calgary also still is being recalled because it snowed. Well-remembered also is the ride in the flatbed truck to the farm and particularly the spring thaw which floaded roads out in the country and muddied everything. From a tight village community with traditions going back centuries, the Vanderveens ended up at an isolated farm located twenty miles from the nearest paved road. It took their father a couple of months to overcome his initial deep disappointment with his country of choice.


The older sons all worked on farms in the area but none eventually were too interested in farming. As soon as they could they headed for cities such as Calgary and Edmonton.

Life in Canada brightened considerably when Klaas Sr. met Sippie VanderVeen - although a namesake they were not related - on a visit to Edmonton. They married in 1952. Nine years later, Van der Veen was widowed for a second time. His third marriage was to Pat van der Meulen, an old schoolfriend from Harkema who had been widowed in the U.S. He met her following a casual visit to her bother who farmed near Sumas, Washington. Klaas and Pat were married for about sixteen years when he died at age 81.

Of the two Van der Veen sons who took up farming, only Albert stayed on the land, close to the original 2-section spread of 1949 (which was sold when Klaas Sr. retired). Most were entrepreneurs with Phil building A-1 Cement Contractors in Calgary from scratch, literally with a pickup truck and a wheelbarrow. His brother Klaas went in cement contracting in Edmon-ton, Ed managed a mushroom farm in Ontario, while Jess for a number of years operated a drapery business before setting himself up in real estate and Henry for years ran a variety store. John set up a business moving cars while Gerben eventually retired as the principal of a Christian school.

The family still is concentrated in western Canada but many of the third and fourth generation travel great distances for the Vanderveen reunion every five years. Wanting to keep the ties fairly close, the large majority of them attends. In fact, less than ten of the 280-member clan failed to show for the August 2003 event in Alberta. For most, Alberta roots have overtaken the ones of Harkema.

A freighter pressed into service for troop transports, the Tabinta is intrically linked to the family history of thousands of Dutch immigrants in Canada and the U.S.A. The ship’s accommodation or lack of it rates attention in most immigrant recollections.