News Articles

Dutch community long has supplied parliaments with elected officials

Rancher Insinger heads list

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Dutch Canadians have served in legislative forums, ever since November 1892, when recent settler Fredrik Robert Insinger took his seat as MLA for the Wallace electoral district in the Northwest Territories Legislature. Located in Winnipeg, the territories then still included the sparsely populated region of modern-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The club of current and former legislators (and cabinet members) in Canada who share Dutch roots in recent years has increased significantly now that the second and third generations enter such community service. Similarly, the number of Members of Parliament (MP's) in Ottawa has risen as well.

Rancher Insinger who has a town named after him in Saskatchewan (as did Amsterdam’s banker and CPR railway financier Adolphe H. Boissevain in Manitoba), entered the legislature in a by-election, was re-elected as the Member for Yorkton in 1894 and served another three years. The next Dutch-born MLA who sat in Winnipeg was Herbert Sulkers whose family roots go back to western Noord-Brabant. One of the numerous Dutch market gardeners who tilled the soil around Winnipeg, Sulkers, a CCF’er, for five years served as the Member for St. Clements, till he was defeated in the Manitoba general elections of 1941.

It would be nearly another 34 years before a Dutch-born MLA would be sworn into a cabinet in Canada. That distinction goes to Wm.N. (Bill) Vander Zalm who as a freshman MLA was catapulted by premier W.C. Bennett into the BC cabinet as Minister of Human Resources. Another MLA of Dutch parentage but born in Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1914, first was sworn into the Woodrow S. Lloyd cabinet as Saskatchewan Resources Minister in the early 1960s. His name was Eiling Kramer, the son of Frisian immigrant parents.

Members of cabinets

British Columbia’s demographics make it a friendly place for new Canadians, not just Dutch Canadians, to enter municipal and provincial politics. A significant part of the population comes from elsewhere, reducing the level of control on society by ‘the establishment.’ It allowed Social Credit Party populist politician Wm.N. Van der Zalm in 1986 to ward off candidates backed by the (party) establishment. When he went to the polls later that year, several other Dutch-born municipal politicians joined him on the fray, namely Abbotsford mayor Harry de Jong (later Minister of Agriculture), Richmond counselor Nick Loenen and Chilliwack mayor John Jansen (later Minister of Finance). In 1991, only De Jong was re-elected but was joined by jeweller Gerard A.M. Janssen for the New Democrat Party. Canada-born BC Liberals, dairy farmer John van Dongen and lawyer Michael de Jong (no relation to Harry) later joined the Legislature through by-elections. After the general election of 1996, they were joined by fellow Liberals, Whistler mayor Ted Nebbeling, a Dutch-born immigrant and entrepreneur and Port Alberni mayor Paul Reitsma. The 2001 BC Liberal sweep returned De Jong, Nebbeling and Van Dongen and added Chilliwack mayor John Les. The first three immediately were appointed to the cabinet, Les followed later. Two other Liberal MLA’s who are married to Dutch Canadians, Joyce Murray (Dirk Brinkman) and Christy Clark (Mark Marissen) also were appointed. Earlier, in 1972-5 Winnipeg-born Daisy de Jong Webster served as a New Democrat Party MLA during Premier D. Barrett’s tenure.


In 1967, Social Credit Party’s Joe Radstaak became Alberta’s first MLA of Dutch parentage but served only one term for his Edmonton suburban district. Progressive Conservative Edmontonian Gerry Amerongen who became the second one in 1971, was re-elected three times and served as Speaker in the Legislature. Entrepreneur Peter Elzinga entered Alberta’s legislature in 1986 as a PC’er and was re-elected in 1989. After a stint as MP in Ottawa, he re-entered the Alberta Legislature in 1998, taking office as Minister of Agriculture. He rounded out his political career as Premier Ralph Klein’s Chief of Staff. Others who served as MLA are Calgarian Frank Bruseker, a Liberal (1989 and re-elected in 1992), Liberal Duco Van Binsbergen (Yellowhead, 1992), Liberal Colleen Soetaert (Spruce Grove, 1995), PC’er Tony Vandermeer (Edmonton-Manning, 2001 and re-elected in 2004), former mayor PC’er George VanderBurg (Whitecourt, 2001 and re-elected in 2004), and 2004 newcomers PC’er Raymond Prins (Lacombe-Ponoka), cattleman PC’er George Groeneveld (Highwood) and Winnipeg-born nurse and former alderwoman Liberal Bridget Pastoor (Lethbridge-East).

Saskatchewan’s NDP Minister of Finance, Hon. Harry Van Mulligen, immigrated with his parents at age nine. He was educated in Manitoba and settled in 1974 in his adopted province where he was first elected to the Legislature in 1986. He has been re-elected four times. Before he was appointed to his current post, he had various other portfolios.

Gerard Jennissen, who hails from the Echt area in Limburg, arrived in Saskatchewan at age ten. An English teacher, he moved to Manitoba in the early 1970s. Jennissen was elected to Manitoba’s Legislature in 1995, and re-elected with increasing majorities in 1999 and 2003.

New Brunswick Dutch immigrant and teacher Tony Huntjens’ first attempt at political office was for the Reform of Canada when he attracted a respectable number of votes. Since then, he was elected as a PC’er for Western Charlotte (1999, and re-elected in 2003). Since June 2003, Huntjes serves as Minister of Family and Community Services.

Dutch-born Quebec lawyer Maximilian Polak, the son-in-law of famed Dutch illustrator Jo Spier, served several terms as a Liberal in his province’s National Assembly.

Leadership run

There are some similarities in the political careers of Ontario MPPs (Member of Provincial Parliament) lawyer John Gerretsen (Liberal, Kingston and The Islands) and entrepreneur Ernie Hardeman (PC, Oxford). Both served several terms as mayor of their respective community, both were first elected as MPP in 1995, both since have been re-elected each time and both were elevated to cabinet as Minister of Municipal Affairs, albeit in cabinets of different political stripes. All three were born in the Netherlands and came with their families to Canada at an early age. The first MPP in Ontario of recent Dutch ancestry however was Elisabeth Gosar Witmer, a former teacher, who also wrote history by making it first into a cabinet in 1995. As vice-premier (2002) she also came closest to premiership in Canada’s heartland and was a candidate for the PC-leadership in Ontario in 2002. Since 2003, she is Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition. Outspoken family farm supporter Maria van Bommel, who farms with her husband Rene near Parkhill, joined the three veterans of the Legislature in 2003 as the Liberal member for Lambton – Kent – Middlesex.

Two Dutch Canadians serve in the House of Commons at the moment, both representing Nova Scotia ridings. Vegetable farmer and Liberal MP Mark Eyking (Sydney-Victoria) entered the House in 2000 and Heerlen, Limburg-born New Democrat Peter A. Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore) in 1997. Previously, Ajax-Pickering, Ontario was represented by Eindhoven-born Rene Soetens (1988-1993); Pembina, Alberta by Peter Elzinga (1974-1988), Toronto, Ontario suburb Willowdale by Werkhoven, Utrecht born John M. Oostrom (1984-8), all threel PC; Regina-East, Saskatchewan by Surabaya, Dutch East Indies-born Simon de Jong (NDP, 1979-1997); and Nanaimo-Cowichan, BC, by Richmond, BC, born retired military officer Robert Ringma (Reform Party of Canada, 1993-7).

There are others in Canadian politics whose surnames suggest Dutch ancestry. Particularly in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, descendents of Dutch colonial, American loyalists, who opposed the American Revolution and resettled in Canada, long have made contributions to the Canadian experience. Conservative physician Adam Edward Vrooman served his country as MP for Victoria South from 1896-1900). PC’er George Hees represented Eastern Ontario ridings for 38 years and ten years as a member of cabinet. Other names coming to mind are Vanclief, Van Horn, Vankoughnet and Van Loan, recognizing that their number is far from complete.

The largest number of those who over the decades ran – most frequently representing a non-establishment party - as candidates never were elected. The most significant group participated as Christian Heritage Party members, which so far has never elected any, followed by the Reform/Alliance and New Democrats. Returning to the BC scene, in the 1930s, Dorothy Biersteker Steeves was elected as MLA for Vancouver-North. The daughter of a physician and a Leiden-trained lawyer who married a Canadian soldier in the Netherlands shortly after WWI, she was one of those reformers who staunchly bucked popular opinion. A pacifist, she (and her party) strongly opposed Canada’s entry into WWII. She held on to her opinions, even after the Netherlands had been occupied in 1940 by the Nazis, and her son had enlisted in the Canadian army. That too, is descriptive for the political involvement of reformers. Among those who were severely criticized in office were ones who wanted to lead instead of follow ’popular opinion,’ they were there to fight for principles.