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Dutch small town couple happily settled on isolated farm in rural Ontario

More than “exchanging” a country

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

LONDON - Immigration offered enterprising individuals ample opportunity at pioneering in far-away places, using other languages, immerging into different traditions and culture. As the impressions of World War Two still lingered, many people from the densely populated western part of the Netherlands had been taught to surmount hardship and deprivation.

This is the background to the story of John and Rita (Maalman) van Gelderen, who in March 1956 boarded a KLM flight to Canada. Once they had left the plane at Montreal, they discovered they were on their own. Along with fifty others, they blindly followed a Canadian immigration official onto a bus bound for a railway station. There, the man ran into problems when he became aware that part of his group was at the wrong station and needed to get on the bus again. The unilingual and exasperated official just could not get his message across that certain Dutch passengers were heading in the wrong direction. Getting nowhere, the man finally asked for help from anyone who could interpret for him. As it turned out, Van Gelderen was the only one who understood sufficient English to offer help.


For the Van Gelderens, the move to Canada was more than just immigrating. It also involved trading life in a well-established town for Canadian country life, which often seemed years behind the one in the Dutch coastal town of Beverwijk, the hometown of the Van Gelderens. The number of differences certainly did not end there.

Initially, the couple lived with a crop farmer in Grand Bend, Ontario, but when their belongings arrived, the Van Gelderens moved to quarters in the back of a produce and equipment barn. They found their accommodation acceptable for the time being but it was John’s efforts at fixing the place that made all the difference.

Looking back, the 76-year old adventurer still takes pride in the fact that he and his wife hardly spend a nickel during the first months in Canada. They hardly could have, even if they had wanted to. With no transportation of their own and living in rent-free accommodation, Van Gelderen worked as much overtime as possible, saving every penny. From an off-season stint of tobacco stripping, he gravitated towards carpentry work and employment in a factory as a glass plate cutter, and later as a supervisor.

The immigrant’s ’savings’ action’ soon helped the couple qualify for bank financing. Every dollar saved allowed them to borrow another three. So, three years after their arrival, the Van Gelderens purchased a lot for $400 and started building their house. They did much of the work themselves, which included, among other things, making their own window frames. The new $3,000 house immediately gave them significant equity and soon after helped them on the way to a career in construction.