Canada 150: Pier 21 tour guide shares his immigration tale
Meredith MacLeod, CTVNews.ca
Published Monday, June 26, 2017 10:00PM EDT
George Zwaagstra remembers his first step on Canadian soil. And the very moment he truly felt Canadian.
Zwaagstra immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1951. He was 17 years old and spoke no English when he arrived with his parents and younger brother at Pier 21 in Halifax to start a new life.
All he knew about his new home was what his older brother Pier, who arrived months earlier, had written in letters home.
"Canada is a land overflowing of milk and honey," his brother wrote. “But you have to find your own cows and bees.”
Like untold millions, the family’s life had been turned upside down by the Second World War.
Zwaagstra vividly remembers the Germans arriving in his village, Tjerkwerd, in the Friesland province, one Sunday morning in 1940. He was seven years old. His father, Sjouke Zwaagstra, who operated a grocery and food cattle store, was an area leader of the Dutch resistance during the war. The village children, including Zwaagstra, delivered cryptic messages, kept lookout, and knew to keep secrets. Their village became a refuge for evacuees, Jewish families and military fighting the Germans as Allied planes dropped weapons from the sky.
After the war, Zwaagstra declared he was seeking a new future in Canada. He saw it as an adventure. His parents then surprised him by saying they would come, too. They made the eight-day passage to Canada on the refurbished warship the MV Georgic.
The family settled in Nova Scotia where he and his parents worked as farm labourers.
Memories of Canadian soldiers liberating his hometown inspired Zwaagstra to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1954.
"And at that time I thought, yup, I guess I'm Canadian,” he said with chuckle. After serving, Zwaagstra says it really hit him one Remembrance Day how he felt about Canada.
"Standing there at the war memorial that's when it hits you, yup," he said with emotion.
He became a Canadian citizen in Ottawa in 1956.
Zwaagstra had four children with his wife Geraldine, worked hard, and thought little of his past. A visit to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 changed that. Zwaagstra now frequently walks the same hallway where he arrived, under a Welcome Home to Canada sign.
Now 84, Zwaagstra is a popular volunteer tour guide at the museum, proudly sharing his story and those of almost a million others who came through the building between 1928 and 1971. He hears plenty of stories, too, of others who came to Canada just as he did all those years ago.
“It’s very important, I believe, to share the stories, not just mine, but the stories that a lot of people have,” Zwaagstra said in a Passages to Canada video.
The museum is now home to Zwaagstra’s wartime pictures and memorabilia, including the cap badge of a Canadian soldier who helped liberate Zwaagstra’s village and the letters from his brother.
While the early years of learning the language, finding work and adjusting to Canadian winters was not easy, Zwaagstra was grateful and practical about what his new home provided.
“You didn't have money to go back. So, I'm here and I better make the best of it and that's all there is to it."
With a report from CTV’s Todd Battis