A New Land, A New Generation
Born as the Second World War was drawing to an end, a young Dutch girl and her family forged a better life in Canada
I was born in January 1944 in the north of Holland, behind the dike. A curfew was in effect at the time, every day from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. That’s when I made my first appearance at home. The doctor only arrived after my birth, but all was well.
My dad did not have to serve in the army, since delivering milk— with a dog cart pulled by a German shepherd—was deemed essential to the community. My dad often traded bacon for diapers when I was a baby, but our family managed to get by.
When the war finally ended, Dad bought an old milk truck, and in 1947, my sister Hilda was born. Our grandparents had passed away by then, and my parents determined that it was time to emigrate—time to start over in a new country.
Dad learned that Canada wanted people, and farmers there were asked to sponsor families for a year. The Dutch craved land, which was in short supply in Holland. So in September 1947, after selling the business, getting papers and receiving vaccinations, we were ready to board the Tabinta. This was the second boat to leave Holland for Canada after the war. It was a trooper ship from Indonesia with three tiers of bunk beds. Men and boys over 14 were on one side, with women and children on the other. My sister travelled in a wicker basket. There were three shifts for meals. One time, all three shifts were called at once and everyone got seasick, including my mother and sister, but there were many war brides onboard, who kept me occupied for the two long weeks we were at sea.
Finally, we sailed up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, where we boarded a train for Toronto. We got off near Brampton and were met by a local farmer—our sponsor— Howard Laidlaw.
My parents did not know one word of English. Howard thought we had come over with only a couple of suitcases. A few weeks later, a large crate was delivered with the rest of our goods, including a new baby buggy, bedding, a sewing machine, and, of course, our wooden shoes. Dad was paid $75 a month for his labours on the farm,
with milk for the family included. I had my fourth and fifth birthdays there, because we stayed for two winters. We'd never seen so much snow! At times, we could actually touch the telephone wires hung up on their poles along the roadway.
Our first church service was held by a minister from Kitchener, with my parents and two young men in attendance. When the downtown area of Brampton was flooded in 1948, Howard took Dad downtown to witness events. Later, a major culvert was constructed so that such flooding would never happen again.
That spring, my cousin arrived in Brampton and later that year, his parents and sisters landed as well. So, too, did my dad’s brother—who was married to my mother’s sister—and their two boys. All the new arrivals were sponsored by a farmer down the road.
By fall, our church services became more regular and more people came. We stayed on the Laidlaws’ farm until the following spring.
My dad had bought a car by then and, with his brother, purchased a farm near Kingsmill, about halfway be- tween London and Aylmer, Ont. Along with two young men who could pay board, ten people moved into that small house, which had no hydro or running water; the well was across a small stream.
Dad and his brother worked nights in the cement factory in St. Thomas and farmed during the day. The land was worked first with horses and later with a tractor.
I went to the oneroom schoolhouse— imagine eight grade levels in one room with two entrances, one for boys and one for girls. There was a dump along the road and every time there was a new “supply,” we went through it and brought home toys and other fun stuff— our parents could fix anything! I brought home my spelling and reading books regularly from school, and that’s how my mother learned English.
We stayed in that small farmhouse for five years, and then moved to a farm near Belmont, which was closer to London. The property had two houses, running water and hydro. We thought we were in heaven!
My dad continued to operate the farm, and, as part of my regular chores, I milked three cows by hand every evening. My mother worked at the Imperial Tobacco factory in the winter months. I can still smell those uniforms!
I made my first money as a picker in the strawberry patch, and bought a transistor radio. In Grades 7 and 8, I attended the Christian School in Aylmer, which in those days was called the Dutch school.
My dad tried to grow various crops, but there was hail, floods, frost and other trials to overcome. Finally, he bought a threshing machine to harvest soybeans at Christmastime. After a second failed attempt at that, he landed a maintenance job at the Aylmer airport, and held an auction to sell off farm machinery and equipment, which got us out of debt. We then moved into the small house on the property and rented out the farm to friends, who moved into the large house. Later, the
farm was sold and we moved to Aylmer, where we bought a house and my dad kept a large garden.
English was still difficult for me, so the English teacher helped me after school. My sister and I cleaned her house and had lunch with her and her husband, who was a judge in St. Thomas. During that time, my parents became Canadian citizens and I went for my driver’s licence the day after I turned 16. I worked as a tobacco harvester, which was hard work and the dirtiest job ever, but I made good money. I bought a sewing machine and began to make my own clothes.
After high school, I went to London Teacher’s College. From there, I went to Barrie and taught Grade 3 and 4 for three years at Timothy Christian School. By this time, Hilda had completed her nurse’s training in St. Thomas. I wanted to go out west to British Columbia with her, but she had other plans, so I went to teach in Woodstock, Ont. I picked up a Grade 13 English class there, took courses at Western in London, Ont., and later went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., to obtain my bachelor’s degree.
Then, I heard of an opening at John Knox Christian School, back in Brampton. It was like coming home, because my aunt, uncle and cousins still lived there. That’s where I met my husband, Hugh Van Schepen, who had also come with his family from Holland on the same boat we had taken in September 1947. They came over with nine children, the eldest being 14, and were sponsored by a farmer in Owen Sound. Most of Hugh’s family still lives there. I continued to teach while Hugh worked as a Record of Performance (ROP) tester, visiting farmers and keeping records on their cows. We bought a house near the school. I enjoyed my years at the John Knox school.
We also travelled over the years. Going from the East Coast to the West Coast of Canada was truly special. We also made a trip back to Holland and visited all the aunts and uncles there, as well as the churches and cemeteries, to reconnect with our roots.
Retired for 15 years now, I was diagnosed with breast cancer before getting my first pension cheque, but I have been doing well since. Hugh had a heart attack and a stroke some time ago, but with medication is now doing well—well enough to successfully undergo a hip replacement last year.
I’ve kept active and involved in the community, taking up needlepoint and joining the Brampton West Women’s Institute while it was still active. I also visited Arlene Laidlaw on her 90th birthday on behalf of my parents. Now I volunteer at Holland Christian Home, where my mother passed away, which has two nursing units and about 800 residents. Both Hugh and I enjoy our senior years, even though they are not always “golden.” Canada has brought us some hard times, but they've only made us appreciate the good times even more. God has been good! ■
Tena (back row, right) with her sister Hilda and her mom and dad, Dirkje and Andy in 1957.
Above: Hugh and Tena came to Canada from Holland on the same boat, but only met each other as adults.
Above: Tena and Hugh on their wedding day. Right: The happy couple with their trailer, which was “home away from home”on many holidays.