I arrived in Canada and Nova Scotia in 1969 with the equivalent of a key to the country and province. Kind of like the reception dignitaries arriving in some great metropolis receive, the welcoming hand was out.
“Here you go,” says the mayor in the typical scenario. “Welcome to our fair city. This here golden key will open every door.” Wow.
Wow indeed. I wasn’t then nor ever was or aspired to be looked on as a dignitary. Luckily the welcome was no grand ceremony. What it was and why it was could only be grasped over time.
It was all in a name, a Dutch name.
Around 15 years before I slipped over the border at St. Stephens, N.B., boatloads of immigrants had arrived from the Netherlands – as well as some by air. Many came with little more than dreams of a better life, and determination to keep body and soul together. And although the going was tough due to language and income barriers, and prejudice too, many prospered. Ho ho! Their reputation for hard work, diligence, and ability to succeed in places where others had given up hope grew as fast as their families – well, almost.
The thing is, by the time I blew in from the Excited States – a second-generation North American – I was undeservedly in luck due solely to the fact Opa had influence over my parents and convinced them to give us boys good Dutch names: Piet, Jan, and Dirk. (My sister, born shortly after Opa’s death, got the name Jane.)
One of those Dutchmen on whose coattails I rode in was Kees (“Case”) van Dyk, who, with his young wife Riek, arrived by ship in Halifax in 1954. They proceeded on to a back corner of northern Queens County, Nova Scotia – my county. They were sponsored by a local priest desperate to breathe life into country that was being abandoned. The old ways no longer worked, the land was getting played out, and the future looked bleak.
New eyes see new possibilities. To say that Kees and Riek prospered would be a silly understatement. Successful parents (nine children, 20 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren); farmers (dairy, hogs, blueberries); manufacturers (one of the first and the richest and best flavoured blueberry juice); and on it goes. Well, Kees died last week at age 86, leaving behind a great legacy and family to carry on the enterprises mentioned and yet more; leaving behind family members gainfully employed far beyond home-grown enterprises, too.
The side message here is we have lots to gain from opening our doors to people “from away.” There will always be unsavoury characters slipping by border guards. I got in. But it has to be worth the risk because there are so many good nation-builders like Kees and Riek in the line.
As for those who leave their Atlantic home seeking a better life somewhere else, good for them. The thing is, there is ample likelihood they will see opportunities wherever they land that local long-time residents missed. As for those who stay, good for them, too. They are the glue between past and present. They can show the CFA a thing or two, just as the Mi’kmaq guided Champlain and his buddies over many hurdles in a very foreign environment.
My guides to Nova Scotia were woodsmen and fishermen in the area. I learned lots of useful things, like how to split a softwood log or make a rivet out of a nail retrieved from the fire pit. When we arrived, this old house had a furnace in the basement – the main source of heat. There was a problem, however, for the furnace had been designed and built to burn coal. Its firebox was round, not much larger than a dinner plate, and tall, with a small feed door at the bottom. It would take wood only a bit over a foot in length, making it next to impossible to load it with enough wood to carry a fire through the night.
There was a trick, however, which I learned from a neighbour, Butch Himmelman, who at age 15 hired out to the family that lived in this house at that time. One of his jobs was to keep the home fires burning. “Here’s how I did it,” he told me many years ago. On hands and knees in front of the low furnace door, he’d take a stick of wood in his left hand and hold it up in the firebox, grab another stick and put that under the first. Balancing that, he’d reach for a third, then another, and another. . . In that way, as long as his left arm could stand the weight, he was able to “stuff” the firebox.
Butch died in hospital about a month before Kees, leaving wife Marlene, two daughters, and a grandson. He was one of a dozen or so lobster fishing captains working out of this harbour. An accomplished musician, he was one of those unsung heroes around the country ready to trade a restful weekend home answering a call to entertain for fun or a good cause. For many years he was that gravelly voiced volunteer on the ATV packing hundreds of RVs onto the grounds at the annual Hank Snow Tribute in Bridgewater. It is generally believed Butch never fully recovered from injuries sustained in a bad motorcycle accident nearly a year ago when a grouse, or some such bird, flew into him, resulting in a loss of control.
I promised myself a couple of years ago I was all done writing obituaries. Here I go. Darned tough to avoid, as more and more friends take a final bow. DvL
PS: There is much more about Kees and Butch (St. Clair) on Chandlers’ funeral home website: www.chandlersfuneral.com/obituaries/.