Belgians are a national
group composed of two main ethno-linguistic communities — the
Dutch-speaking Flemings of northern and western Belgium and the
French-speaking Walloons of southern Belgium — in addition to a small
German-speaking population in eastern Belgium. Brussels, the capital
region, is the only officially bilingual region of the country, although
most of its inhabitants are francophone. Belgium, a member of the
European Union, is a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament
and independent judiciary that leads the world in innovative
technological research and attracting foreign investment.
In the 2016 Census, there were 31,725 Canadians who indicated they were
of Belgian origin with another 154,895 declaring they had some Belgian
ancestry (for a total of 186,665 Canadians). One third of these people
lived in Ontario, and a slightly smaller proportion in Québec. In the
western provinces, Manitoba was the chief area of settlement in the
early 1900s, but by the beginning of the 21st century British Columbia
and Alberta each had a quarter of the Belgians in the region.
More than 11,000 respondents indicated "Flemish" instead of "Belgian,"
reflecting a growing Flemish nationalism in Belgium and an ethnic
self-identity in a multicultural Canada. Walloons settled mostly in
Québec and francophone communities in Canada where they identified with
the social, political and culture of French-speaking Canadians. The
larger Flemish population identified more readily with anglophone
communities. The early Flemish immigrants were often fluent in French,
but by the third generation in Canada the majority of their descendants
were unilingual English.
Belgians have been involved in every aspect of Canada's development as
missionaries, educators, businessmen, politicians, musicians and
artists. Well-known Belgians in Canada have included Louis Hennepin,
Jules Hone, Frantz-Jéhin Prume, Auguste Joseph de Bray, Gustave Francq,
Ria Lenssens, François Héraly, Pierre Boogaerts, Charles Binamé and Lara
Remember Canadian Liberators
Immigration History and Settlement in Canada
As early as 1859 the colony of the United Canadas (Province of Canada)
had appointed a Select Committee on Immigration that extended to
Belgians the assisted passages and grants of free land offered to
British nationals. This laid the groundwork for subsequent policy in the
new Dominion of Canada. Canada's first Immigration Act (1869) included
Belgium among the "preferred countries" from which immigrants should be
sought (see Immigration Policy). The first Dominion immigration officer
in Europe was Edward Simaeys, whose office was in Antwerp. The most
successful of all these officers was Désiré de Coeli, who began his
extensive lectures and publicity in 1898.
Unlike many European countries, Belgium did not encourage its nationals
to emigrate to relieve economic, demographic and social crises. Despite
this, steamship companies such as the Red Star Line, subsidized by the
government in Brussels, offered assisted passages to emigrants. Once in
Canada, officials monitored the conditions of settlement and contractual
agreements; where fraud was discovered, the Belgian government
intervened diplomatically and paid for repatriation (see Deportation).
To promote immigration, successful immigrants were recruited to write
pamphlets and books for the Canadian government and Belgian officials
and journalists were invited, at the Canadian government's expense, to
view settlements and business opportunities with the hope of attracting
industrious settlers and their capital.
Four major periods, or waves, of Belgian immigration are discernible.
The first wave coincided with industrial unrest in Wallonia and
population pressure in Flanders in the 1880s. This early wave was
directed largely to Québec and Manitoba, which were both perceived as
receptive francophone Catholic regions. Flemish farmers chose to move to
the Eastern Townships of Québec and southern Manitoba, in the latter
establishing the communities of Bruxelles, St. Alphonse and Mariapolis.
Walloon glass workers began arriving in Ontario's nascent industry,
while the miners took jobs in the coal mines of Nova Scotia and
Vancouver Island. Walloon miners, staunch supporters of labour unions
and socialist activity, became deeply involved in the labour disputes
with the Dominion Coal Company in Cape Breton. In Springhill, Joseph
Lavenne emerged as a militant leader and activist in the Socialist Party
From Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, many miners moved on to
Pennsylvania, where they encountered the same dangerous working
conditions and anti-union sentiments, prompting them to return to
Canada, where others joined them from Europe. On Vancouver Island they
organized unions and protests and spearheaded the organization of the
Miners Liberation League in 1912 to work for the release of detained
strikers (see Labour Organization).
In Alberta coal mines, Léon Cabeaux, Frank Soulet, Joseph Lothier and
Gustave Henry emerged as union leaders. During the Estevan Coal Miner’s
Strike in 1931, the Belgian government provided more funds for the
repatriation of miners who were either deceived by working conditions in
Canada or had been ordered to be deported as a result of their militant
The second wave of immigrants, beginning in 1896, was aided by a direct
steamship link with Antwerp in 1903 and new legislation in 1906
encouraging them to play a leading role in establishing dairy farms (see
Dairy Industry) around Winnipeg, fruit orchards in the Okanagan Valley,
and market garden and sugar beet plantations in southwestern Ontario. In
1912, the Dominion Sugar Company began direct recruitment of Belgian
field and factory workers for its Sugar Industry in southwestern
Ontario. The Knight Sugar Company in southern Alberta did likewise. In
1897, the Belgo-Canadian Fruit Lands Company, an Antwerp company
directed in the Okanagan by Raoul de Grelle and Ferdinand De Jardin,
began developing extensive orchards under irrigation. A subsidiary
organized in 1908, the Belgian Orchard Syndicate, built its own
packing-house for the shipment of apples, stone fruits and vegetables.
Belgian organization of the Vernon Orchard Company resulted in the
expansion of commercial fruit (see Fruit Cultivation) and vegetable
growing into the Vernon district. Flemings operated many of the dairies
around Sherbrooke, Québec, and Winnipeg/St. Boniface, Manitoba, as well
as creameries and cheese factories (see Cheese and cheese making) in
both provinces. By the 1920s, Belgians had become chief dairymen with
approximately 80 farms near Winnipeg. The Bossuyt, Nuyttens, Van
Walleghem and Anseeuw families were active in the Manitoba Dairy
Association for decades. The Bossuyt and Anseeuw farms were showplaces
for foreign visitors.
Following the First World War, more than 14,000 immigrants arrived after
the railway companies and the sugar beet manufacturers resumed direct
recruitment. Tobacco companies launched a flue-cured tobacco industry on
the sandy soils around Tillsonburg and Delhi, which attracted Belgians
from the northern United States as well, and helped organize the
Southern Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers' Association. Belgians
figured prominently in market gardening and dairying in the Fraser
Valley of British Columbia and the Richelieu Valley of Québec.
The last and largest wave from 1945 to 1990 saw new arrivals migrating
to urban centres and established communities. Canadian immigration
policy shifted in 1962 from an emphasis on preferred groups to a
preference for individuals with desirable education, training and
skills. Québec attracted about two-thirds of these Belgian immigrants,
many of whom were professionals or skilled workers in biotechnology,
aeronautics and computer science.
80 Years Of Diplomatic Relations Between
Belgium and Canada
In 1888, the consul general in Montréal, Ferdinand van Bruyssel,
organized a consortium of 14 Belgian companies into the Comptoir
Belgo-Canadien, to supply central Canada with glass, rails, cement, and
technical expertise in railway construction and public works projects.
In the ensuing decades, other entrepreneurs such as Hubert Biermans and
his Belgo-Canadian Paper Company, Alexis Nihon in marble and granite
products, the Mirons in cement and concrete, the Simards in
shipbuilding, and the Franki company in high-rise construction played
key roles in the Québec economy.
The Commercial Treaty of 1924 accorded Belgium "most favoured nation"
status. During the interwar years, Belgian banks financed the Canadian
Block Coal Company in Alberta. In 1929, the consul in Vancouver, Léon
Dupuis, organized the Canadian-Belgian Chamber of Commerce, importing
rails, structural steel, wire, cement and glass via the Hudson’s Bay
In 1945, Belgium became the third largest investor in the Canadian
economy during the post-war period partially due to Petrofina (sold to
Petro-Canada in 1981), Canadian Hydrocarbons Limited (acquired by
Inter-city Gas in 1979), and Sogémines Development, which was renamed
Genstar in 1968, who were important energy producers until the 1970s.
Genstar merged with Inland Cement (now Lehigh Inland Cement) in 1965,
and bought Seaspan International in 1969, which acquired Vancouver
Drydock Company in 1991. Genstar was acquired by Imasco in 1986.
Genstar's senior management formed American General and Newland Group,
which acquired Genstar's land development division.
Belgian firms, such as Solvay, Union Minière du Haut Katanga, Katoen
Natie and Arinso International, have made significant contributions to
Canadian research and development and have received awards for their
work. In 2016, there are about 50 Belgian subsidiaries in Canada, and
the Belgian direct investments was worth 3.2 billion Canadian Dollars.
Belgium is currently the 18th largest foreign direct investor in Canada.
In Québec, Belgians played an important role in the staffing and
development of educational institutions. The University of Louvain
served as a model for Université Laval. Belgian educators founded the
École des hautes études commerciales (HEC Montréal), the École des arts
décoratifs, and the École d'architecture, and reorganized the École
polytechnique de Montréal in 1908. Provincial agricultural schools were
modelled after the agricultural colleges at Vilvoorde and Gembloux in
Belgium, which were also the source of instructors for the new schools.
In one hand, Belgian educators generally favoured divesting the church
of its control over education in Québec. On other, Belgians supported
the Catholic separate school systems in Ontario, Saskatchewan and
Alberta, and joined the fight for French instruction and Catholic
schooling in the Manitoba School Question. The only ethnic institution
was the Scheppers Institute (Sacred Heart College) in Swan Lake,
Manitoba, that from 1919 to 1929 offered academic and agricultural
courses in Flemish for boys.
In the late 20th century a number of Canadian universities developed
cooperative programs and entered into exchange agreements with Belgian
institutions of higher learning and research, notably with Leven
Universiteit (University of Leuven) and the Université Libre de
Bruxelles. However, in 2012 the Canadian government drastically reduced
the funding of the International Association of Canadian Studies (see
Canadian Studies) but the Association des Études québécoises compensated
to some degree by launching comprehensive exchanges (faculty exchanges)
and joint research with the Université de Liège and other research
centres. In 2016, approximately 20 Canadian universities have close
links with Belgian universities in areas such as humanities and social
sciences, pure and health sciences.
Belgian contributions to cultural life, especially in Québec, have been
numerous. Renowned musicians helped found the Montreal Symphonic
Orchestra, the Société Canadienne d'Opérettes, Variétés lyriques and the
Petits chanteurs à la Croix de Bois. The paintings of Henri Leopold
Masson hang in galleries across Canada and Pierre Hayvaert's sculptures
were exhibited in the Québec pavillon at Expo 67.
Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde
In 1925, André Castelein de la Lande was one of the three founders of
the Cercle Molière, Canada's oldest professional theatre company;
theatre groups including the Onder Ons drama club and Vlanderen Kerels
were established in southwestern Ontario. The Société Lyrique de Gounod,
the Belgian Club, and the Belgian Folkdancers in Manitoba helped
maintain an interest in Belgian culture, and Arthur Verthé created
Flemings in the World, an association that sponsored summer work
projects promoting Flemish culture through language lessons, drama,
cinema and dance.
Belgian Jesuit and Récollet missionaries were active in Canada in the
17th and 18th centuries, and by the 19th century Redemptorists and
Capuchins (see Missions and Missionaries) were working in immigrant
communities. Flemish Oblates worked with Aboriginal peoples in western
provinces while Walloon Oblates worked among the Inuit. The Roman
Catholic hierarchy included bishops such as Pierre-Herman Dosquet during
the French regime (see New France), Charles-Jean Seghers and Jean-Baptiste
Brondel in colonial British Columbia, Rémi J. De Roo. The most published
and controversial evangelizer of the French period was the Walloon
Récollet Louis Hennepin.
Anglophone and francophone parishes made an effort to provide
communities with priests who spoke Flemish and French. Capuchins,
originally from a monastery in Blenheim, served several Ontario parishes
and opened a monastery in St. Boniface and Notre-Dame de Toutes Aides to
serve Belgians, First Nations and Métis in northern Manitoba.
In the late 19th century, the University of Louvain provided the Pacific
coastal region with missionaries and teachers who served the Aboriginal
peoples and colonists of Victoria and New Westminster, British Columbia.
Notably, Roger Vandersteene incorporated Cree spirituality and culture
into his missionary responsibilities and created a Cree liturgy that
incorporated Aboriginal symbolism and spirituality into traditional
Catholic worship. Canadian bishops of Belgian origin were also involved
in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and supported the use of the
vernacular in mass and the breviary, the update of pastoral care, and
the promotion of biblical research and studies.
Social and Community Life
In 1903, Alphonse Gyhssens organized the Union Belge in Montréal to
bring together Flemings and Walloons socially. Similar associations were
formed in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. The Belgian Club, founded in
St. Boniface in 1905, established a mutual aid society and a credit
union. At the popular level, Gustave Francq organized working-class
clubs, food co-operatives and sports facilities for youth in Montréal
and fought with some success for minimum wage laws and women's rights.
Emigrating from an occupied country during two world wars, Belgium
immigrants supported the Belgian Relief Fund and, along with people
around the world, followed the investigation, led by Lord Bryce, into
alleged atrocities committed during the First World War.
Prime Minister Trudeau delivers remarks on
the strong ties between Canada and Belgium
In 1962, the communities in the Richelieu Valley southeast of Montréal
organized the Club Belgo-Canadien at Sabrevois. The clubs in St.
Boniface, Delhi and Sabrevois were later opened to persons of all ethnic
communities. Both Flemings and Walloons have integrated well into Québec
francophone society. Elsewhere, Flemings have tended to identify with
the dominant anglophone community while most Walloons have integrated
with the francophone minorities.
Accustomed to democratic institutions, Belgian immigrants have
participated in local and regional politics in Canada and have assumed
leadership roles in farm organizations, labour unions, marketing boards,
municipal councils (see Municipal Government), school boards,
professional organizations, and politics. Belgians have integrated well
into the multicultural communities in Canada and have made a significant
impact by promoting agriculture, commerce, industry and their culture.
Both Flemings and Walloons integrated into mainstream society within two
generations. Coming from a bilingual country that had undergone economic
transformation and secularization, they easily adapted to the situation
in Canada, including the ideological shift from anglo-conformity to
multiculturalism. Also, many adopted the culture of other groups such as
the Anglo-Québécois and Franco-Manitobans. Flemings joined with Dutch in
Ontario to organize cultural and commercial projects just as the
Walloons participated with francophones in their struggle for
educational and cultural rights. In general, Belgians in Canada
maintained their recreational, religious and social customs as
individuals and families while participating in broad-based occupational
and business organizations, labour unions and professional associations.
They did not develop the ethnic institutions that many other ethnic
groups organized as they found that existing institutions provided most
of the services they required.
Like his subject, the Belgians of West Canada, the author has found
plenty of new ground to till. Indeed, this is the most in-depth look at
the individual lives of Canadian Belgians available, and supersedes in
that regard Dirk Musschoot’s Wij gaan naar Amerika. Vlaamse
landverhuizers naar de Nieuwe Wereld 1850-1930 (Tielt 2002). Jaenen’s
thesis is that Belgians in Canada lacked ‘institutional completeness’
and ‘ethnolinguistic homogeneity’ which led to a ‘partialized or
fragmented ethnicity’. While Jaenen presents an impressive amount of
data mined from files of the Belgian National Archives, he leaves many
To summarize, the author explains that the Canadian Government deemed
Belgians a preferred immigrant group, but that they were not heavily
recruited, nor did they settle in ethnic blocs. Rather, Belgians in West
Canada settled in dispersed agricultural communities, first in the 1880s
outside of Winnipeg. At this time, agrarian discontent in Belgium,
particularly the collapse of the grain market, led Belgian farmers to
seek work elsewhere. Most migrated locally and regionally, especially to
France. Belgians came to Canada in three waves: 1) 16,000 immigrants
from 1890 to 1914, 2) 14,000 from 1919 to 1939, and 3) 35,000 from 1945
to the 1980s. The few Belgian farmers in the Canadian West worked in
dairy, raised sugar beets and wheat. By 1900, they also worked as miners
and farmers in Alberta and British Columbia.
The author believes he has taken an uncommon tack by shifting his gaze
away from the traditional push-pull factors of migration and towards
topics of immigrant life and assimilation in Canada. He would be wise to
recognize, however, that historians in the United States and Canada have
always been more interested in the latter topics, leaving European
scholars to sort out the factors which inspired trans-Atlantic
migrations. What remains of the text is the kind of history popular in
the first half of the twentieth century - intense descriptions of people
and places, noting the successes of the immigrants and their
contribution to their communities and nation.
But what does a collection of individual stories tell us about the
nature of a group of people? The author does not explain how well the
Belgians in West Canada were connected to Belgians in East Canada, in
Wisconsin or Detroit, or whether they had any intercourse with the Dutch
Canadians who also settled in similar areas near Winnipeg. Jaenen is
more successful when he notes that the Francophone Belgians were often
mistaken to be Frenchmen, and that the French in Quebec were keen to see
more Catholics join them in the Dominion. Unlike Canada’s Anglo-Celtic
Protestant majority, the Belgian immigrants played cards and enjoyed
carnival games. They were also reluctant to pass laws against alcohol.
In short, Belgians formed a minor opposition party, a liberal/socialist
Catholic opposition to a conservative, Protestant presence on the
plains. Yet, the Belgians in Canada did not have an ethnic press and
their binding religious institution was the multi-ethnic Catholic
Church, so it remains unclear to what extent Belgians in Canada were
indeed a self-aware group with a unique collective identity.
Some clarity on the numerical presence of Belgians in West Canada would
be helpful. Although we are given data on the number of Belgians in
Canada as a whole, it is unclear how many Belgians were in the western
provinces, and what percent of these were Flemish or Walloon (linguistic
or cultural division between Belgians - not the political). Again and
again we read vague statements that communities had ‘a few’, or ‘some’
Belgians, that Belgians were ‘scattered throughout the area’, that
‘numerous Belgians’ worked at a certain factory, or, somewhat better,
that ‘at least 100’ Belgians lived in the Fraser Valley in the early
1900s. Since the Fraser Valley is a rather large place, it would be more
useful to know whether the Belgians there formed any kind of community.
The depth of stories and data is impressive and has its merits,
especially for historians of the immigrant experience on the Canadian
Great Plains. As well, chapters on Manitoba, Alberta, and British
Columbia will be interesting for Belgian Canadians there, but scholars
might want to know how many Belgians in Canada returned to Belgium, if
there was a transnational aspect of their lives, what the rates of
language retention were, how women perceived their roles to change in
the new world, what the immigrants thought of other ethnic groups, and
how second and third generation Belgian Canadians formed their
identities. These issues are addressed briefly or not at all.
The main question, however, is whether scattered individuals really
comprise a group with a common story, and whether this story can be told
in any other manner than a list of people, places, and accomplishments.
What made the Belgian Canadians different from their compatriots who
remained in patria? After all, the salient fact of Belgian migration to
the U.S. and Canada is their non-migration. The currents of
trans-Atlantic migration hardly swept any Belgians along as they held
firm to their ‘standplaatsen’.
Although this book has 866 footnotes, fewer than 10 point to
Dutch-language sources, and all of these are secondary works. Granted,
the Belgian governmental records which the author consulted are mostly
in French, not Dutch, but it seems odd that a history of Belgians in
Canada would not reference a single Dutch-language primary source.
Michael J. Douma, University of Illinois-Springfield
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