In 2006, there were 33 670 Canadians who indicated they were of Belgian origin with another 135 240 declaring they had some Belgian ancestry. 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 end of the century British Columbia and Alberta each had a quarter of the Belgians in the region.
In the 1991 census, some respondents indicated "Flemish" instead of "Belgian," reflecting of 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 the 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.
Migration and Settlement
As early as 1859 the colony of the United Canadas had appointed a Select Committee on Immigration that extended assisted passages and grants of free land offered to British nationals to Belgians. 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. 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. 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. 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, perceived as receptive francophone Catholic regions. Flemish farmers chose 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 collieries of Nova Scotia and Vancouver Island. Walloon miners, staunch supporters of labour unions and socialist activity, rapidly 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 OF CANADA.
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 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.
In Alberta collieries, Léon Cabeaux, Frank Soulet, Joseph Lothier and Gustave Henry emerged as union leaders. During the ESTEVAN COAL MINERS' 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 deported as a result of their militant activities.
The second wave of immigrants, beginning in 1896, arrived aided by a direct steamship link with Antwerp in 1903 and new legislation in 1906 encouraging them to play a leading role in establishing dairying around Winnipeg, fruit growing in the Okanagan valley, and market gardening and sugar beet growing in southwestern Ontario. In 1912 the Dominion Sugar Company began direct recruiting 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, and 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 and vegetable growing into the Vernon district. Flemings operated many of the dairies around Sherbrooke, Qué, and Winnipeg/St Boniface, Man, as well as creameries and cheese factories 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, and the Bossuyt and Anseeuw farms were showplaces for foreign visitors.
After WWI, 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 BC 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 emphasis on preferred groups to individuals with desirable education, training and skills. Québec now attracted about two-thirds of the Belgian immigrants, especially from the professional sector and skilled workers in domains such as biotechnology, aeronautics and computer science (see IMMIGRATION POLICY).
In 1888, the consul general in Montréal, Ferdinand van Bruyssel, organized a consortium of 14 Belgian companies into the Comptoir Belgo-Canadien, to supply glass, rails, cement and technical expertise in railway construction and public works projects in central Canada. 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 inter-war 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 RAILWAY route.
In 1945 Belgium became the third largest investor in the Canadian economy during the post-war period partially due to Petrofina (sold to PetroCanada 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 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, the École des Arts Décoratifs, and the École d'Architecture, and reorganized the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1908. The agricultural colleges at Vilvoorde and Gembloux were the models for and source of instructors for provincial agricultural schools. Belgian educators generally favoured divesting the church of its control over Québec education. 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.
Belgians were supporters of 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 MB that offered academic and agricultural courses in Flemish for boys from 1919 to 1929.
The contributions to cultural life, especially in Québec, have been numerous. Renowned musicians helped found the ORCHESTRE SYMPHONIQUE DE MONTRÉAL, the Société Canadienne d'Opérettes, Variétés Lyriques and the 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.
In 1925, André Castelein de La Londe 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, Oblates and Capuchins were working in immigrant and FIRST NATIONS communities. The Roman Catholic hierarchy included bishops such as Pierre-Herman DOSQUET during the French regime, Charles-Jean Seghers and Jean-Baptiste Brondel in colonial BC, Rémi DE ROO, and the most published and controversial evangelizer of the French period was the Walloon Récollet Jean-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 auxiliary Toutes Aides to serve Belgians, First Nations and Métis in northern Manitoba.
In the late nineteenth century the University of Louvain provided the Pacific coastal region with missionaries and teachers who served the Native peoples and colonists of Victoria and New Westminster. Notably, Roger Vandersteene incorporated Cree spirituality and culture into his missionary responsibilities and created a Cree liturgy that included Native symbolism and spirituality into traditional Catholic worship. At the Second Vatican Council, Canadian bishops of Belgian origin participated in creating texts to the council in support of the use of the vernacular in mass and the breviary, 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, and 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. Immigrating 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, lead by Lord Bryce, into alleged atrocities committed during WORLD WAR I.
In 1962, the communities in the Richelieu valley southeast of Montréal organized the Club Belgo-Canadien at Sabrevoix. The clubs in St Boniface, Delhi and Sabrevoix are now open 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, school boards, professional organizations, and political roles. Belgians have integrated well into the multicultural communities in Canada and have made a significant impact by promoting agriculture, commerce, industry and their culture.
Author CORNELIUS J. JAENEN
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Multiculturalism Day
Canadian Heritage's guide to celebrating Canadian Multiculturalism Day.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Canadian War Brides
This website features remarkable life stories of war brides who immigrated to Canada after the Second World War. Also offers related studies, immigration statistics, contacts for provincial war brides associations, and much more.
Ethnocultural Portrait of Canada
This website offers Canadian population data (2006) by ethnic origin. Also, find information for individual provinces and territories by clicking the "Select a view" window above the chart. For more information, click on the "Ethnocultural Portrait of Canada" link at the top of the page. From the website for Statistics Canada.
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