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Belgium's in Canada

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.

Belgian Canadians

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 Fabian.

Belgians 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.

First Wave

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 of Canada.

Facts About Belgium

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 activities.

Second Wave

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.

Third Wave

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.

Fourth Wave

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

Economic Life

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 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 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.

Cultural Life

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 visit Canada

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.

Religious Life

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.

Cultural Conservation

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.

Cornelius J. Jaenen, Promotors, Planters, and Pioneers: The Course and Context of Belgian Settlement in Western Canada (The West Series 4; Calgary: University of Calgary Press, (2011) (pdf)

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 questions unanswered.

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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