Tulip Time in Ottawa, Canada’s Capital City

The Canadian Tulip Festival is a unique legacy of friendship between Holland and Canada

Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Tulips in Major’s Hill Park, Ottawa

The city was in bloom! I saw colourful tulips everywhere I went: in front of federal buildings, office buildings, private dwellings, in lobbies and window boxes and flower pots and then a wonderful array of the beautiful flowers in Major’s Hill Park that I visited earlier in the day.  I was told that I would find tulips all along the Rideau Canal, a journey I could not pursue further that morning.  Somehow though I knew I was missing something. I was looking for the story of the Dutch connection.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Ontario Tulip Festival
The story of the Tulip  Legacy is displayed at Commissioner’s Park on Dow Lake, Ottawa

I wonder how many Canadians, born since the second world war,  are aware of the interesting history of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival.  This year the opportunity to visit Ottawa in time for the Tulip Festival came my way.   The story of the tulips has been one that tweaked my interest for many years.  To me visiting Ottawa during Tulip Festival was like reading the last chapter in a historic romance novel.

Tulips in Major's  Tulip FestivalHill Park, Ottawa
Many people could not resist taking pictures of the tulips

Princess Juliana, heir apparent to the Dutch Throne, met her future husband Prince Bernhard at the Bavarian Winter Olympics in 1936.  She was soon madly in love with the dashing young German aristocrat, who wooed her. Upon their marriage he renounced his German citizenship, was given Dutch citizenship, and signed a prenuptial agreement arranged by her mother, Queen Wilhelmina.  

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Exquisite tulip blossoms

During WWII as the Nazi scourge spread across Europe, many Europeans sought refuge in England.   Among those who left Holland were Queen Wilhelmina, her daughter Princess Juliana,  Prince Bernhard, husband of Juliana, and their two daughters, the Princesses Beatrix and Irene, along with the entire Dutch government. 

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival

Originally Wilhelmina planned on going to Zeeland in the south of Holland to lead her army’s resistance against the Nazis from there.   King George VI sent a British battleship, the Hereward to pick them up and take them to safety. However, the rapidly escalating attacks by the Luftwaffe on Zeeland necessitated a change of plan. Queen Wilhelmina accepted the offer of British hospitality for the refugees, and went to London, with her government and her army, to lead the Dutch resistance throughout the war.  She regularly made  broadcasts of encouragement to her people over the BBC, which helped to buoy the spirits of the severely oppressed people in the Netherlands.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Perestroka tulips in Commissioner’s Park

Even those who lived along the south coast of England were subjected to the nightly bombing raids, known as the blitz.  Shortly after arriving in England, Wilhelmina sent her daughter and granddaughters on to the safe haven that had been offered to them in Canada.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
The colourful Synaeda King tulips in Commissioner’s Park

Wilhelmina had inherited the throne of Holland upon her father’s death in 1890 when she was only ten years old. Wilhelmina’s daughter and granddaughters were her only heirs.  She was a good and popular monarch and did not want to see the monarchy fall into German hands, therefore her daughter’s safety was especially important to the Queen and to the Dutch people.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
The neighbours enjoy the view at Commissioner’s Park

Prince Bernhard, who was head of the Dutch Royal Military Mission based in London, was able to come to Canada to visit his family periodically. He was given an honorary rank and known as Wing Commander Gibbs in the RAF. In this guise he flew bombing raids over occupied Europe. He became a Dutch hero.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Princess Irene tulips, named for the second daughter of Princess Juliana

In Canada, the Royal family leased Stornoway,  a large home in Rockcliffe Park, an elite suburb in Ottawa. (Stornoway  is now the home to the Leader of the Opposition in Ottawa.)  There the family lived in safety for approximately three years.  During that time Juliana  was expecting her third baby. The role of the baby in the line of succession to the throne of Holland would become an issue. The child could not hold dual citizenship, but had to be exclusively Dutch.  The problem was solved when a suite of rooms at the Ottawa Civic Hospital was declared “extraterritorial”  by the Governor-General of Canada, the Earl of Athlone.  Princess Margriet, the third daughter of Princess Juliana and her husband Prince Bernhard was born there January 19, 1943.  The Canadian Government flew the Dutch tricolour flag on Parliament’s Peace Tower and the carillon bells rang out with Dutch music that day, in honour of the new Dutch Princess’ birth.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
A toddler tiptoeing through the tulips

Prince Bernhard was in Canada for the birth of his daughter. The baby’s grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina came to Canada for the christening which took place June 29th, 1943. The Queen stayed with her family at Stornoway, for a visit, before returning to London to continue her war work. This was probably the only time a Queen and the two who successively succeeded her to become Queen of their country, resided in Canada at the same time. Queen Wilhelmina, the future Queen Juliana and the young Princess Beatrix, who succeeded her mother and became Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, were all in Ottawa, living at Stornoway, during the summer of 1944.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival

Princess Juliana, heir apparent to the Throne of Holland, behaved much like other Canadian wives and mothers, whose husbands were across the ocean fighting to win the war against the Nazis. She did her grocery shopping herself, worked in her home and garden and did volunteer work at the Ottawa Superfluity Shop (a thrift shop) to help raise funds for the Red Cross. She worked hard to gain support for the Dutch people and their cause.  By her enthusiastic efforts to promote the war effort, her lack of pretension and genuine warmth, she endeared herself to Canadians.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival

The bonds that had been formed by Canada’s hospitality and kindness to the Royal Family were further strengthened when the Canadian soldiers fought their way into the Netherlands, overcame the Nazis and helped to liberate Holland. Juliana and her mother, Queen Wilhelmina returned to Holland on May 2, 1945 to set up a temporary Dutch government in a liberated part of the country. German forces in the Netherlands surrendered to Canadian General Foulkes three days before the formal surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
A roller-blading photographer inspired by the tulips

That same year Princess Juliana sent a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to the city, in appreciation for Ottawa’s kindness and hospitality, The next year another 20,000 bulbs arrived with the request that some of those were to be planted at the Ottawa Civic Hospital where Princess Margriet was born. The Princess also made a promise that she would make a yearly gift of tulips throughout her life, to show her continual appreciation for Ottawa’s kindness and hospitality during her wartime evacuation. The gift of the bulbs continued with the Royal Family contributing 10,000 bulbs and the Dutch Bulb growers sending another 10,000 every year for over seventy -four years after the war ended. This past year the original gift of 100,000 bulbs was matched and gifted to the Tulip Festival to commemorate 75 years of friendship and close ties between Canada and the Netherlands. The Dutch have always been grateful to the Canadians for liberating their citizens from Nazi occupation in 1945.

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival

With the bulbs, colourful tulips beds were planted in Ottawa each year. Milak Karsh, the landscape photographer and brother of Ottawa’s famous portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, began taking photos of the tulips. In 1951 he made the suggestion to the Chamber of Commerce that Ottawa turn their colourful gift into an annual Tulip Festival. The idea took off and Ottawa now has what may be the largest tulip festival in the world – a testament to kindness and friendship.  The story has a beautiful ending and it could be found amongst the tulip beds at Commissionaires Park beside Ottawa’s Dow Lake, where it is said at least 300,000 tulips have been planted. Thousands of people wander through this park each day during the Tulip Festival, enjoying the spectacularly beautiful display of these bulbs that represent the gratitude of another nation for simple acts of kindness by Canadians. 

Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Happy Generation and Canadian Liberator tulips in Commissioner’s Park
Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
The bird looks out at Dow Lake through the trees beside Commissioner’s Park
Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Tulips in Major's Hill Park, Ottawa Tulip Festival
Dow Lake can be seen in the distance as people stroll through Commissioner’s Park

Story and Photos by M. Maxine George

Last updated December 11, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster


Return to Canada

More Stories From: