How Hospitality and Some Tulips Brought Canada and the Netherlands Together

Yousuf Karsh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Yousuf Karsh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Yousuf Karsh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Queen Wilhelmina and the rest of the Dutch Royal Family fled to Britain. There, Wilhelmina set up a government in exile, but her daughter Princess Juliana took her children to Ottawa, Canada to ensure their safety.

The family lived for several years at Stornoway, a house in the Rockcliffe Park suburb of Ottawa that now officially houses the Canadian Leader of the Opposition. When Juliana was set to give birth in 1943, however, the family realized a problem: Canadian law functions on jus soli rules, meaning that any child born in the country would hold both Canadian citizenship and the citizenship of its mother. A child born with dual citizenship couldn’t be in line for the Dutch throne. And because the older children were all girls, if this child was a boy—who would then be first in line to the throne—that would be a crisis.

To help the Dutch Royal Family solve this problem, Alexander Cambridge, then-Governor General of Canada, decreed that the Princess’s room in the maternity ward of Ottawa City Hospital would be international territory for the duration of her time there. It's often rumored that Canada temporarily ceded this land to the Netherlands, but that wasn't necessary and didn't happen—the child just needed to be born in what was officially "no country" instead of in Canada.

The baby born was Princess Margriet, named after the flower worn as a sign of resistance during the war. Thanks to Canada’s actions, she was born a full Dutch citizen even though she was the only royal to ever be born in North America. Many viewed her birth as a sign of hope for the Dutch people.

Juliana was thankful for the Canadian government’s gesture. The bond between the two nations was further sealed when Canada sent over thousands of soldiers to help free the Netherlands from the Nazis over the course of 1944 and 1945.

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When the future queen returned home permanently after her country was freed from Nazi control in May 1945, she sent 100,000 tulip bulbs over to the city of Ottawa as a sign of gratitude. The following year, she sent over another 20,500 bulbs with the request that some of these bulbs be planted at the hospital where Margriet was born. She also promised Ottawa an annual gift of another 10,000 bulbs for the duration of her reign as queen. The gift continues to this day.

The Canadian people loved the tulips, which attracted many tourists to Ottawa after they saw pictures in newspapers and magazines from across the country. Photographer Malak Karsh, known for his pictures of the Ottawa region, suggested the creation of a festival in honor of the flowers.

This suggestion ended up becoming the Canadian Tulip Festival, a celebration held each May in Ottawa. According to the official website for the festival, it's the largest of its kind with over a million tulips, and it attracts over half a million visitors each year.

Juliana, who died in 2004, visited the festival in 1967 to see the impact she had on Ottawa. Margriet attended the festival in 2002 for the 50th anniversary celebration and occasionally returns to Canada to represent the Dutch monarchy.

Canada’s kindness during the time of war led to Dutch kindness during the time of peace and helped to seal the relationship between these two countries. The tulip is now the official flower of Ottawa, a sign of the friendship between the two nations and a tribute to both of their histories.