Canada 150
Arts & EventsAnd there are tulips there too!

And there are tulips there too!

And there are tulips there too!

It is spring and that wonderful, all-Ottawa, flower filled festival will soon be upon us again. Once known as The Ottawa Tulip Festival, the Canadian Tulip Festival beckons out to, and engages, visitors from all over the world. The history reads like some kind of lush fairytale set in the times of the horrors of WWII. The Netherlands was occupied and the Dutch royal family, exiled, found refuge in our country’s capital. It celebrates a true benevolence of Canadians - pure and true to the ethic of the essence of this country.

My favourite part of the story is the circumstances around the birth of Princess Margriet Francisca. She was the third daughter of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard. With the fervor surrounding the upcoming British royal wedding I still say that spectacle would not come close to

topping the birth of a royal baby in Canada’s capital. Princess Margriet Francisca was the only royal baby ever born in North America. Not to be outdone, Canada rose to the occasion with an act that should make every Canadian proud, and ensured the baby’s Dutch citizenship. A room at the Ottawa Civic Hospital was made Dutch territory temporarily by The Canadian government. That culminated on January 19, 1943, when the Netherlands flag flew atop Peace Tower. The baby Princess Margriet was born a Dutch citizen on temporary Dutch soil safe in Canada. After the war and in gratitude for Canada’s graciousness and key role in the liberation of Holland, the people of the Netherlands and Princess Juliana sent the Canadian people many gifts, including the initial 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa. In 1946, a gift from Princess Juliana herself added an additional 20,000 bulbs. The flowers have become an enduring and endearing symbol of friendship, courage, gratitude and benevolence at one of the darkest times in the planet’s history.

Looking recently at the official page for the Canadian Tulip festival, I am disappointed at the minor role the flowers themselves seem to be playing in the event. They are not prominently displayed on the pages. The history behind the festival is not as easy to find as the other fabricated so-called related events. The events are designed to make money and although I have no problem with the entrepreneurial spirit, this feels like a detraction from the festival’s essence. The tiny print of the menu at the top of the page leads to the most important aspects of the festival and yet could easily be missed. I was looking for something that might have said: 'come and see the tulips!' I mean the flowers should speak for themselves. They are the symbol. Traveling Canadians love to boast about how wearing the maple leaf made them feel special and lucky and a whole host of descriptions that made them feel set apart and not like the ‘other’. This should be true of the flower.

I am a self proclaimed tulip advocate (sorry no cape and tights, but maybe a tulip bud on my chest or in one in my cap?) speaking for the proud silent powerful flower – I lay down this pollen imbued floral manifesto: I say reclaim its prominence in the festival beyond just the use of the name! It is the job of the imagination and the heart and soul of the visitor to take in the symbolism and significance of these tulips, the importance and the history. Balls, concerts, festival passes all belong to a different kind of occasion. The beauty, solemnity and then stunning wonderfulness of the blooms and their welcoming of spring must stand alone. The other stuff should be very much, ‘and while in Ottawa be sure to visit…’ but not directly linked.

I love a good festival as much as the next person but I believe things may have moved too far away from the inspiration and integrity of the gift. It just cannot be in any way close to purity of spirit in which the original bulbs were given by the Dutch royals. When you stand before the endless beds of brilliant colour, there should nothing distracting from encouragement to embrace the essence of the gratitude the flowers represent - the magnitude of the generosity of Canada and bravery of so many young Canadian soldiers involved in the liberation of Holland and the efforts of the then Canadian government (regardless of political stripe) to accommodate above and beyond a family in need of a safe haven from the war.

I recall countless spring visits with family, from outside of Ottawa and the country, to the tulip beds and then listening to their glowing praise and comments and the snapping of pictures. Oh those cameras and endless posing and hugs and standing close…Those pictures were snapped with instamatics, Polaroid’s, box cameras and all manner of picture taking machines through the years. There we would be all of us kids dressed up in Sunday bests and enjoying the earliest days of coat free weather (sometimes – it’s Canada). Looking forward to heading back south later on our annual sojourns to visit them we, here, had this grandeur in Ottawa to brag about and show off. Show off we did. This element of the Ottawan spirit is contagious when the time is right! Just ask any Ottawan to tell you what makes the city great.

The tulip beds my mother planted in the gardens at our house were like little versions of the tulip festival beds to me. It was like being a part of the whole idea. I always linked the story with the flower, I think many of us did, I hope that link does not fade like far too many Ottawa heritage icons along the way. That’s not about progress just unfortunate shame.

Is there are tulip variety named after the princess born in Ottawa? If not there should be and maybe it is time again to look at the real reason the flowers are in Ottawa in the first place instead of relegating the history to back pages of the website. We can do better than that. As iconic as the maple leaf, the beaver, the busbied soldiers in the changing of the guard and the new’ish, and newly renovated, national museums the tulip is as much ours as it is a symbol of The Netherlands. It deserves much better treatment and greater prominence. It stands for so much more than yet another mere festival. In reality the presence of the tulips is beyond the scope of a festival. Just as Remembrance Day commemorates and celebrates, so should the strong symbolic Ottawa tulips. Anything that wants to poke through, stand up straight and open up stretching to the springtime sun after a typical Ottawa style winter deserves more…

Happy spring Ottawa, happy festival and remember there are tulips there too!

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