Dutch love-child fathered by First Nations’ Canadian veteran finds lost identity, gets citizenship
Friday, Mar. 3, 2017
Six weeks before Christmas a retired Dutch carpenter named Will van Ee met with Sabine Nolke, Canada’s ambassador to the Netherlands at the Canadian embassy in The Hague. Van Ee brought a small bottle of liqueur crafted in his small hometown of Sas van Gent, near the Belgian border, as a gift.
The two drank coffee and chatted for about an hour. Conversation shifted from the German-born ambassador’s roots to van Ee’s father’s war record to their shared passion for Canada before a photographer arrived to capture what was, for van Ee, an occasion 70 years in the making.
It was the day Van Ee, the illegitimate son of an aboriginal Canadian soldier and a Dutch girl who met during the end days of the Second World war, became a Canadian.
“I am a carpenter, a bricklayer and a furniture-maker,” van Ee says from Holland. “So I have always said, well, my body is definitely Dutch. But, in my heart, I am a Canadian, because that is how I truly feel, and I feel very connected to my native roots.”
Van Ee spent years searching for his Canadian family. Now he is a full-status member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation in Northern Ontario, has a totem pole in his backyard (that he carved) and, after his November meeting with the ambassador – his Canadian citizenship.
It is a lost identity that stayed hidden from him until well into adulthood.
The Dutch refer to “the wild summer of 1945.” The war was over and about 170,000 Canadian soldiers were stationed in a country that nearly starved to death under German occupation. Young people let loose. Couples, from two different worlds, drew close. Dutch clergy scolded the older generation for letting their daughters run wild. The Canadian military scolded the soldiers, while Ottawa took the position that children born out of wedlock to Canadian servicemen were not Canada’s responsibility. But the party didn’t stop. There were 7,000 illegitimate births in Holland in 1946.
Will van Ee was one of them.
His mother, Hendrike Herber, married Albert van Ee a few years later. The couple had seven additional children. The eldest harboured suspicions about his true origins, and thought he might actually be Japanese or Italian.
“I was the only sibling with dark skin,” van Ee says, chuckling. “The real Dutch — all blond hair and blue eyes — but not me.”
But he was loved and happy, and only became interested in digging into the past after getting married in the late 1970s. His mother grew quiet when he started asking questions. Van Ee believes out of a sense of “shame,” and from knowing, perhaps, that her true “love,” wasn’t the man she married. The truth came out after a cousin gave van Ee an old photograph. Hendrike is glowing in the image, alongside a beaming Canadian soldier named Walter Majeki. Van Ee’s aunt told her nephew that their family loved Walter, and then he had left.
“My mother once told my wife that had Walter called for her — even after she had children with Albert — that she would have gone to Canada,” van Ee says.
But how to find Walter, almost 40 years after the fact, in a pre-Google world? Van Ee enlisted Olga Rains, a Dutch war bride in Peterborough, Ont., dedicated to reuniting other so-called “Liberation” children with their Canadian families. (Post-war estimates put the number of European-born children fathered — and abandoned — by Canadian soldiers at 30,000.)
Rains told van Ee that his father appeared to be First Nation. She had Walter Majeki’s photo published in several Canadian newspapers. In 1984, the son he left behind picked up the phone and dialed a number for Walter’s brother, Neil, in Latchford, Ont.
“I was shaking,” van Ee recalls.
Soon after he was on a flight to Toronto to meet his uncle and a cousin, Richard.
“When my father first saw Willy getting off that plane he said to me, ‘My God, there is Walter, my own brother,’ ” Richard Majeki says from North Bay, Ont. “Willy was a Majeki from the get-go.”
The story, as van Ee heard it from the Majeki clan and his father’s oldest childhood friends — and that he believes in his heart to be true, is that Walter returned from the war with every intention of sending for Hendrike. But his mother forbade the relationship. She said European girls were “no good.” Richard Majeki recalls a conversation with his father, Neil, in which he said that Walter spoke to him of Hendrike on only one occasion. Walter said that he hoped she would love and “look after” their child. And then he moved to Milwaukee, leaving behind a box of photographs of the Dutch girl he fell for during the wild summer of 1945.
Walter worked in a brewery. He married an American. They started a family. He died in 1972.
“I believe 100 per cent that my parents truly loved one another,” van Ee says. “It changed me, finding my father — even though we never met. I came to wish that I had started looking for him much earlier in my life.”
The Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation welcomed van Ee as one of its own at a traditional ceremony in Massey, Ont. Sweet-grass was burned, a pipe smoked and van Ee informed that his ancestors had “tears in their eyes,” over his return.
“I felt something that day,” he says.
He went fishing with his father’s best friends off Manitoulin Island. They said they felt as though their old friend had come home to them. Uncle Neil gave van Ee two miniature totem poles as gifts. The Dutch carpenter carved a giant replica — and put it in his backyard.
“We are proud to know Willy,” Richard Majeki says. “He is one of us.”
Van Ee wrote to Walter’s widow in Milwaukee asking if he could visit. He received a reply through a lawyer requesting he never contact the family again.
“That was hard,” he says.
What van Ee has found in three trips to Northern Ontario over the past 30 years is a sense of belonging.
“I now know where I come from,” he says.
Wilhemus van Ee became a full-status member of his tribe in 1992. But getting Canadian citizenship was more complicated. Involving, as it did – until the legislation was amended in 2015 — an archaic law barring individuals born out of wedlock to a foreign mother, prior to 1947, the right to citizenship.
“My father fought for Canada and here I was fighting to become Canadian,” van Ee says.
Four weeks after his audience with the ambassador, the 70-year-old received his Canadian passport. He is planning a trip to Canada soon.