16 May 1953
Heralding the arrival of spring after a long, arduous winter, the Canadian Tulip Festival is one of most anticipated events in Ottawa’s social calendar. Each May, the festival celebrates the enduring friendship between Canada and the Netherlands, a bond that was forged during the dark days of World War II. It all began when Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, and her two tiny daughters, Princesses Beatrix and Irene, were evacuated to Canada in May 1940 ahead of the advancing German army, while her mother, Queen Wilhelmina, headed the Dutch government-in-exile in London, and her husband, Prince Bernhard, joined the RAF. The small family settled down in Rockcliffe Park for the duration. In January 1943, Princess Juliana gave birth to Princess Margriet in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, the first and to date only princess born in North America.
After enduring five years of brutal occupation and deprivation, the Netherlands were liberated by the Allies in the spring of 1945. The First Canadian Army, numbering some 200,000 men, featured prominently in the liberation, fighting canal by canal, dike by dike, and house by house. More than 7,000 Canadian servicemen lost their lives in the battle. The Royal Canadian Air Force air-dropped food to starving Dutch citizens whose official rations had been cut to only 320 calories per day, one eighth of an adult’s daily requirements, during the cruel winter of 1944-45. On 2 May 1945, Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana returned to liberated Holland. Three days later, the remaining German forces in the Netherlands surrendered.
To commemorate and honour the role played by Canada’s armed forces in the liberation of Holland, and to mark the years Princess Juliana spent in Ottawa where she gave birth to Princess Margriet, the Dutch government sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in October 1945 as a token of gratitude. This was a remarkable gift from a war-ravaged country whose people had been reduced to eating tulip bulbs just a few months earlier. It was also a gift that almost never happened. Letters addressed to Ottawa’s mayor, J.E. Stanley Lewis, offering the city the bulbs went unanswered until H.R. Cram, the Secretary of the Federal District Commission (the forerunner of the National Capital Commission), got wind of the offer and questioned the mayor. Lewis hastened to accept the generous gift, and apologized for the inadvertent delay in getting back to the Dutch authorities. He blamed a low-level bureaucrat who, in the mayor’s absence, did not appreciate the importance of the message.
The FDC planted the bulbs in the gardens in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. This was done against the wishes of Prime Minister Mackenzie King who thought the tulips’ bright colours might clash with the Gothic architecture of the Parliament buildings. Hastily planted while King was out of town, the beautiful blooms proved to be a big hit with the general public the following spring. Even the prime minister was pleased with the outcome.
In 1946, Princess Juliana, later Queen Juliana, sent 20,500 additional bulbs—“gentle ambassadors of goodwill”—to the Federal District Commission with a request that some be planted in the gardens of the Civic Hospital in the name of Princess Margriet. She promised to send a further 20,000 tulip bulbs each year to thank Ottawa for the hospitality she and her daughters received while they lived in the city. The Associated Bulb Growers of Holland gave an additional 100,000 bulbs to the city to express their own gratitude. The FDC’s landscape architect, Mr. E. I. Wood, planted many of the bulbs on banked grounds along the Driveway at Dow’s Lake to permit both pedestrians and “autoists” a good viewing when they bloomed in May 1947.
Although the FDC planted tulip bulbs annually for the next several years, Ottawa’s Tulip Festival was not officially launched until May 1953. It was the brainchild of Malak Karsh, the famous Canadian photographer of Armenian descent, and brother of the equally renowned portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh. Malak, who was the North-American representative of the Associated Bulb Growers of Holland, came up with the idea while he was sick in bed in 1951. He approached the Ottawa Board of Trade who ran with the idea. Malak was to remain closely associated with the Tulip Festival for the rest of his life, and was its honorary president when he died in 2001.
At 2.00pm on Saturday, 16 May 1953, the first Canadian Tulip Festival was officially opened on Parliament Hill. For the event, the FDC planted some 750,000 bulbs in 29 beds in the Ottawa area. Officiating at the opening was Senator Cairine Wilson, who was described as “one of the most ardent tulip growers in the capital.” She was introduced by Col. George Cavey, president of the Ottawa Board of Trade. Acting Mayor Daniel McCann expressed his appreciation to the FDC for its co-operation in making the festival possible. A bouquet of tulips was presented to Senator Wilson by Miss K. Willsher, the Ottawa Recreation Association’s “Queen.” Bouquets were also sent by Trans-Canada Airlines to Queen Elizabeth, and to each of Canada’s ten provincial premiers. Music for the festivities was provided by Lyres Club of Glebe Collegiate who performed a rendition of Tip Toe Through The Tulips, as well as O Canada and God Save the Queen. The ceremony concluded with the Dominion carilloneur playing a special arrangement of The Flowers That Bloom In The Spring by Sullivan and Spring Day by Mendelssohn. On Sunday, 17 May, Ottawa churches named the day “Tulip Sunday.” The first annual Tulip Festival ran until 24 May.
The Tulip Festival, proved to be an instant hit with both Ottawa residents and tourists alike. In the space of three years, Ottawa vaulted from fifth to second place behind Niagara Falls as the most popular tourist destination in Ontario, owing to the Festival’s popularity. Today, it’s reputed to be the world’s largest tulip festival with more than 1 million bulbs of 50 different varieties planted annually throughout the National Capital Region. 300,000 bulbs are located in Commissioners’ Park at Dow’s Lake, the premier site to view the flowers. The May event attracts more than 600,000 visitors annually, many from across North America, Europe and Asia, with an economic impact on area merchants and hotels estimated at more than $50 million each year.
After its relatively low-key inauguration in 1953, the Festival has attracted many celebrity guests, including Queen Juliana herself in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. Princess Margriet was the guest of honour at the 50th anniversary Festival in 2002. She officially unveiled the statue The Man with Two Hats by the Dutch sculptor Henk Visch at Dow’s Lake. The statue commemorates the welcome received by Canadian soldiers when they liberated the Netherlands in 1945. An identical sculpture stands in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, signifying the continuing bond between our two countries.
After some rocky years, especially in the mid-2000s due to poor weather which lowered the attendance at related music events and left Festival organizers with significant financial losses, the Festival is now managed by a non-profit organization, The Canadian Tulip Festival Inc. Among its many government and corporate sponsors is, naturally, The Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 2014, the Festival ran from 9 May to 19 May, a week earlier than in 1953 owing to global climate change which has hastened the arrival of spring to Ottawa.
Canadian Tulip Festival. 2014, http://tulipfestival.ca/.
Dow, L.S., 2003. “Malak Karsh: Canada’s Immortal Tulip King,” I Can Garden, http://www.icangarden.com/document.cfm?task=viewdetail&itemid=4484.
Government of Canada, Veterans Affairs, 2014. “The Liberation of the Netherlands,” http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/historical-sheets/netherlands.
Pacquet, L.B., 1999. “A Capital in Bloom,” Legion Magazine, http://legionmagazine.com/en/1999/05/a-capital-in-bloom/.
The Canadian Tulip Festival Inc. 2008. http://www.ottawacharities.com/tupic-festival.php.
The Evening Citizen, 1945. “Gift of Bulbs to Commemorate Great Friendship,” 3 October.
————————-, 1946. “Canada’s Largest Garden,” 9 November.
————————-, 1953. “Bouquet of Canadian Tulips Being Flown to the Queen,” 15 May.
The Montreal Gazette, 1956. “Bulb-Planting Big Project in Capital,” 25 October.
The Ottawa Citizen, 1953, “The Tulips in Bloom, Tra-La,” 16 May.
———————–, 1957. “Colorful Tulip Festival Tourist Attraction,” 9 May.
The Windmill, 1995. “The Crown princess Juliana in 1945 said thanks with loads of tulips, http://www.godutch.com/newspaper/index.php?id=166.
VanderMay, Andrew, 1992. When Canada was Home: The Story of Dutch Princess Margriet, Vanderheide Publishing Co. Ltd, Surray, B.C.
Image: Tulip Festival, Commissioners’ Park, May 2014 by Nicolle Powell