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Belangrijke boodschap op Canada Day

29 juni 2024

Dit weekend mijn laatste protocollaire activiteit als Senaatsvoorzitter afgewerkt met gemengde gevoelens. Heel erg dankbaar over wat ik de afgelopen jaren mocht meemaken. Als klein meisje uit Roeselare moest ik af en toe in mijn arm knijpen! 

Maar nu ben ik klaar voor een nieuw verhaal. Ik zal me volop smijten in het Vlaams Parlement, en kijk daar enorm naar uit. 

Ik vond het belangrijk om mijn laatste activiteit af te sluiten met een belangrijke boodschap. Het was een rode draad doorheen de afgelopen jaren, en een thema dat ik diep in mijn hart draag. Naar aanleiding van Canada Day hebben we de bevrijding van onze contreien herdacht, nu alweer 80 jaar geleden. Het was de overwinning van de vrijheid en de menselijkheid op de tirannie en de barbarij. 

De offers van toen mogen we nooit vergeten. Maar wat we ook nooit mogen vergeten, is dat anderhalf miljoen Belgen toen vluchteling was. Dat zij met open armen werden ontvangen in landen die wel nog vrij waren, en dat ze er de kans kregen om te leven en te werken. Dat zij het waren, samen met hun gastland, die na de oorlog niet alleen ons continent herop hebben gebouwd, maar ook de fundamenten hebben gelegd voor de grenzeloze vrijheid en onstopbare vooruitgang waar wij vandaag nog steeds de vruchten van plukken. 

Zowel tijdens en na de oorlog heerste tachtig jaar geleden een can do-mentaliteit, een openheid, en een overtuiging dat ieder mens de kans moest krijgen om vooruit te gaan in het leven. Waar je dan ook geboren was, wat de reden ook was waarom je bent moeten vluchten. 

Vandaag zijn wij niet langer de vluchtelingen, maar wel het gastland. Als voogd van een minderjarige vluchteling weet ik dat, net als wij tachtig jaar geleden, deze mensen verder willen met hun leven. En hoewel dat uitdagingen met zich meebrengt, mogen we nooit ons hart sluiten voor de miserie van de zwaksten in onze wereld. Omdat ik weet dat wanneer mensen er de kans toe krijgen, er prachtige dingen kunnen gebeuren. Vrijheid, vooruitgang en gelijkwaardigheid waren de waarden van de bevrijders van ons continent, tachtig jaar geleden. Laat dat vandaag nog steeds onze waarden zijn.


It is my great honour and pleasure to address you today, for what will probably be one of my very last official events as President of the Belgian Senate. 

As president, it has been my duty to strengthen the friendship between Belgium and our partners around the world. 

It will surprise none of you, that this job has been easiest when it came to Canada. Not only are our historical and political ties near indestructible. 

Canada also has the best representation in our country, in the form of Ambassador Alain Gendron. Mr. Ambassador, it has truly been a pleasure to work with you. 

And of course, the best friend of Canada in Belgium, honorary consul Frédéric Agneessens. Frédéric, thank you, once again, for all that you do. 

You are a rightful representative for Canada, a symbol for what is great about both our countries. 

I’m happy to celebrate this Canada Day with you all. 

We owe a lot to Canada. 

Exactly eighty years ago, this place was not free. A brutal dictatorship ruled this continent with iron fist and a hateful ideology.

Until liberty marched in on these very shores. We remember our liberators today. 

I am reminded of the story of an eyewitness. 

His name was Gerard. Back then, he lived close to where we are now. And in nineteen forty-four, after four harrowing years, he saw seven Canadian soldiers walking towards his farm. 

He knew that with them, his freedom had returned. 

Before they even had the time to get there, the soldiers saw how Gerard raised his Belgian flag from a window. 

He waved them in, thanked them, and drew them some maps of German defences in the area. 

Because even though it was clear to him that the war would soon be over, he knew the German troops were mad enough to not give up without a fight. 

The shooting would continue for a while. 

But in a testament to the incredible kindness and politeness of Canadians, a very funny thing happened that proves all clichés are rooted in truth. 

After finally defeating the Germans, those nazi brutes that plundered and destroyed everything in their path, the Canadians still took the time to pop back in with Gerard, to apologize for the damage and assured him they would clean up in the morning! 

A greater contrast with the fearful darkness of the years before, could not be made. 

And we continued down that path in the years after the war. 

Not only to make the contrast with fascism, but also to make sure fascism would never again get a foothold in our world. 

We built institutions, wrote international treaties, and made promises. 

And most importantly, a mindset took shape that united the free world. 

A mindset of mutual respect. Of solidarity, and live and let live. Of protection of those less fortunate than us. 

One could say that Canadian politeness and openness, became the political norm. 

What fascinates me most, is the way we treated refugees back then. 

While my country was being trampled by the nazi hordes, many Belgians had no choice but to flee. 

Up to 1.5 million of them were displaced. At first, they went to France, but as the war spread, so too were they forced to run further. 

Thirty thousand Belgians found refuge in Canada. A portion of them were integrated in the army, in the liberating forces, as a Battalion of the so-called Free Belgian Forces. 

During the war, most of these refugees stayed at refugee camps. But four long years of war were not spent in lethargy. 

They worked on farms and in factories. But also, the Belgians brought a little bit of themselves into Canadian culture and social life. 

They built a velodrome. Cycling had lost some of its appeal during the war, but nevertheless, it’s our national pride so we continued. 

Theatre groups were formed, there were newspapers specifically from and about the newly formed community, and, of course, we built clubs and cafés. When beer is part of your national heritage, that is not something to be left behind. 

Most-interestingly, the peak of immigration was reached in the years after the war. More than sixty thousand Belgians found their way to Canada. 

This was mainly due to a combination of two factors. 

First, Belgian’s willingness to work. 

And secondly, yet most importantly, Canadian immigration laws promoted openness, especially to those willing to work. 

That mindset, during and after the war, was the basis of post-war growth. 

People were not seen as a burden. Nationalism and closed borders were the problem, not the solution. All who could work and contribute to the building or rebuilding of the free world got the opportunity to do so. 

It was a time that was quite black-or-white. We knew what was right and what was wrong, both morally and economically. 

I acknowledge that today’s world has many more complexities, and that we are living in a different reality. 

Yet I do wonder. When did our rhetoric around migration and refugees change? 

When did we stop focussing on the benefits, and start seeing challenges as problems? 

After the Second World War, a time of relative peace broke out. We enjoyed the freedoms we had fought so hard for. Our economies boomed and we became richer than ever, happier than ever, and healthier than ever. 

It’s an unstoppable process still continuing today. 

Yet, when I hear some politicians railing against migrants and refugees, with derogatory slurs and even laws prohibiting them from fully integrating in our societies, or contributing to our economies, I feel we have lost sight of what makes us so great. 

You know, some time ago I became the guardian of an unaccompanied minor, a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived here at only thirteen years old.

He never wanted to flee his country, but the Taliban decided otherwise. 

Without his parents, without his friends, and completely traumatised, he suddenly found himself in a country he knew nothing about. 

But the resilience of such a child is amazing. 

After some long months in an asylum shelter, he finally got the opportunity to learn the language, and learn a job. In Afghanistan he barely got any education, but today he’s on his way to become a mechanic. 

I’m confident that, before too long, he will have become a fully independent member of our society. 

And still, there are politicians who dare to look him in the eye, and say to him: “You don’t belong here.”

Worse even, they go on television and spread lies and disinformation about people like my foster child. Trying to scare their voters, inspiring hatred to those who are most vulnerable. 

When we remember today, that eighty years ago these lands were liberated from tyranny, let us also remember the reasons for which we fought. 

Let us remember the values that have brought the most ruthless regimes to its knees, and upon which we built our prosperous future. 

Humanity. Opportunity. Liberty for all, not just for ourselves. 

Once, we were the refugees. Once, we waited for liberators. 

To this day, we are grateful they came. Grateful that you came. 

Let’s never forget that still today, we can be liberators. The world still needs it. 

Thank you. 

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