A Capital In Bloom

May 1, 1999 by Laura Byrne Paquet

In January 1943, a foreign country’s flag flew from the top of the Peace Tower in Ottawa for the first and only time. Even though Canada was at war, the flag raising was not an aggressive act, but a symbol of joy.

Princess Juliana of the Netherlands had just given birth to her third daughter, Princess Margriet, at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. She and her children were taking shelter in Ottawa during WW II. Due to a Dutch law that required any heir to the throne to be born on Dutch soil, Parliament had taken the extraordinary step of declaring the hospital room where the baby was born to be the territory of the Netherlands for the duration of the delivery.

It was a day no one present in Ottawa at the time ever forgot. And neither did Princess Juliana.

The ties between the two countries grew stronger as the war progressed. During the nine dreadful months leading up to the liberation of the Netherlands, more than 7,600 Canadians were killed. To those living in the Netherlands, May 1945 marked the end of 41/2 years of Nazi oppression. It also marked the end of the horrific war in Europe.

During the previous “hunger winter,” the Dutch had been rationed to a starvation diet of 320 calories a day. When the Germans finally allowed the Allies to bring in food, the Dutch painted “Thank you, Canadians!” on their rooftops, where pilots dropping rations could see the message.

Soon the war was over, and Canadian soldiers and the Dutch royal family returned home. Later that year, Ottawa received an astonishing gift: A shipment of 100,000 bulbs from the people of the Netherlands. The following year, Princess Juliana personally sent 20,000 more, not only to thank Ottawa for sheltering her family during the war, but to thank the Canadian troops who liberated her country.

Such gifts would be remarkable at any time, but they were all the more so given the devastated state of the Dutch tulip industry. Many fields had been destroyed in the fighting, and many others had been uprooted by people who ate tulip bulbs to stay alive.

The Federal District Commission, which maintained the national capital’s parks and public buildings, suggested planting the bulbs on the grounds of Parliament Hill. But Malak Karsh, a noted Ottawa photographer, remembers that that suggestion did not sit well with Prime Minister Mackenzie King. “He definitely was against the idea. He would not allow any flowers to be grown on Parliament Hill, because they would distract from the Gothic beauty of the building,” recalls Malak, who uses only his first name professionally. “So they just waited for him to go out of town on business, and in a few days they dug fast and furiously.”

King’s first realization that the Federal District Commission had disobeyed him came the following spring when the tulips began to bloom. People wondered how King would react. They need not have worried. “He was so delighted, so happy, that he even asked me to take his picture,” Malak recalls.

The photographer would soon become famous across the country for his photos of the capital’s colourful tulips, which bloomed in beds along the Rideau Canal and in local parks as well as on Parliament Hill. Editors and readers could not seem to get enough of the pictures. “The world was tired of the killing, of the deaths, of the murders, of the insanity of war,” Malak suggests by way of explanation. “They were glad to see the flowers for a change.”

People not only wanted to see pictures of tulips, they wanted to see the real thing, and by the late 1940s tourists were arriving in Ottawa each spring in droves. That’s when Malak decided that the city should do something to welcome them. He approached the Ottawa Board of Trade, and on May 16, 1953, the board launched the Canadian Tulip Festival. The first opening ceremonies were tame by today’s standards. Senator Cairine Wilson officially launched the festival, a choir from a local high school sang and the city’s acting mayor gave a short speech. But even the modest first years of the festival gave Canadians something to crow about in international circles.

On May 10, 1954, syndicated newspaper columnist Patrick Nicholson exulted, “Canada’s capital now has a rival to the cherry blossom show in Washington and to the brilliance of the chestnut blooms in Paris in the spring.”

From the beginning, newspaper photos of the festival have focused on three popular topics: Tulips blooming against the backdrop of the Peace Tower, pretty young women holding bouquets and toddlers standing transfixed in flower beds.

In 1953, many newspapers printed a Malak photograph of a curly-haired little girl holding a watering can over a bed of tulips and smiling shyly into the camera. Little did readers know that little Margaret Sinclair would vault to fame 17 years later as the young bride of Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau himself appeared in a festival photograph in 1968, one month after becoming prime minister. Characteristically, he is holding a tulip in his teeth.

Throughout its first four decades, the festival grew. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker opened the event in 1958 and John F. Kennedy showed up in 1961. Princess Juliana became her country’s queen and dropped in on the festival during Centennial Year. Tiny Tim once tiptoed through the tulips, and Liberace gave the opening concert in 1972. Eventually, the event became so large that the board of trade transferred it to a separate organization.

During the 1980s, the festival hit a few snags. In particular, construction of the new National Gallery of Canada forced the event to move from its popular location in Major’s Hill Park, near Parliament Hill. Attendance fell and the balance sheet started looking grim. By the end of the decade, festival organizers had filed for bankruptcy. That’s when one of the festival’s concessionaires stepped in. Since 1980, Grant Hooker had been selling BeaverTails–deep-fried pastries dusted with sugar and cinnamon–at the festival. When the event began to falter, he and several other business people decided to take action. “We felt that it was too valuable an asset to the community to lose,” Hooker recalls.

In March 1990, organizers accepted his offer to pay off the festival’s debts and take over its management. But then Hooker faced a major dilemma: He had to organize the entire 1990 festival in just eight weeks. Luckily, the community rallied behind him. He and his partners managed to raise $250,000, and they received permission to move the festival back to Major’s Hill Park. But before all was said and done, Hooker would take a leave of absence from his business to manage the festival and sink $140,000 of his own money into the event. Even though he was eventually repaid, his efforts represented a tremendous act of faith. Why did he go out on such a limb?

First, he says, he realized how important festivals are to tourism. The tulip festival injects about $15 million into the Ottawa economy each year. Then there was the simple fact that the festival is a cheerful reminder of spring. “It signals the end of winter…it’s the first time of the year when people get out and walk in large numbers in the out of doors without their coats,” he says.

And finally, in an era of manufactured events designed simply to generate money, the authenticity of the tulip festival appealed to Hooker. “The celebration of international friendship that is signified by the tulips gives the festival much more meaning than a simple party.”

In 1992, Hooker handed the festival over to Michel Gauthier, one of his colleagues in the bailout and a former organizer of Ottawa’s Winterlude festival. During Gauthier’s years as executive director of the festival, the event has evolved. The budget has jumped from $400,000 to $3.4 million, and Gauthier now manages a permanent staff of eight and a corps of more than 1,000 volunteers. And each year, the festival has a different theme focusing on international friendship and the history of the tulip.

The first theme festivals celebrated Turkey and the Netherlands. Tulips originated in Turkey around 1000 AD, and the Viennese ambassador to the Ottoman Empire brought the flower to Europe in the mid-16th century. Between 1633 and 1637, a “Tulip Mania” engulfed Holland; a single bulb could command a price equal to an entire brewery or a ship loaded with goods. When the market for bulbs finally crashed, many Dutch investors lost everything. In 1998, Canada’s provinces and territories were the focus, and different regions offered visitors to the festival a taste of their local music and cuisine. Emery Bourque came from Shediac, N.B., to promote his town’s lobster festival by sponsoring a lobster-eating contest and sending platters of lobster to local radio disc jockeys.

Bourque says the event gave him a chance to share information and ideas with his colleagues in Ottawa. “The tulip festival being one of Canada’s biggest festivals, we thought that we could take the opportunity to get our festival known, and also to maybe learn how they do it,” he says.

Representatives of other provinces and countries aren’t the only people who travel long distances to participate in the festival. Last year, for instance, a posse of 100 motorhomes brought more than 200 Quebecers to the festival. Gauthier estimates that one third of the festival’s 225,000 visitors come from outside the national capital region. Last year, organizers asked visitors to mark their hometown on a large map of Canada set up in Major’s Hill Park. Just about every part of the country was represented. “It was amazing to see the places where people came from,” Gauthier recalls.

The festival has reached out across Canada from its earliest days. In the 1950s, stewardesses from TransCanada Airlines delivered tulip bouquets to provincial premiers. And last year, festival organizers began sending gifts of bulbs to provincial capitals as part of its efforts to include all Canadians in the celebrations. “When the Dutch gave us the tulips in recognition of our hospitality and our role in liberating the Netherlands, they gave the tulips to all Canadians. They didn’t just give them to Ottawa’s residents,” Gauthier points out.

As another way to spread the festivities nationwide, Gauthier invites Legion leaders to call his office if they are interested in planting commemorative gardens or participating in some other way. In 1999, the festival opens May 14 and continues until May 24. This year, it will celebrate the long-standing friendship between Canada and the United States. Patti Giffin, wife of U.S. Ambassador Gordon Giffin, is the festival’s honorary president, and the Ottawa festival will be twinned with a similar event in Washington state’s Skagit Valley.

One of the festival’s most popular recurring events is the Rideau Canal flotilla. Some 60 gaily decorated boats cruise along the canal through the heart of the capital. The festival also features numerous concerts, a craft fair, events for children and other activities. The idea is to give visitors something else to do once they’ve admired the tulips–or if the tulips aren’t around.

Aye, there’s the rub to staging a festival centred on unpredictable Mother Nature. Ever since the festival began, anxious newspaper articles have focused on two pressing questions: Will the tulips bloom too early, or will they bloom too late? An April warm spell can coax the flowers out of the ground early, and a long winter can keep them blooming until mid-June, explains Sherry Berg. As a landscape architect with the National Capital Commission–today’s incarnation of the Federal District Commission–she designs more than 100 public flower beds. Today, close to one million tulips bloom on the grounds of Parliament Hill, in various parks, along scenic roadways and in the gardens of official residences such as 24 Sussex Drive.

Tulips are classified as early blooming, mid-season or late blooming. To increase the odds of having tulips blooming during the festival, Berg usually chooses mid-season varieties for city beds.

During the festival, Berg tours the NCC flowerbeds to evaluate that year’s flowers. Armed with her observations, she heads back to her office to design new beds. As she works, she studies growers’ catalogues to learn about the latest tulip varieties. “I try at least two or three new ones every year, if there are that many.”

In addition to these tulips the NCC orders, the Dutch royal family continues to send 10,000 bulbs each year, as do the Associated Bulb Growers of Holland. Once the tulips bloom in the spring–with luck, at exactly the right time–Berg gives the plants about three weeks to “die back.” This allows nutrients in the dying leaves and stems to seep back into the bulb. Then the dead stalks are pulled out and petunias, impatiens, marigolds and other hardy annuals are planted in their place. In the fall, older or less productive bulbs are pulled up, and the process starts all over again.

A similar cycle continues for festival organizers, who tackle new projects every year. In 1998, they “adopted” a stretch of nearby Highway 416–officially called the Veterans Memorial Highway–and planted a tulip garden at a major interchange. For the year 2000, they’re running a contest to encourage local residents to plant a total of two million tulips in home gardens.

The festival never seems to lose its allure for those most closely involved with it. After half a century, during which he became the Dutch tulip industry’s official North American representative and even had a tulip variety named for him, Malak still heads out each year to capture the flowers on film. “I always look at tulips almost (as if) each flower has a personality of its own. And you have such variety of colours, and there are so many different backgrounds,” says Malak. “You couldn’t possibly run out of ideas.”

Festival president Gauthier is similarly enthusiastic. He says Canadians sometimes forget that Ottawa has its tulips because of the heroism and generosity of an entire generation. “We need to tell people that story,” he says. “This event is part of our history.”

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